30 August 2010

A Pitch That's a Hit

20 Elul 5770

Milwaukee swept Pittsburgh over the weekend, a fairly common occurrence for the competition between these two industrial towns, each seeking, in their own way, to reinvent themselves for a post-industrial age.  It's sentimental when teams like that face each other--it conjures images of past glory, making each season an exercise in nostalgia, if not an actual attempt to win anything significant.  Ryan Braun, claimed as one of Major League Baseball's hard-hitting Jews by Jews like me (but not really by himself) went 4-4, including a home run and a couple RBIs.  He's finally back at .300.  What a player!

Milwaukee, in fact, is in a kind of see-saw arrangement with Houston, battling for respect in third and fourth place in the National League Central, each hoping to end the year at .500.  Not the playoff run dreamed of when players report to camp in February; but not a total loss, either.  Baseball fans shrug the win some/lose some shrug like morning exercises--a calisthenic of ritualized realism.  So be it.

Battling for respect in third or fourth place is not unlike raising money for the typical Reform synagogue.  You love the place you love your God but you're well aware that the people with the most means consider you a third or fourth place priority at best.  There are exceptions to every rule.  A couple years ago, the Brewers picked up CC Sabathia late in the season and made the first round of the playoffs.  Wonderful and generous expressions do make it the surface, for sure.  But for the most part, the pattern in the middle of the pack has stuck and it's a structural problem that I think about a lot.

The class liberal Jew of means does not generally consider giving to his or her synagogue to be a major philanthropic priority.  Museums, hospitals, universities, schools, arts organizations and any number of other civic expressions generally take precedence over where one prays, or studies, or bar/bat mitzvahs their kid, or shows up once or twice a year to see old friends, hear a sermon, and get a Jewish inoculation against the year.  Synagogues struggle financially.  Not because they're enormously expensive to run but because they're generally balanced on the backs of the middle class in the congregation--those who pay dues and fees--as well as those who use the services that truly matter--child-care.  This, combined with once or twice a year appeals to the community keep us afloat; but it's not quite the roaring chorus, the ticker-tape parade after winning the World Series.  It's afloat.

Why is that?

The main reason is that there is very little mitzvah as mitzvah in the culture of giving to liberal synagogue.  The religious and theological ambivalence of the last several generations of American Jews has enabled a kind of law of physics to take hold wherein the call to the greater good exceeds Jewishness and defines Jews as Americans.  Studies indicate that American Jews are disproportionately more generous than other Americans--except when it comes to their synagogues.  The great exception to this rule, generally speaking, is in the Orthodox community, where giving is an obligation--a mitzvah--in the true sense of the word and one's public persona is positively sanctioned by one's specifically Jewish generosity.

Liberal Jews, on the other hand, are caught in a Catch-22:  Because of generally low giving, budgets are balanced by a raise in dues; and "paying" to join a synagogue is considered a "turn-off" even though the dues simply keep the place afloat.

So the innovative younger generations over the past 40 years have attempted to crack that nut by disaggregating the shul from the Shul.  The Chavurah Movement forty years ago or the Indie Minyan movement today, eschew infrastructure and the responsibility for it by convening with little to no overhead, meaningful engagement, and a strong, genuine sense of community that is self-run and, essentially, free.  Nice model. 

It begs the question:  Is the liberal synagogue a defunct model?  Can it truly sustain itself as a synagogue or does it pretend it's a synagogue while actually serving as a community center, offering a variety of non-religious, communal, social services that the community of Jews and their families who use them, actually want?  Can the liberal synagogue *demand* obligation or is the liberal synagogue *obligated* to respond to demand?

What if CBE totally redefined itself and made Membership Dues purely voluntary.  Like WNYC or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  What if its public posture said, "We invite your prideful connection to Jewish life in Brooklyn--give what you can to help us!"  And then we ran ourselves like an efficient, not-for-profit Center for Jewish Life--offering childcare, after-school, Hebrew education, bar and bat mitzvah training, life-cycle services; but also yoga and health classes; AA meetings and bereavement groups; arts and literary celebrations?  How would you pay for it--with a combination of free-will offerings, fees-for-service, and an aggressive and professionally run development strategy that ensures our financial solvency, invests in our infrastructure, and endows a program fund for future generations to enjoy.**  Ambitious?  Yes.  But so is God's demand that we serve as a Light and a Blessing Unto the Nations.

Each Friday and Saturday would operate as it already does--brimming with Jewish life and expression from a range of worship (ahem) *styles* but we'd admit what we know to be true--that the vast majority of people who identify as Jews in this neck of the woods don't put God or Faith first.  I don't like it one bit, but I have to be honest, I'm tired of mourning it.  It is what it is.  It's Jews I want!  It's my one particular brand of Asher Ginzburgian American Zionism.  A People without a Land (Shul/Center) is no People.

I'm biased but I think this idea's a winner.  Like the Brewers over the past couple seasons, we've had some solid hitting and solid fielding--it's the pitching that has left much to be desired.  So pretend it's the End of the Season and you had to rebuild in order to win the the Big One.  You get new pitching, right?  It always wins games, deep into October.

CBE:  The Center for Jewish Life in Park Slope Brooklyn.  It's fast, strong, and right down the middle.  People will give to that.  They want to march in that parade.

Ironically, it's a hit. 

But Irony is hip.  I read that in a study somewhere.

(**thanks Janice!)


Michelle Lynn-Sachs said...

I'm in.

Andy Bachman said...

Batter up.

Larry Kaufman said...

You ask - What if CBE totally redefined itself and made Membership Dues purely voluntary. Like WNYC or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I'm not at all familiar with the support system of WNYC, but if it's anything like that of NFP radio in Chicago (on-air appeals), there's a definite l'havdil between that and the museum (I am, by the way, a member of the Milwaukee Museum, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Jewish Museum in NYC, and a couple of Holocaust Museums.)

At the Met, the voluntary payment may be articulated, but in reality an admission fee is de rigeur. And the synagogue can't readily collect an admission fee when most of our traffic occurs at times we're not supposed to be handling money. That's the same reason we can't follow the business model of many churches and pass the plate.

One reason that our potential donors prefer the university, the symphony, the museum, etc. is that they get a lot more recognition bang for their philanthropic buck, and Rambam to the contrary notwithstanding, recognition is an important motivator. But another reason, and you alluded to it, is that we have not created a culture of giving in our synagogues -- because we have not created a culture of asking.

While I don't propose that the rabbi spend the lion's share of his or her time at fund-raising, clergy are probably best-suited to present the vision of something worth supporting -- but a development department and a development committee have to organize and role model the effort.

As long as we rely on bake sales, Yom Kippur appeals, and dues, we continue on our hand-to-mouth pathway. Terumah, giving from the heart, worked so well that two weeks later came mandatory half-shekel dues, and later a whole bookful of instructions for supporting the clergy.

I'm with you -- we need a new business model. We know the system is broke, but we don't know how to fix it. But we are not free to desist from the task.

Ron said...

What Larry said. We have never had much of a culture of asking at CBE. Shouldn't we try being a bit more aggressive and assertive on that front before blowing up the whole model? And who's to say CBE can't be like a JCC while still having members. Isn't that kinda what we're doing now anyway?

Anonymous said...

Please elaborate on "Rabbi Bachman shared some thoughts related to an old idea upon which the Temple House was built in 1929, the Synagogue-Center Movement. " Was this idea a result of our exclusion from other facilities?

Andy Bachman said...

Anonymous--happy to elaborate. But I do need clarification with regard to your question. What "exclusion from other facilities" are you referring to? Thanks! Andy

Anonymous said...

Other facilities: such as places for recreation, pools, gyms,etc. not open to Jews.

Andy Bachman said...

In part; but in part it had to do with a broader vision of "Americanizing" American Jews.