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.