Monday, December 31, 2012

Good Music and Good Friends

I have been blessed over the years with good friends. They check in on me when they don’t hear from me in a while. They send me pictures and messages on Facebook that they think I would like. They send emails about what is going on with them and their families and ask me about my children and my work. In good times and bad, I am blessed to have good friends I can rely on.

One of the things that make our friendships strong is that we don’t base our relationship on external things. I don’t care what kind of a car they drive or what color they paint their home. They don’t have to dress to impress me since what we value is on the inside.  It is our values and character that drives our friendship, the rest is interesting but not crucial. When you have good friends, you overlook the details because the inside is so precious. 

This past Shabbat, I realized that the same thing can be said about prayer. One of my teachers was amazed about how I could find so much spirituality in my prayer. After all, they are the same words, recited every day ; how could I pray every day in my minyan, davening at or near the speed of light, and still have them pierce my heart and move my soul?  I explained that, to me, each prayer is like an old friend. I get to greet him each day and see what he has to say to me.  Sometimes we just nod a greeting to each other, but other times I find important wisdom in his words or he sparks an idea in my head that unfolds like a flower. The daily Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv converse with me like old friends and I never tire of their company. 

But just like my personal friends, I don’t worry too much about what is on the outside. I know that there are those who pray and who love to pray in exactly the same way every day. They have their favorite tunes, favorite siddur and favorite place to sit in the synagogue. It is not the same if anything is changed. They claim that it undermines the service if someone should sit in their seat, use a different book or sing a new melody. I see their point. Changing the music or the siddur does change the experience of prayer, but that is not a bad change. Like turning a diamond to see the different ways the light is refracted in the gem, so too, when we make minor changes in the liturgy, or the way we sing the liturgy, we can discover new ways to understand our prayer and our relationship with God. 

It is easy to try this. Take a favorite prayer and change all the masculine pronouns for God and turn them into feminine pronouns. The prayer suddenly will have new things to teach. Or replace all gender terms for God with neutral terms, “He” or “She” becomes just “God”. How does this change the way we think about God in our lives? When I use an older prayer book, I change the “thee” and “thou” to “you” and “your” and suddenly the prayers take on a more contemporary feel.  Adon Olam has thousands of tunes you can sing it too, and each one lends a different flavor to that moment at the end of the service. Do we end the service reverently? Cheerfully? Whimsically? It is all in the tune we choose. 

Think of the song, “Lean on Me” sung by Bill Withers. In its original melody, it is an ode to friendship. Take the same words and give them a reggae beat and it becomes a celebration of friendship. Take the words and give them a gospel sound and the lyrics become a spiritual prayer. The music is like a different costume, a different look, but the changes in music change our perspective on the words. The changes in style set the words free.

Just as our friends grow and change, a development that matches our own growth, so too can we discover new meaning and life in old prayers if we let them grow and change over time like us. Holding our prayers stagnant over time is like trying to hold down our dear friends. They may enjoy our company and the extra time with us for a while, but eventually they will grow restless and feel the need to move away. Just because we let them go away, does not mean that the friendship is over. It only means that we have given it the space it needs to grow deeper and stronger.
Changes in the service should be welcomed and embraced. The old have not been discarded. My friends, the prayers, are still there to embrace me with their warm hugs each morning and evening.  They are just wearing different clothes, and I have a chance to see them in a new light and from a different point of view. As always, I am richer for the encounter and my heart is filled with the love we share.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Pray for the Government

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

This is the preamble to the Constitution of the United States. In it, our founding fathers speak about the role that government is supposed to play in the lives of people. In Judaism, our founding document is the Torah, the five books that record the experience of the people of Israel from the time of creation until they are ready to enter the Promised Land. The Jewish Bible, however does not have a preamble that speaks to its purpose. When it says at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God” it is telling us that these laws are God’s will for how people should live. When it says, “Hear Israel, the Lord is our God the Lord alone.” It is telling us that the rules are from the one God and there are no other Gods who can tell us to abrogate it. When the Torah reads, “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God is holy.” It is giving us a framework on how to live our lives, much the same way as the preamble to the Constitution does. 

There has been a lot of discussion in this election year in this country about the role of government in the lives of its citizens. Certainly there are times when government is too intrusive and times when it needs to intrude more. It is always a balance between letting people do what they know is right and having government regulate what we do. The problem is not the government, I think, but we human beings who make up the population. I think we all agree that people can be selfish and self-serving. The Bible, even with all its laws, understands that there is no law code in the universe that can cover all the things a person should or should not do. We have to learn to be moral, fair and kind. The prophet Micha tells us that we know what God wants from us, “Only to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.” Justice makes sure we act fairly. Mercy gives us a break when we just make a mistake and walking humbly with God reminds us that we are not God but we have an obligation to try our best to do what God expects from us. 

When the founding fathers of the United States wrote the Constitution, they were living in world where things did not go according to God’s law. Each state had its own version of justice. There were disputes between people and states that were not being mediated. Each state had its own version of a militia and no sense of working together with other states. Each state, each city and each person did what was profitable for themselves and not for the welfare of others. Being free required the people to be fair and the definition of fair often depended on what was at stake for the parties. 

The role of government, therefore for the United States and for Judaism is summed up in this lesson from the Talmud, “pray for the welfare of the government, for without it people would devour each other alive.” I remember years ago, when police went on strike in a city in Canada, that rioting and lawlessness ruled the streets until they could get the officers back on patrol. I understood that the Talmud was not being theoretical. Law is what makes civilization possible. 

I understand that nobody likes taxes. Rich people did not become rich by giving away money; they earned it and saved it so why should government be able to take it away? It is functionally no different from the blue color worker who gets a paycheck and wonders why the government can take out taxes from what she has earned. The problem, of course, is that the money collected from both rich and poor goes to provide the infrastructure we all depend on and makes sure that basic services are available for everyone in areas of health and retirement/disability income. Better to pay a little each day than to have a big bill show up when we are not expecting it. Judaism required everyone to pay taxes and it empowered the government to collect it no matter if the person wanted to pay or not.

The same applies to regulations. Nobody likes government telling us how to run our business. Yet who would clear and salt the walkways in front of their store in the winter if they were not told they have to do it? After all, snow removal costs money. The United States has a long history of requiring business to provide a safe work environment because business could not be relied upon to do it. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company had dozens of women die in a fire because they were saving money by not dealing with fire safety and they had locked doors so that the workers could not get out.  From pollution issues to workers safety to standard benefits, business could not be relied upon to do what was right without government intervention. Greed and single-mindedness had corporations looking the other way when it came to doing what they should.  I often say, “Human Beings have an infinite capacity to delude themselves”. We don’t think something will go wrong even as we make decisions that will all but insure problems. The role of Government is to bring a shot of reality into the way we live and the way we do business. 

We can argue about who is responsible when people do stupid things. Does government have to regulate every possibility for the dumb things people do? (a month or so ago there was a disabled man who tried to drive his “scooter” up an escalator with disastrous results.) Finding the right balance is also the role of government and it is the responsibility of those electing representatives to elect those who will legislate with eye to where the voters stand on this issue. 

Judaism teaches us that Government has to sometimes be the grownup in the room to make sure that we don’t hurt ourselves or others; that we will not “devour each other alive”. When I insist that Wall Street and Banks need regulation, I am not taking a political stand, I am reflecting the Jewish understanding that these institutions are not about a level playing field for all investors, they are about doing what will make money for their stockholders. To make sure what they do is fair for everyone will take government regulations. There is a long history, in this country of all kinds of fraud and insider trading going back hundreds of years. In my own life, there has been, from the junk bonds scandals of the 80’s to the Libor scandal of this year plenty of evidence that regulation is appropriate and needed. Rabbi in Ancient Israel set limits on what was an appropriate profit on a given sale; too much was price gouging.

There can be no free markets and no freedom for people if there are not sensible interventions by government. It is not about politics, it is about the natural role of government. Without government, is there any doubt that we would cannibalize each other?

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Question

My daughter, this morning, asked if I now regret leaving my pulpit of 17 years. I left a comfortable position to try leading different congregations and to return to school to learn new skills to improve my abilities. Instead of looking forward to a 25th anniversary of my work, I chose to take on new pulpits and face new challenges. It has been difficult at times and so my daughter wondered if I considered the decision made seven years ago a mistake. 

I left my pulpit in 2007 not because I had to. In fact, there were some members who were angry that I was leaving. I left a community that had been very good to me, a professional staff that worked together well and I left my own personal comfort zone because I felt that something was missing; that the world was changing and I did not understand what was happening. I thought that a different congregation would offer more opportunities to discover myself and what was changing in the Jewish world.  I did not know that I would be facing an economic downturn and seven years of rabbinic upheaval. It has not been an easy time and I am thankful for the many colleagues and friends who have supported me through the past years. 

But I have no regrets. In spite of the challenges, I found what I was searching for.  I have seen congregations from new and different perspectives. I am no longer the kind of rabbi I once was. I can’t do “typical Conservative services” anymore.  I don’t see congregations the way I was once trained to see them (and now they train new colleagues differently than the way we were once trained). What the Jewish community needs is not more of the same, but a new approach to understanding our faith. From my time of searching, I have matured in my leadership in ways I had never considered before my wanderings.

The first thing I have learned is that Conservative services are in fact changing. There are rabbis and cantors who are still invested in the old style, but there are also colleagues who are making prayer more meaningful and less boring. I know that when a congregation says that services are too long, it means they are not being engaged in the process of prayer; that Jews want to feel that they are a part of prayer and not just spectators. This is not a change rabbis should fear but one we should embrace.
I have learned that the number of people who attend a service is not as important as the number of people who are involved in the service.  A small room, with movable chairs, a low or entirely missing bima, no formal lectern and a mediocre sound system can be a more inspiring service than one in a suburban “cathedral”.  Anyplace where Jews come to be fully engaged, heart, soul and body is a successful community.

I have learned that I am a better rabbi when I am a teacher. There are some who would like me to tell them how to do everything in life, but then they go home and forget everything I said in my sermon. The real work of a rabbi is teaching the congregation how to lead the service without you; congregants can teach a lesson, explain the Torah reading and chant the service without professional help. What they want is to do these things themselves and to do them exceptionally well. They want me/they need me to teach them how to do these things better. My “ego” is stroked when my students do a good job, not when I “do” a good service. They don’t need me to call the page numbers or to tell them to sit down or stand up.

I have learned that the best place for a rabbi sometimes is not out front but at the door, welcoming new faces and old alike. In the same way I meet my personal guests at the door of my home, I should meet those who are coming to synagogue at the door and welcome them in. And not just the adults; I leaned to greet the children when they arrive to school during the week. I learned to get down on my knees and greet even the pre-school children when they come for their Shabbat service on Friday.  Everyone needs to know that they are welcome here.

I have learned that synagogues are imposing buildings and sometimes strangers literally can’t find the door to come in. They don’t know where to park a car. They can’t find the main entrance. They can’t find the office entrance. They can’t find the Rabbi’s office. They don’t know where the daily minyan meets and the special door they often use when the building is closed. Even when they are inside they don’t know their way around and feel very lost. How can they discover their Judaism if they can’t find their way around the building?

I have learned that synagogues have lost their way as an organization. So many synagogue board members think of themselves as fundraising associations and have forgotten why they are raising the money. I have learned to get up each morning and consider how I will change the world and I don’t think about how I will pay for it until after breakfast. Synagogues need to be mission first. We need to envision all we can be and then figure out how to pay for it. We can’t raise money and then later decide how we will spend it. We don’t think of our family finances this way, why should we think of synagogue finances this way.

I have learned that in Judaism as in life, “one size does not fit all”. When we have different models of services and service to the community, we engage more people in all that we do.  What is important is to catch a man or woman with a hot idea and be able to give them the chance to use synagogue resources to make a difference in the community. This is how a shul can connect a family for a lifetime; by helping them live their dreams. Not a dream of all the things they want, but a dream of how they can help others.  When we help people find meaning in their lives, we make the synagogue a meaningful institution. 

Finally, I learned that Judaism has been around for a long time. It has seen many different styles and configurations but it keeps coming back to the basics. Synagogues are about Torah (learning), Avoda (praying) and Gemilut Hasadim (acts of kindness and compassion); everything else is extra. History’s dustbin is filled with those who thought that it should be different. The changes in life are in how we approach learning, how we join together in prayer and how we serve others in need. Successful rabbis and synagogues never forget the fundamentals. 

My life did not stop when I left my pulpit of 17 years. I have grown and changed over the years and I am a better Rabbi for all of it. Would I like to find a home, a synagogue and a community to spend the next 20 years and beyond? Sure! And I have faith that God will get me there at a time when I can do the most good; for my community, for the Jewish People and for God.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Opening the Door

I have been writing about Synagogues and how to fix them now for two years. I have spoken with anyone who will listen to me and I have now a pretty firm group of followers who respond when I write about fixing American Synagogues. . (If you have not read my thoughts on all of this, you can find them on my website using this link:  RevitalizingSynagogues )

What I find astonishing is how synagogues are so resistant to change. I have had members of synagogue boards and even a few synagogue presidents tell me that my assessment of the situation today is spot on and that my ideas about resolving them seem well reasoned and easy to apply. But, then they tell me that it could  never work in their congregation, because of a host of reasons that all boil down to, “This is just too risky for our community, we prefer to keep things as they are and see what happens.” Guess what? When there is no change, the situation remains the same, falling membership, falling income and more wondering why more people don’t join the synagogue.  The more things change the more they stay the same (French proverb). Or maybe Einstein is appropriate here: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”

Here are some important realizations for those involved in synagogue life who feel that something has to be done.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has said and he may not have been the first to say it; The business of a synagogue is NOT fundraising.  Fundraising is important and even necessary, but it is not the reason that synagogues exist.  We need to stop acting as if it is the most important task we do. It is not. It is at best, a secondary part of synagogue life.  Any entrepreneur can tell you that if you want to succeed in your field, first you have to know what you are selling and then you have to promote what you are selling.  Anyone who only wants to “make a lot of money” is doomed to fail.  Anyone who thinks that people will throw money at them has no business plan.  
In business, they rely on customer surveys to know what is working and what is not. In synagogue life we need to do the same. The first question we need to ask is “Why would any Jew need our congregation?” What reason do they have to come here and join with us? If you don’t know the answer you have to survey your success stories.  Go and ask the most active members why they joined and got active, you will almost always get the same reply: “Someone welcomed us when we first visited, and we felt that this place was so warm and friendly that we thought we would give it a try.” So they came to a couple of events, liked what they saw and joined. Usually the first visit takes place during worship. 

We can learn a lot from this reply:
1.       Welcoming people and being friendly is a crucial part of synagogue life. If someone can attend a function at your congregation, sit down, get up and leave and nobody says “hello”, you are doomed. That is the kiss of death.  

2.       It is everyone’s responsibility to be warm and friendly. Not just the usher, the Rabbi or the staff.
3.       Your programming, from worship thru social events needs to be engaging, every moment is a chance to bring someone in. What kind of programming do you have? Would you invite your best friend to come and be a part of what your synagogue does?

4.       Do you follow through with those who visit your congregation? Do they get on email lists? Do you have printed material to give them if they ask? Does someone give them a call and invite them to a future event?  Or is the first contact also the first time you ask them for money? 

Ask yourself why you go back to the same restaurant over and over. Is there someone on wait staff that you like? Do they make your favorite food the way you like it?  Were they constantly trying to get you to buy something you didn’t want or were their suggestions about the menu helpful? Translating this into synagogue life is not too difficult. Do new members find people they like in shul? Do we do things that people want/like to do? Are we always asking for money or do we show then why the shul is a meaningful part of our life and invite them to join us. The money always follows interest. Are we getting people interested?

The Rabbi and staff don’t need to be “Pied Pipers” and social media is not going to be the salvation of the synagogue.  Success begins with these two ideas: People will attend events where they are made to feel welcome and when you engage them, they will quickly become active and then tell others about what they found in your community.  To be sure, you have to do a lot of things behind the scenes to make sure that there is something to get people interested. But a synagogue is, first of all about relationships, then it is about Torah, Worship and acts of Hesed. Then it is about making a difference in people’s lives. Only then can we begin to ask them to help keep these programs and projects alive. 

So, be honest. How does your congregation compare?