Lessons from the Elevator

Image: Me and my scooter.

I’m staying at a hotel this week, and my room is on the eighth floor. I can’t walk very far without my mobility scooter, so every time I leave the floor, I use the elevator.

I press the button and wait. I never know what or whom I will see when the door opens; elevators are all surprise packages. The hotel is busy, so usually I ride with other people, and if I ride alone, someone is waiting when the door slides open in the lobby.

Nobody expects to be greeted by a fat lady on a tricycle when the elevator doors open. There are always nervous giggles and hesitation when other riders first see me. I get that. I would be very surprised if the door opened and another scooter-rider greeted me!

I would be content if they ignored me, per the usual elevator etiquette, but many men (it’s always men, for some reason) seem to feel they must say something. The comments are usually spoken in a jokey tone:

  • Wow, how fast does that thing go?
  • You don’t drink and drive, do you?
  • Look out, Evil Kneivel is riding with us!
  • Where did you drive from on that thing?
  • Hey, Speed Demon!

I have heard each of those jokes more than once this week, except for the Evil Kneivel one. That one was original, I will admit.

From their expressions I can tell that the speakers are uncomfortable and are trying to be friendly. The problem is, those comments do not start a conversation. There is nothing to latch onto, no reply that makes any sense. So I smile vaguely without making eye contact and hope that one of us can exit soon.

Why talk about this on this blog? One of my fondest hopes is to make more people comfortable in synagogue. And this elevator talk is a sterling example of a kind of behavior that makes everyone UNcomfortable pretty much anywhere.

When we meet someone who is different than the ordinary, we feel uncomfortable. That is normal, and there is no need to feel badly about it. What we must learn is a routine to move past that discomfort quickly, if we are going to welcome people to our synagogue, or to be gracious guests in a synagogue. Jokes are counterproductive; comments on the other person’s appearance or person will get awkward fast.

It is counterproductive to focus on the thing that is different (the scooter, the tattoo, the skin color, the accent, the hair, whatever.) Commenting on it, or joking about it risks saying something at best annoying (how many times has the tall guy been asked how the air is up there?) and is at worst truly offensive (racist, sexist, ableist, etc.) Instead, wise people focus on whatever things we may have in common:

  • Wow, this elevator is slow!
  • The weather is lovely today!
  • Have you seen the garden here yet?
  • Welcome to Beth Plony! Want a coffee?
  • Wow, how about those Dodgers?

Then of course there’s the very best line for synagogue, if said sincerely:

  • Hi! I’m Ruth. Have we met yet?

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Thoughts at a Reform Shiva

Image: Two hands hold two other hands to comfort. (fizkes/Shutterstock)

I did not know the departed. His sister was a friend of mine at synagogue, and her husband and I had learned aleph-bet together years ago. I got an email saying that shiva would be at their house, and I went.

I gave each of them a hug, and then went to find a seat. There was a straight backed chair perched in a corner of the living room – perfect! I parked my cane and settled in to be at shiva.

People poured in the doorway carrying dishes, each greeting the mourners and then hurrying into the dining room, to add to the table of food. Cassseroles, kugels, veggie plates with dip, fruit, breads, muffins, some baked chicken breasts — there was a little of everything there. I had brought a bag of cherries, washed and ready to eat or to pop into the fridge for later.

Elders on walkers arrived, and the Women of Temple Sinai ladies, and twenty-somethings (their daughter’s friends) arrived. The rooms filled up. Periodically someone would come sit by me for a bit, we’d chat quietly, then they’d get up to go get some food. Visitors stood in the kitchen, covered the patio out back, and filled the front yard.

I knew all the faces and all but a few of the names. We’ve gone to shul together for twenty years, some of us. Some are close friends, some barely acquaintances. Some are easy to love, some harder.

But here’s the thing: when someone is bereaved, this group shows up.

This, to me, is one of the great beauties of Jewish community. It is an extended family with a covenantal bond. I show up for you, you show up for me. Is it perfect? No, but it is remarkably consistent. Show up often enough, and you’re mishpachah (family.)

The mourners, who had seemed capable and cheerful when we arrived, gradually lost their masks. They held hands and cried as they told us about the brother most of us had never met. We stood with them for kaddish, blessing them with our covenant: we show up.

Why Small Donations Matter

Image: Two piggybanks: one plain white on a wooden table, one gold on a steel background. Photos from Pixabay.

In a recent post, Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment, I talked about the effect of the mitzvah on the person who contributes tzedakah. Even the smallest tzedakah contributions contribute to the well-being of the giver as well as the recipient.

Now I’d like to talk a little bit about the importance of those same small donations. Many small donors have said to me, “The donation that I can afford will not make any difference to Congregation Beth Plony* or Jewish Family Services. They have big donors who give a lot of money.”

It is true that Jewish non-profits have a tendency to lionize large donors. They do this because the competition for their dollars is fierce. There has been a shift in the past quarter century, moving from the model of the Federations as central clearinghouses of tzedakah to a model in which individual large donors support pet projects and organizations. Partly this reflects the shift in the American economy towards income inequality: people at the top have more discretionary income, and people at the bottom have less.

Most Jewish nonprofits rely almost entirely on fundraising to support their activities and efforts. In this structure, the major portion of budgets is raised from a select number of ultrawealthy Jews. These donors are given significant leadership positions in Jewish institutions, resulting in what is effectively an undemocratic and unrepresentative plutocracy.

“Big Jewish Nonprofits Can’t Keep Letting Only the Ultrawealthy Call the Shots,” by Jay Ruderman and Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim

While a potential small tzedakah-contributor may chafe against the domination of major donors, there is also the lure of FREE: free trips, free programs, etc. “Why not let the big donors take care of it, and I will participate, maybe even volunteer a little, and enjoy the free stuff?”

I believe this is unhealthy for the donors, for the organizations and for individual Jews in those organizations:

  1. For the donors, Jewish institutions become a place where one’s goals or behavior are not challenged, because a challenge might mean that the money goes elsewhere.
  2. For the institutions that dependent on a smaller number of donors, or worse, a single donor, donors’ whims loom large.
  3. And perhaps worst of all, for the individuals in or served by the organization, this arrangement is infantilizing: they become passive consumers of services rather than participants in a living Jewish community.

Small donations matter. Participation matters. Representation matters.

I challenge large donors to consider that part of tzedakah is releasing the money and the power it represents. In Leviticus 19:9-10, landowners are commanded to leave the corners of the field for the needy. While this agricultural mitzvah is binding only on farmers in the land of Israel, our sages used it to talk about the obligation of tzedakah, to care for the suffering and needy. The verb תַּעֲזֹ֣ב  (ta-ah-ZOV,) meaning “you will leave” is significant: it denotes a giving-up of some control. Also, Maimonides’ emphasis on anonymous giving can be a healthy move, as well as a meretricious move, for large donors.

I challenge institutions to consider how much they depend on large donors, and how they might cultivate and appreciate more ordinary donors. Currently, what are your practices regarding small donors? How might those be improved? How economically diverse is your board of directors? What does your treatment of donors large and small say about the values of your organization?

I challenge those of us who are ordinary tzedakah-givers to renew our interest in giving to Jewish institutions, and to bring our ideas about cultivation and appreciation to the leaders of those institutions. The world is full of worthy causes – but how are Jewish institutions going to thrive without Jewish donors? How are they going to grow and be there for a future generation without you?

*Plony is the Aramaic equivalent of “John Doe.” “Congregation Beth Plony” means any congregation: mine, or yours, or someone else’s. If you want the feminine form, that would be Plonit.

You! in the Pew! I See You. I Hear You.

Image: Jews Praying on Yom Kippur (Photo by Trodel)

When I began leading services, I was astonished at some of the things people did while sitting in the pews. They appear to suffer from the delusion that they are invisible.

Sometimes this can be funny, but usually it’s just weird, and not in a good way. If you are in the pew, and people are sitting on the bimah, they can see pretty much anything that you are doing: grooming yourself, grooming your child, picking your teeth, staring at the ceiling, whatever. It is almost impossible for the people on the bimah to avoid seeing you. So, um, please don’t do that stuff. Yes, you know the stuff I mean.

I’ve been mostly a Jew in the Pew myself these past eight years; I teach instead of serving in a congregation. So often I don’t think about these things anymore, except on the occasions when people decide to have a conversation in the pew behind me. Mind you, I am hard of hearing, so if I could hear them, they are LOUD. Usually it’s men who do it, and it’s some sort of discussion about the service. Why they think I can’t hear them – well, maybe they know I’m hard of hearing? Still.

I want people to come to services. I would rather that they came to services and picked their teeth and talked too loudly than that they stayed home. I think most rabbis feel that way. Congregational prayer doesn’t work without enough people to form a proper kahal (gathering.) In fact there are prayers we cannot say unless we have a minyan, 10 adults. So I would rather people were there than not there.

But think about it for a minute: would you like to be at services, mourning someone dear to you, and have to listen to two dudes argue about the relative merits of the Reform and Conservative services while the service is going on? Do you really want the rabbi to know that you pick your… let’s say teeth? And whatever you are looking for on your baby’s head, can’t that wait until you get home?

Really.

Definitely, let the synagogue be “a house of prayer for all people,” as Isaiah says. But let’s try to bring our best selves, shall we?

Where Will You Be for the High Holy Days?

Rosh HaShanah begins this year at sundown on September 9, 2018.

Every pulpit rabbi is busy with sermons and service plans. Every synagogue staff is busy with preparations.

For the “Jew in the pew” September may seem a long way off.

Are you interested in attending services this year? If you are not a synagogue member, now is the time to start thinking about where you would like to attend. For every person who will want a seat in an urban or suburban synagogue, there may be several people who want that seat. That’s one of the reasons that synagogues sell tickets for the big High Holy Day services. And that is why you should start looking for your service very soon.

Don’t want to “pay to pray?” There are likely free services available in your area if you live in a city in the U.S., but again, you may want to locate those services sooner rather than later. Call your local Federation or Jewish Community Center office and ask what they know about free High Holy Day services.

If you have been thinking that this is your year to join a synagogue, I strongly suggest that you visit synagogues before the High Holy Days. This has several advantages:

  1. Your dues will include your High Holy Day tickets.
  2. You will not be stuck in a strange synagogue for the High Holy Days.
  3. Summer is a good time to visit synagogues. The High Holy Days are a terrible time to visit synagogues.

If you are a synagogue member, now is the time to remind yourself that this is a stressful time of year for synagogue office staff. In addition to their regular work, they are preparing mailings, service books, and handouts. As the membership agreements come in, they have to deal with people’s questions about tickets, their complaints about last year, their worries about this year, and assorted kvetching about the weather and the parking last year. If you aspire to be a mensch (and you should aspire to be a mensch!) BE NICE TO THOSE PEOPLE!

So yes, the High Holy Days are coming sooner than you think. Be menschen, that you may be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life!

Tetzaveh: Dressed for Success?

Image: Colorful clothes hanging in a closet. (Maridav/Shutterstock All rights reserved.)

וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֑יךָ לְכָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת׃

Make holy vestments for your brother Aaron for dignity and adornment. – Exodus 28:2

Clothing is an important social symbol. We dress to send messages about ourselves and about our feelings regarding the place or the people we will visit.  We dress to fit in or to stand out.  We often feel anxious about our clothing. Too fancy? Not fancy enough? Wrong kind of fancy? Does it fit? Is it clean? Is it new? Is it “me” or “not me?”

Kohen gadol
A Bible card published in 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company. Public domain.

And then there are uniforms: clothing that sends an impersonal, public message. Doctors wear white coats. Police wear blue uniforms. In this Torah portion, Parashat Tetzaveh, we get the directions for the uniform of the High Priest of Israel. God instructs Moses to produce an entire wardrobe: a breastplate, an ephod, a robe, a gold frontlet inscribed “holy to the Lord,” a fringed tunic, a headdress, a sash, and linen pants. Inside the breastplate are supposed to be something called ummim and thummim, which the priest will use to find answers to questions.

The outfit was colorful and some things about it are mysterious to us today (ephod, ummim and thummim, for instance.) The text doesn’t explain those words because it assumes we know what they are.

A careful reader will notice that the uniform mixes linen and wool threads, something we are forbidden to do in ordinary garments. This is a way of expressing the extraordinary nature of these clothes: they are what the high priest will wear in the presence of the Holy One.

I imagine Aaron was very nervous when he heard about this uniform. He may also have felt somewhat confused when he heard what he was going to do in that fancy outfit. The kohanim [priests] had many tasks, but the most common task was to sheckt [slaughter] the animals for the sacrifices, then cut them into pieces and stack the pieces on the altar. They tended the sacrificial fires and then carried out the ashes when the fire was finished.

In other words, Aaron was going to do some of the bloodiest, filthiest work imaginable in that fancy outfit!

The 16th century commentator Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno explained the purpose of these clothes from the verse at the top of this entry. He writes that the splendor of the uniform was to render honor to God.  Secondly:

The priest should inspire awe among the Israelites who are all considered his disciples seeing he had the names of all the tribes engraved on these garments right opposite his heart when he wore them in his official capacity. – Sforno on Ex. 28:2

The garments were to give honor to God, and an inspiration to God’s people. Their friend Aaron would disappear into this uniform and take on the role of Kohen Gadol, High Priest of Israel. From here on in the Torah, there are two Aarons: one is the Kohen Gadol, who fulfills the role of his office and provides a link to the Holy. He puts aside personal feelings just as he put aside his personal clothing. We will see this most sharply in the opening verses of Leviticus 10, when his sons die violently while offering a sacrifice, and “Aaron is silent.”

The other Aaron, the private Aaron, is the human being who wept in his tent later. He made mistakes (big mistakes – see the Golden Calf in Exodus 32 and the episode with his sister Miriam in Numbers 12.)  Being Kohen Gadol was a heavy job because he was suspended between the public role and the private self. Someone had to be in charge of the sacrifices. Someone had to be the visible link to the God of Israel. Aaron was given that task, and we do not know how he felt about it.

Do you wear a uniform in your work? Do you have a public, professional persona that sometimes has to suspend personal feelings for the public good? What do you do to “let down your hair” and relax? How do you care for the the private self that has to wear the professional role?

 

Wanted: Jewish Leadership!

Image: A red and white sign saying “Now Hiring.”

Only twice in the whole Torah does the phrase “lo tov” (not good) appear. The first is when God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” The second is when Jethro sees his son-in-law, Moses, leading alone and says, “What you are doing is not good.” We cannot live alone. We cannot lead alone. Leadership is teamsmanship. – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership,” 2012.

The best leaders lead by encouraging others, and by working as part of a team. Torah makes that point again and again. Moses is the leader, but he must work with the chieftains and judges. No matter how wise he is, no matter how holy he is, he cannot do the job alone.

Moses put a priority on raising up the next generation of leaders. He notices when Joshua son of Nun and Caleb come back from scouting the Land of Israel in Numbers 13-14, and alone among the spies speak encouragingly of the land, not just to him but to the people. He recognizes them as potential leaders – and God agrees with him, saying that alone of their generation, those two will survive to lead the next generation into the Land.

Moses had the foresight and the humility to see these young people as budding leaders of the Israelites. Where a lesser leader might have felt threatened by them, Moses nurtured them and their considerable gifts. He mentored them, especially Joshua, so that when Moses died, there was a new leader ready to step into those very large sandals.

Jewish congregations and other institutions last longer than any one life. We are mortal, and a wise leader will keep an eye out for the next generation or two of leadership. This is true not only for clergy but for lay leaders: good lay leaders don’t grow on trees.

Most successful lay leaders don’t start as president of the congregation. They start out small, working on a committee or two, getting to know people in the congregation, learning how things are done. They are more positive than negative. They look for ways to build up, not to tear down.

I have been the beneficiary of generous mentors, both clergy and lay. After I stepped out of the mikveh, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself, but I wanted to be a part of things. I joined two committees: the Caring Committee and the Outreach Committee. I learned skills that continue to serve me well. I learned things about myself that I’m still working on, too!

I strive to “pass it on” by looking for likely young leaders and nudging them to take their place in the life of the Jewish people. If they are scholarly, I mention rabbinical school. If they are warm, practical types, I point them to a committee that I think might interest them. It’s not enough to simply be Jewish – we have to DO Jewish too, and part of doing Jewish is making sure that Torah continues after we are gone.

If you are in a position of responsibility in your congregation, never forget that part of your job is looking for your replacements, encouraging future generations of leadership. Yes, it takes humility: they’re going to do things in new ways, not always the way you want things done, but without them there is no future. 

If you are young or new and hope to build the future of your congregation, join a committee and get cracking!  Get to know people. Get some work done. If you have limitations, welcome to the human race. If you can’t figure out what you can contribute, talk to your rabbi or someone in leadership, and ask for help figuring out what you can bring to the party.

The Jewish People need you!

משֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, וּמְסָרָהּ לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ לִזְקֵנִים, וּזְקֵנִים לִנְבִיאִים, וּנְבִיאִים מְסָרוּהָ לְאַנְשֵׁי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הֵם אָמְרוּ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים, הֱווּ מְתוּנִים בַּדִּין, וְהַעֲמִידוּ תַלְמִידִים הַרְבֵּה, וַעֲשׂוּ סְיָג לַתּוֹרָה:

Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence for the Torah.