09 March 2009

The Purpose of Such an Arrangement

The prophet Isaiah said, "The heart of the people is fat and their ears are heavy and their eyes are shut."

I was thinking of that quote today when I read through a variety of emails and online articles from the surplus of consultants who are out there today in the Jewish world (and the general world as well) trying to tell all of us working in the trenches how it is that we're supposed to weather this massive economic storm.

Since the late 1980s, if not much, much earlier, we have always been top-heavy in experts who know best and short on talent and leadership willing to roll up their sleeves, take on the real work of community building and organizing, and insisting that the measure of our existence ought to be how much goodness and justice and peace we have brought into the world.

We study ourselves over and over; wring our hands over our possible Ashkenazic genetic dissolution (God forbid!); and privilege engagement in numbers over the mundane process of visiting the sick, burying the dead, comforting the mourner, rejoicing with brides and grooms.

Jewish life--and in particular Jewish life in the synagogue--has been consigned to the leprous territory known as Boredomland, only to be saved by the Consultants, who have written studies and studied studies and garner fees and salaries for telling us what to do.

But to quote Moses Hayyim Luzzatto in the Path of the Upright, "only they who break away from such bondage can see the Truth and can advise others concerning it."

To wit:

Last week I took my family to see the Batsheva Dance Company at BAM. We bought the tickets, took the girls to dinner at the BAM Cafe beforehand, and navigated our interpretive way through some of Ohad Naharin's more provocative ideas. (In this case, the "heavy ears of youth" is not such a bad thing.)

To rows in front of us sat much of the professional staff of birthright next, including one its major funders, and we learned that through the generosity of birthright, 200 alumni of this amazing program were treated to a free show. I, of course, got annoyed.

I mean, I PAID for my undergraduate tuition at Wisconsin and Hebrew University, PAID for my rabbinic education at HUC, and PAID for dinner and tickets for my family to see Israel's premier dance company perform (note: this past July, in Tel Aviv, we walked through the campus of Batsheva, which prompted our kids' interest in it all.)

I paid for this all despite my mutt-like, illiterate Jewish upbringing, but (and I'm not saying this because like Warren Buffet I too hail from the Midwest) my own prudent investment has built a more powerful model than throwing money at entitled kids in order to buy their Jewish allegiance.

But the studies say it works! Even though none of these kids has gotten married, raised a family, made Jewish educational choices, and had THEIR offspring make Jewish choices. In other words, the cake is half-baked but we're jumping to conclusions because we're so blinded by the illusion of what a successful Jewish community looks like.

When I was in Israel in December, climbing up Masada, we passed 40 birthright students. I said to congregant then, "Well, there goes $120,000." I stand by that.

At BAM, I said to no one in particular, "Two hundred free tickets--that's what seven, eight, nine-thousand dollars?"

Do you know what I would do with that?

I could pay for a songleader to play Shabbat songs each Saturday for 75 young families who are actively trying to teach their tots Jewish songs, Jewish melodies and the rudiments of Jewish literacy.

I could make our Congregational Retreat affordable for the more than 175 people who will attend, a multi-generational expression of what synagogue life should strive to be.

I could build a bereavement group for mourners, hire a couple teachers to teach classes to the hungry seekers, and get people in their twenties and thirties to actually pay for their faith in Jewish community, in substantive programming, and an investment in their own future.

Luzzatto writes, "In princely estates, a garden is sometimes so laid out that a man easily loses his way in it. The purpose of such an arrangement is to afford entertainment."

Luzatto's "birthright" was Torah. That big, bad, boring book.

Purim is enough entertainment, no? Do not the times demand more from us than paying for the most fortunate generation's good fortune?

I didn't have a consultant who helped me find a teacher. I found one on my own, another through a friend, and so the chain of tradition linked up to me, and I to it.

As the greater culture deals with one of the greatest periods of dislocation and reinvention since the Great Depression, I hope that we will be able to rely upon the truly bold ideas of our tradition and not the spasms of genetic naval gazing that have us making entertainment for anyone happy to belly up to the table and cash in.

Just as Health Care, Infrastructure, and Sustainable Ecology are the key issues we'll be hearing about over and over again, I would argue that those values will be found in their most fundamental form in the Synogogue, the Infrastructure of Jewish Infrastructures, that has so far outlasted all the experts and the studies, and exist on dues and "free-will offerings" of the People.


Dan said...

Frankly, I'm disappointed. Your comments on BirthrightNEXT remind me of all the criticism by the Anglo-Israeli crowd over the Adelsons support of the Peres Tomorrow Conference last year. (I'll come back to that).

While there may be limited research available on in-marriage rates, raising children etc. of Birthright alumni, there is research available on the effect of various pluralistic Israel programs (over the past 20 years) on the rates of in-marriage, communal affiliation etc on program alumni. And the conclusion, **by far**, is that these Israel experiences have produced significantly higher rates of commitment, involvement etc than their peers without. Based on that alone, there is reason to think BI alumni will trend above their peers.

As to going to the ballet, supporting the Tomorrow Conference, etc. as I would think you would know, it is foolish to think if these programs did not exist the private money would be used elsewhere.

The Adelson's were loudly criticized and it was said they should have had Peres use the $3 million to feed the hungry in Israel and reduce poverty. The fact is, if the Adelson's wanted to, they could have done both (at least last year).

If MS, or whichever philanthropist you refer to, wanted to give more to Synagogue's, he could - in addition to supporting BirthrightNEXT.

I know several of the original funders to BI. They are all generous to our Jewish community. They all choose their funding priorities based on what is personally meaningful to them.

Your post sounds like nothing more than jealousy; I'm surprise; and disappointed.

Andy Bachman said...

Hi Dan

Thanks for writing.

The point I'm trying to make is that paying people to be Jewish is no guarantee of a meaningful and responsible connection to Jewish life. Are kids happy to get all this stuff for free? Yes. Do the studies show that? Sure.

The question remains as to whether they'll build and sustain new institutions or support existing ones. Most new Jewish entrepreneurs today struggle mightily to meet their bottom line and aren't getting support from the grassroots--still relying on the same generosity from the big givers (which is wonderful, no doubt.)

But there is no real movement indicating a sense of responsibility, an age old Jewish value.

As to Shelly Adelson, I wasn't referring to him but you raise a good point. Which is the greater Jewish value? The right of the worker, which he has a history of trampling in his casinos, or Jewish continuity at any cost?

I think that our era, having lived off the fatted calf of communal obsession with intermarriage (follow the money), needs to embrace responsibility.

Save your disappointment for those who fail to aspire to what Torah calls us to do: serve those in need and in so doing, repairing the world.

NB: Batsheva's performance was "modern," not ballet.

Dan said...

No real movement indicating a sense of responsibility????

Next time you're in Jerusalem, stop by the PresenTense Hub; or speak to Yoni Gordis about what's happening in the ROI Community. Better yet, have a chat with Jon Woocher over at JESNA (it's a local call or short train ride) and learn about what's happening in today's world of Jewish social entrepreneurship.

Sure, big name philanthropists are putting money into some of these ventures. But that's not what's making them go. It's the hard work and dedication of mostly 20-somethings building new institutions. And even if some of those new institutions eventually morph into existing ones, or disappear all-together, where's the loss? Our global community will be that much stronger because it captured the majority of this group while they were young, single, and below the age that historically people "join".

Andy Bachman said...

Dan--which projects, concrete, do you refer to of JESNA and Present Tense? Think Tanks and Magazines don't count. We have enough of those. What begins with Shammai (say little do much) ends with Hillel (if not now, when.). I don't remember the logo from that movement--J-Sage?--but they did have impact that lasted.

Meanwhile, I'm with those still trying to bring unions to Shelly's gambling funhouses.

Daniel Brenner said...


Reb Andy,

As I mentioned to you at BAM, the people were not simply alumni, but volunteers who had hosted Shabbat dinners in their apartments. I met one young woman who hosted eight dinners! We thank our volunteers and the way that we do it is by bringing people who can not afford to go to great arts events at BAM to get to see them. In the process we support three things: Shabbat hospitality, an amazing cultural institution, and a fantastic Israeli dance company. I think that is pretty hot.

But let’s look at your bigger claim. You have a sense that “free” does not lead to “responsibility.” I’m not so sure.

I, like you, had to pay for most of my education (still paying student loans actually). In rabbinical school, I was furious that people got full free rides plus living stipends while I had to wake up at 6AM on every Sunday morning and drive an hour to teach Hebrew School and tutor five Bnai Mitzvah kids and drive back to do my homework in a state of ‘need coffee cannot stay awake.’ I hated it. I hated the people whose parents sent them to Ivy League schools and then they got these full rides, etc. It seemed like the greatest injustice in the world at the time.

But now, I look at those people, and you know something? They have paid back. They worked just as hard if not harder in their rabbinic lives. They felt responsible in part because they got the free ride. They actually give to their school, and they appreciate what was given to them. They were like the many ‘scholarship kids’ who go on to be successful in business and then endow ten minority scholarships at the alma matter.

So as much as I understand your gripe, I don’t totally get it. And this is especially true regarding Synagogue life. Here’s why:

One of the reasons why Chabad has succeeded where so many Liberal congregations have failed has to do with the very issue you raise. Chabad offers FREE Hebrew School to parents. They undercut the market, for sure. But eventually those parents of Chabad students give – and they give big. Why? Because they feel grateful to Chabad for educating their kids. The same couple walks into a Liberal Synagogue and experiences the dues and the tuition bill, etc. They feel like it is a pay-per-service operation. They rarely give freely. Someone has to bug them to give, like three times.

One of the great successes of the Jewish world these days is the “we pay you to study Torah” stuff going on at college campuses. Why is it great? Because hundreds of kids sign up. Here’s the catch -- at the end of the class, when offered the money, most of them do not take it! They want to donate it so someone else can have the experience. So FREE, sometimes leads to a sense of responsibility. Not always, for sure, but I would wager my money on the Chabad model re responsibility in the long run.

Your story, about how you wanted to learn, wanted to find a teacher, had to use your own resources….all of it is describing the very people I don’t worry about. I’m worried about people who have already concluded that there is nothing in Jewish life for them, no place for them, nothing relevant. I want them to not only see that there is relevance, but to bring that which is relevant to them into the community – which is what our aim is with the work that we are currently doing.

Andy, please do me a favor and come one night to one of the Birthright Israel Monolgues shows and talk with the cast afterwards. They will tell you how a free trip changed their lives. The show does cost ten bucks, but I'll put you on the guest list.

Reb Daniel

Andy Bachman said...


1. I seriously question whether or not these people can't pay for an event at BAM. Add up their Starbucks bills for two weeks--they can afford a night of "art."

2. Who paid for the Shabbat Dinners?

3. Someone pays for Chabad and there is no indication it leads to lifelong affiliation with Chabad. There is no information to indicate that. It's just the vogue in the Jewish world to say, "Chabad does it for free, so we should do it for free..." while all the while neglecting their particular messianic, mission driven goals.

4. One could argue that your sacrifice and your labor--FOR MONEY YOU PAID--is the investment that helped create your own commitment to your sense of responsibility for Jewish life.

5. A staged theatrical event on why a trip to Israel was transformative? No thanks. More entertainment on behalf of the Jews. If it costs money, I'd rather TIVO Larry David.

Daniel Brenner said...


1. No, they can't all afford it - and many of them would choose to spend their money on going to a nightclub, or whatever, rather than support the arts. I think that the new audience development movement in theater and the arts in general is fantastic and the "Free Night of Theater" movement gets results -- ask any one who runs a small company. why else would they do it year after year?

2. They paid for everything. And they cooked. Did we reimburse them a month later? yes. But they paid and put in sweat equity, not to mention their apartments got trashed. Are you planning on charging for your next Oneg Shabbat? Do you ask people to donate to sponsor it? Not sure what your objection is here.

3. And there is a lifelong affiliation with Reform Judaism? The evidence is overwhlemingly in the opposite direction. I'm not a Chabadnik -- but they are currently thumping the Liberal movements. And, yes, people stay connected, mainly because the Chabad rabbi stays in their town for thirty years and the reform rabbi changes every three.

4. Sure, but that does not mean that people who got scholarships are not as committed.

5. Just see the show. Or better yet - check out Shawn Shafner's piece on Youtube-- it will poke you in the very place of your kvetch.


Andy Bachman said...

1. Wait--birthright's in the New Free Theater Movement? No comprende.

2. Yes they paid for it until we reimbursed them. "I was for the war before I was against it." You know what I'm saying, Senator Kerrey?

3. I kind of have no idea what you're talking about.

4. Show me the money.

5. I don't want to see the show. I want to encourage obligation. That's why (to the degree they do) the Baal Teshuva movement gets kids and why the Evangelicals are onto something much greater than we Jews are doing, which amounts to spoiling our children.