10 July 2010

The Past and the Power to Save

The room where I work is usually referred to as the Rabbi's Study.  I keep alot of books there, along with desk, a phone and computer.  There is a cactus collection, some photographs of personal and historical purpose, and some couches and chairs for meetings and conversations.  We also store alot of stuff there.  Alt-shul, an indie minyan that meets at CBE, keeps their prayerbooks on some shelves in the Rabbi's Study and they use a portion of my closet for storing tallises and compostable cutlery.  Where my desk now sits, next to a window, used to be a closet.  Where the closet now is used to be an old air transformer that ran conditioned air from the Rabbi's Study to the Board Room, or more accurately, from the Women's Auxiliary to the Men's Club.

Now we're talking.

"One of the most active groups within Congregation Beth Elohim is the Sisterhood, officially known as the Women's Auxiliary.  Any Jewish woman is eligible for membership in this organization which has proved to be the backbone of the religious, charitable and social activities of the Temple.  The work of the auxiliary is divided into four divisions:  religious, philanthropic, social and educational -- with more than eighteen committees functioning under these divisions."

Four divisions.  Eighteen committees.  Function!  The notion that one would build a synagogue center and divide in such ways--the Men's Club and the Women's Auxiliary--is a remnant of the past to which we will never return.  The role of women in society today is obviously radically different from 80 years ago when the Temple House was built, a transforming social, political and economic movement that is yet to be fulfilled.  In the corporate world and in the Jewish world, women continue to make great advances but the institutional sexism unquestionably remains.  As women made those great advances in the workplace, however, a number of Jewish institutions did continue to grow, adapt and thrive--National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, the National Women's Philanthropy wing of UJA, to name a few--but sadly, none of those organizations have continued to grow or thrive in our community.

I haven't yet fully figured out why this is so for both the Men's Club and the Women's Auxiliary.  Part of it no doubt has to do with the general changing face of American Jewry and the steady decline of particularity and identification with Jewish philanthropic efforts as opposed to more general philanthropic efforts (Prospect Park, Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Public Schools, the Brooklyn Museum, the list goes on and on.)  Another part of it has to do, I'd guess, with what we seem to know to be true--that big old buildings generally require constant care and attention and as one looks back over the past 80 years of the Temple House, things were constantly being done to shore up, support, and fix both our Main Sanctuary and Temple House.  If we could ever get ourselves out from under the burden of the buildings, we may be able to focus our efforts on broader philanthropic goals as well.  Third, one would have to point to a radical shift in how and why people affiliate with synagogues or Jewish communities in general.  In part, we are a life-cycle business.  Brises and namings; bar and bat mitzvahs; weddings and funerals.  There is a kind of fee-for-service mentality that obfuscates a general sense of belonging, commitment to community, and obligation of service.  We have something--sanctioned Jewishness--that the *customer wants*.  And they pay for it.  It is a distinctively consumerist form of American capitalist transactional spirituality, and I find it odd.  Part of this mentality is what drives all the obsessive need over the past fifteen years or so to *market* Judaism to a younger generation.  It speaks to where our current culture is; but it's a dangerous place to be headed.

But besides the life-cycle business model, there is the more hopeful reality that precisely because of our continually increasingly digital atomization and total media and marketing saturation, we crave community, rituals of meaning, rooted learning and service that can link us to a narrative structure with more heft than a clickable icon or pop-up window.  And, to complicate things further, we are in the mission oriented work of educating and re-educating all the time (it's time to reclaim that term from the Maoists, after all).  Jews who know little marry non-Jews who know little but each want their future children to be Jewish, whatever that means.  It's an enormous task but an unbelievable opportunity to reframe the mission of who we are and what we do and how we may articulate a vision forward for what an 21st century synagogue ought to be.

Ought to be.   That language of obligation was essential to the Women's Auxiliary and their philanthropic efforts.  That language of obligation was essential to the Men's Club, just across the Lobby. 

Let's begin the re-framing with this principle.  As Jews, we know an essential truth:  the lessons of the past have the power to save.


Larry Kaufman said...

In addition to all the reasons you mention for the attrition of interest in gender-specific groups, we can't lose sight of the pressures of egalitarianism, which tend to erase functions or activities as the responsibility of one gender or the other.

I know one congregation where an important fund-raiser has been the weekly sale of challas for Shabbat, baked by men of the congregation. Men are called to the bima to light candles -- and why not, if women are called to the Torah, counted for a minyan, ordained and invested?

But just think, if you were a Young Israel congregation, your women could be kept "in their place," since electing one as president might get you thrown out!

Alden Solovy said...

The "language of obligation" is a wonderful phrase. Please add the word 'communal.' Too often a perceived obligation to self (self-centeredness masking as personal mission?) trumps communal service. We must speak the "language of communal obligation."

Andy Bachman said...

With regard to the language of obligation, it's important to remember that Judaism's language of obligation is both personal and communal. All of Israel stood at Mt Sinai and said together, "We will do and we will listen." Additionally, each of us has our *relationship* to God that obligates us as unique men and women made *b'tzelem elohim*.

Larry--your idea regarding challah is a wonderful one. I'd only say that elements of orthodoxy are changing as well and the movement for more equal roles for men and women is an interesting one to observe.

Marco Siegel-Acevedo said...

You're absolutely right about "digital atomization": media saturation and our own user immersion dilutes our attention spans and our sense of connection to others, Facebook notwithstanding. Media can also make the world smaller and more accessible, which is one advantage we have over philanthropists of the past. NGOs have been able to use media to shift from the older paternalistic model of benefactor/recipient philanthropy to stress a "flatter" global perspective of partnership/local empowerment (e.g. CARE's recent "I am powerful" campaign re. the key role of women in developing communities). CARE went from being known for "care packages" to being known for long-term local impact in healthcare, education, etc.

People respond to visceral connection-- seeing real world needs as well as the real world effect of their efforts/intent. The closing of a sanctuary, a shared home, has an immediate impact on a congregation, as do signs of its repair. Media-- whether in the form a printout on a bulletin board or a page on a synagogue's website-- collapses the distance between home and world, and could be an effective tool in relaying a core, integrated call to action, to the obligation to Repair both.