December 4, 2013
I am taking up a new thread, as promised. It’s time to talk more about our synagogue theme for the year, Conservative Judaism. We have had sermons and Scolnic Institute classes and bits and pieces in It’s Wednesday, now it’s time to do more.
I always like to quote Yitz Greenberg, famous American rabbi and scholar and himself an Orthodox Jew, who said that it doesn’t matter what denomination you belong to as long as you think it’s no good. Self-criticism finds no better home than talking about one’s own brand of Jewish belief and practice. I think we Conservative Jews are the best at this, not sure why. And, related, we spend the least amount of energy working to strengthen our own denomination, focusing instead on the needs of the larger community (eg. leadership in the Jewish Federation/ AIPAC) sometimes at the expense of our movement’s needs.
So, why is our denomination floundering the most, according to the Pew survey and other studies? After WWII we were the dominant movement of the three in this country; now we have half the affiliates of the Reform movement and the Orthodox are slowly catching up to us. And does it matter?
For starters in this conversation, I refer again to Yitz Greenberg. In an interview almost ten years ago with a researcher from our own Seminary, when discussing the future of our movement given the attrition that was already noticeable then, Greenberg seemed to buy into the following analysis: few rabbis find there is much payoff in speaking the language of halachah and expectations in an age when Jews want community, music and dance, and celebration. There is also a fatigue with walking a centrist road when stark options seem more appealing. This certainly poses great challenges to Conservative Judaism itself, but also deprives the American Jewish community of a bridging movement.
Our success for decades was based in part on being that bridging movement, not Reform and not Orthodox, a middle way that felt “Jewish” and also responded to changing times. It seemed just about right. Today is different. The bridging movements/ media/ politicians are all struggling for bandwidth these days. A current analogy might be CNN trying to compete with MSNBC and Fox News. But surely it would be hard to say that the world would be better off without the center. Bridges like ours are important.
So, the first question for me is (and will be next week), if Conservative institutions including synagogues like Beth El and USY and our Ramah Camps are doing so well, does it really matter if the Conservative movement of which we are a longtime and proud partner seems to be floundering? And the next question will be whether the Hebrew Academy’s allowing mixed singing (washingtonjewishweek.com/at-the-end-of-the-day-applause/) teaches us anything about the validity and viability of the path we have chosen.
Ponder all that, and have a great Wednesday, the seventh day of Chanukah and first day of the new month Tevet. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Come Saturday night for “Havdalah in Rhythm,” our first kumsitz in about ten years; see the listserv for more information about this communal sing-a-long. After you finish singing, or not, please sign up to host one or two families/couples/individuals for one Shabbat dinner in February as part of our Lighten Up annual hospitality program; contact email@example.com to volunteer.
November 27, 2013
Nothing here about Thanksgivukkah, or Chanugiving or even Thanksalatke, I promise. I wrote about it in the Scroll, talked about it last evening at our annual interfaith service with BUMC. I confess to being tired of it.
Last week I directed your attention to the summary results of our 2013 High Holiday survey, posted (still) on our website, and I promised to talk about them today. The services and the results are worth discussion, as nothing we do affects more of you. The Board has studied the findings, and our Worship Committee under the leadership of Rebecca Gross will be doing a careful dissection in the very near future.
There was plenty of good news. To start with, over 350 of you took the time to respond. 93% felt positive overall about the services they attended. Can I stop now? Major positive feedback focused on the Hazzanim, the congregational singing, the Family and Kol Haneshama services, Kol Nidre cello music, a cappella and duet music, the new Machzor, and Torah/Haftarah chanting especially by the teens. Most common dislikes were the poor acoustics and bad mikes, cold temperatures, the length of the services, and crowding in some of the kid services.
Other results: 80% felt that the services had “about the right mix” of Hebrew and English, but one in eight members struggled with the amount of Hebrew. 86% felt part of a community worshipping together. There is interest in more explanations of the service, more rotation of honors, and encouragement of greeting in the pews.
What are my takeaways from all of this? It is encouraging that overall the responses were quite positive and the dislikes and requests lists not too lengthy. Musical aspects of the services are highly regarded, which is important since I see music as the key to the soul. Feedback was most positive for the two newest services, Kol Haneshama and the Family Service; I believe it’s not just their novelty or our wisdom in helping develop them but their good leadership and the more intimate setting (both have about 500 attendees whereas the two traditional services seat close to 1000). If we could find venues that size that have parking and are predictably available even on weekends, we would have to give them serious consideration. We will keep looking.
There are conflicting realities in some of the findings. Crowding in kid services can produce somewhat chaotic conditions and has been identified as a problem for some time, but we don’t have obvious alternatives and most synagogues would be happy to have this problem. The length of our two traditional services was the single most repeated dislike; at the same time there is a clear desire for more commentary as the service proceeds but that would make them even longer.
There are a number of pretty specific responses that have been shared with the appropriate parties. There was a good level of appreciation that we did the survey. While we are not planning on making it an annual event, we will definitely continue to take the temperature on a periodic basis.
Next week we start a new thread. Enjoy the double holiday but first have a nice Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Resources for Chanukah are now posted on the home page of our website, www.bethelmc.org. Included is Elisha Frumkin’s Jewish Family Living Guide to Celebrating Hanukkah at Home as well as articles about Hanukkah written by service leader/rabbinic student Evan Krame and by Adjunct Rabbi Mindy Portnoy.
November 20, 2013
Life goes on, except for the four Beth El families who buried a loved one in the last nine days. In between all of that sadness, I went back home to do a congregant family wedding on Saturday night, at the lovely new National Museum of American Jewish History. We stayed downtown, right across from Independence Hall, and davvened on Shabbat morning at the historic congregation Mikveh Israel.
Talk about historic. Established in 1740, Mikveh Israel is known as the “synagogue of the Revolution,” as it was home to Jews from New York down to Charleston and Savannah who sought refuge in Philadelphia from the British occupation. From then on, for over 200 years, its five different buildings on three different sites were home to communal and religious leaders of note. Included in the former were Haym Salomon (financier of the Revolution); Rebecca Gratz (the model for the heroine of Ivanhoe, founder of social service and educational institutions); Judge Mayer Sulzberger (founder of the YMHA, chair of the Publications Committee of the Jewish Publication Society) and Dr. Cyrus Adler (founder of the Jewish Welfare Board, editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia, President of Dropsie College, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary). Rabbis included Gershom Mendes Seixas, who fled from New York in 1780 and consolidated Mikveh Israel’s structure and Spanish-Portugese Sephardic tradition; Isaac Lesser who in his spare time wrote the first siddur printed in America and founded the Jewish Publication Society; and Sabato Morais, who in his spare time was co-founder of our Jewish Theological Seminary. From Mikveh Israel came famous institutions such as the first Hebrew Sunday School in America, Gratz College, Dropsie College and the JPS and JTS as noted, the American Jewish Committee, and now the Museum in which the wedding ceremony took place.
The worship customs are quite unique, beyond the melodies that mark Sephardic liturgy. The President (called the Parnas) wears a tux. Those getting aliyot wear special dress hats, from under which they get to have blessings made on a dozen or more family members for a mere $50-$100 contribution. The Torah service involves choreography that is striking in the meticulous way it is carried out, every movement exactly transacted. The carrier of the Torah takes small steps, one at a time, in a solemn procession to and from the Ark. I have never witnessed levels of reverence that I saw here.
With all those 270 years of history, and all that ritual and reverence, you have to have mazal too. For a long time now, few people actually live close to Independence Mall, but the congregation was not going to follow the masses to the suburbs. The worship crowd was small. There were few children around and not much weekday activity. In many ways, Mikveh Israel feels more like a museum of American Jewish synagogue life than a congregation with a vibrant future. I hope time proves me wrong. I do know that at Beth El we have barely 60 years under our belts, not as many luminaries, no Liberty Bell nearby, and no letters from George Washington or Ben Franklin or Abe Lincoln. What we do have are excellent human resources (=you), a good location, and momentum. I don’t know if it’s 210 more years worth of momentum, but I wouldn’t bet against it.
While we are thinking into the future, coming up immediately are two of my favorite events. The Latke Hamantash Debate, Sunday at 10AM, raises narishkeit to very high levels; don’t miss the academic procession or the clever debaters or the vote or the eating. The Thanksgiving service, celebrated now for decades with our friends across the street at Bethesda United Methodist Church, will be held over there this year, 7:30PM Tuesday. Great music and warm community and the service is only an hour (what can I say?). Join the throngs at either or both. For now, my best wishes for a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S Look on the homepage of our website, www.bethelmc.org, for a summary of the findings of our 2013 High Holiday survey. Thanks to the many hundreds of you who participated. Next week I plan to share my take a ways from the survey.
November 13, 2013
It’s Wednesday returns to its normal origins at my desk rather than the seat of my bike. I must confess that it’s hard to match those bike ride postings – they were so … experiential! Anyway, I will share some miscellaneous thoughts, but not before I note that we had quite the weekend at Beth El: the service to honor prayer leaders, the Gala, the Maccabeats – all excellent. Now we begin gearing up for Thanksgivukkah about which I for one am already tired of hearing.
It is hard to create much distance from the Pew Survey. It’s a full employment act for Jewish professionals – almost like the Miami Dolphins hazing incident is for sports writers - and seems to come up in every setting including even bike ride meals halfway across the globe. I actually worry less about the results themselves – the problems began when Judaism met up with modernity two hundred years ago - than that they may be demoralizing. Not only are we Jews out of synch with the rest of the world (that is nothing new) but people like you and me are out of synch with many (most?) in our own American Jewish community. Nobody likes to be that out of synch. I know we have much work to do to learn from the survey and stretch and adjust, but in the meantime we who see the value added that derives from Jewish tradition and Jewish community should not be wondering whether there is something wrong with us. We just know something they don’t.
It was hard to leave Israel. There is such vibrancy, so much good noise, so many amazing flashes of creativity. Birthright kids see it and are not the same again – they by the way offer one major piece of hope that the Pew survey would not quite pick up. Of course Israel has its internal problems. It’s a good thing we live in a perfect country ourselves so some of us (including too many of my colleagues) can focus on what is wrong with Israel. But for me the more worrisome reality is the neighborhood. The AP reported on October 18th that Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas captured an eagle with an Israeli transmission device on its back and claimed it was an Israeli spy. Of course the device was an ornithological tracking device used to monitor Bonelli eagles, of which there are just nine pairs of mating age remaining in Israel. Now there are eight. In recent times, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan and Turkey have made similar accusations against migrating birds. Recently, Egyptian officials arrested a stork they said was spying for Israel. You have to laugh, don’t you? Crying would be more to the point - crying about the cynical world in which we live, which I bet glops onto accusations like these and sees them as further proof of Israel’s militaristic tendencies and ultimate illegitimacy.
It is kind of ironic. As Brookings scholar Aaron David Miller told a bunch of rabbis a year or two back, Israel will survive but its neighbors will never make that easy. I believe that American Jewry, with great neighbors, will survive too, despite the serious roadblocks we place in our own way. Ironic.
Consider all this and have a great Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. The Israel Media Series continues Saturday night (7:30) with the first episodes of season one of Hatufim (Prisoners of War), the Israel TV series that generated Homeland. Join us for a perfect reflection of Israel – in the midst of major concerns about war on nearly every border there is such great cultural creativity.
November 7, 2013
Back on U.S. soil. There was no time to write and little new to say when the Wednesday deadline arrived. As it is, this column was written by your faithful servant above 30,000 feet and is being sent to you from the Delaware House, the first wifi on my way home from Newark.
I flew from Eilat to Tel Aviv on Tuesday to join with about 75 Washingtonians for a Jewish Federation pre - General Assembly mission, co-chaired by our own Janyse and Bernie Weisz and including a half dozen other Beth El members. The opening session featured M.K. Dov Lipman (more on him below) and Yitzhak Rabin's daughter Dalia who was an M.K. and now is Chairperson of the Yitzhak Rabin Center. Yesterday my "faces of Israel" group spent several hours in Gedera focusing on Ethiopian Jewry acculturation issues and successes, then a few hours in Holon, a working class city near Tel Aviv which was never a tour stop but has succeeded in remaking and rebranding itself in fascinating ways. While it is time for me to get back to work, the mission people stay on for more learning about Israel's realities and its needs. Then they head to Jerusalem for Shabbat and then the G.A., one of the most important events on the communal calendar for decades now.
Israel faces many serious challenges, but it always has. As Ben-Gurion famously said, "Anyone who doesn't believe in miracles is not a realist." Israel proves everyday the maxim," if you wish it, it need not remain a dream." Some of its actions may not sit right with me, but being there always inspires me. Dov Lipman told us a story that I won't forget. As an 11 year old living in Kemp Mill, he went downtown to demonstrate outside the Soviet Embassy, part of the Soviet Jewry vigil whose forty year anniversary we recently commemorated. While at the demonstration, somebody gave him a sign to hold up. It said, "Free Yuli Edelstein." Edelstein, you may recall, was one of the most prominent refuseniks whose imprisonment and struggle for freedom captivated a generation. Fast forward to nine years ago. Dov Lipman and his wife and kids are on a special El Al flight with a plane load of Americans who are making Aliyah. The pilot gives his usual informational talk as the plane is taxiing, but finishes with these words, "I am here to take you home!" Fast forward to last January, the Israeli elections. Lipman, a fairly recent immigrant and modern Orthodox rabbi living in our sister city Beit Shemesh, gets elected to the Knesset on the Yesh Atid ticket. He is the first American born rabbi ever elected! And, when he reports for the opening session, the Speaker of the Knesset is none other than Yuli Edelstein! How is that for the land of dreams?
We begin a new thread next week. Before that is our special Shabbat service honoring all those who help lead our minyanim; we also will call up for an aliyah Hazzan Klein and Rabbi Auster whose engagement has just been announced. Saturday night is our annual Gala; a few seats are still available for this our biggest fund and spirit raiser each year. And Sunday afternoon is the Maccabeats; their groupies have bought out all the seats we can fit in the building.
Before all that excitement, do have a good Thursday. Bill Rudolph
November 1, 2013
Shabbat Shalom from Mitzpeh Ramon, a Negev town perched on top of a giant erosion crater. All assurances to the contrary, there was no wifi at our Thursday evening youth center lodging, surely the only place in Israel without such a connection. So the Thursday column that I had 92 miles to prepare is now coming to you. My Happy Halloween message, very important, was also missed; not a big deal here but actually it was on the radar screen.
Thursday was the long ride. Apart from the middle 25 miles, it was a really great ride. We were hugging the border, first with Gaza and then with Egypt. From a small hill a few miles away, you can see the whole entirety of the Gaza Strip. Yet in that small space there are 1.7 million people, with Egypt keeping them out of the Sinai and Israel maintaining its gift of independence but closed borders for security reasons. It is quite a recipe for trouble, with no easy solution.
Thursday lunch was 66 miles from the start. We start early. The difficult 25 miles referenced above were just before lunch, almost totally uphill with lots of headwinds and we had already done 40 miles. For bikers, think anti Seagull Century. I was wasted and, given that the next 26 miles were to be marked by some elevation but even more wicked crosswinds, any attractive offer would have put me on the bus. I decided to give it a try, and for the first time in modern memory it was totally tailwinds on that stretch and the fastest ride of the day. Remember about stopping one turn short of the top the day before? I try to learn from my own lessons.
The ride is co-sponsored by Hazon, a growing institution based in NYC that aims to create healthier and more sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond. Among its programs are the largest CSA (community sponsored agriculture) program in the States, food conferences and festivals, bike rides in Israel and NY and Cal, the Jewish food education network, the shared space it has created for second-stage Jewish non- profits, and it's blog, the Jew and the Carrot (www.jcarrot.org) in partnership with the Forward. In practical terms, nobody is doing this important work with their vision (hazon) and scope. Much of the genius for all this is its remarkable CEO, Nigel Savage, who was our Scholar in Residence a few years back and continues to stimulate thinking among Jewish leadership in so many ways. He is on the ride, and I have some new ideas to being back to you from my dinner with Nigel.
The co-sponsor is the Arava Institute. We will visit there on Monday and I will report on its remarkable activities at that time, if there is wifi.
For now, we have done a 60 miler today with only a sandstorm and two ridiculous hills to mar the ride. We are settling in for Shabbat in Mitzpeh Ramon. Shabbat starts at 4:25 so I am rushing, but did want to send an update and wish you a Shabbat Shalom from Israel, not the only place in the world that you can keep Shabbat but the only place where it is part of the rhythm and rhyme of the Jewish experience going back to the patriarchs, whose footsteps we are always crossing.
Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph
October 29 - 30, 2013
Erev Tov from Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem
Anyone concerned about the Pew Survey of Jews in the United States need only have dropped in at Beth El on Sunday for Mitzvah Day. There was an extraordinary amount of good Jewish tikkun olam/social action, with participants from across the demographics of our community. At the shul alone, between the electronics being carted in to the big bags of clothing to the seventh graders working on their raking movements, it was actually kind of dangerous to be standing in the atrium. A nice kind of dangerous. Kudos to co-chairs Sheryl Miller and Jonathan Polon, and their several dozen activity captains, for a job well done and for creating a beautiful picture of people doing the right thing (which is what the word tzedakah means.)
I am in Israel for my second Arava Institute - Hazon Israel Ride and for a piece of our Federation's pre General Assembly mission. Wednesday we ride from Jerusalem to Ashkelon, either 29 or 55 or 63 miles depending on factors that were not as relevant when I did the ride six years ago. Factors like many of my body parts hurt and I haven't started riding. Anyway, we embark at 6:45AM, when you are cozily tucked in for the night (DST is already ended here) and reach the coastal city in mid afternoon long after the usual 7:30AM appearance of It's Wednesday. I didn't want you to worry, so I am sending this out late Tuesday while I have a good wifi signal, and hope to write again sometime tomorrow with more about the ride and why it is so much more than just a ride.
Leilah Tov. Bill Rudolph
Shalom from Ashkelon.
We made it safely to the Mediterranean. It was a beautiful ride. I made the right choice of distance. The only problem was the hill coming out of Jerusalem. I thought I would become one of those tank carcasses on the roadside from the War of Independence. After a few miles of climbing, I had to stop to catch my breath. ( Note that most of my group had stopped long before but I hate stopping.) I was a sorry sight, draped over the handlebars, gasping for air. I caught my breath and started up the hill again. Around the first turn, not even fifty yards from my stopping place, was the top of the hill and a long beautiful downhill. Sometimes in life we stop just a little too soon and miss out on more than beautiful downhills. I hope you haven't experienced that.
On the positive side, Israeli truck and car drivers were surprisingly kind to us as we frequently encroached on their turf. What's with that?
Today might be called Philistine Day. Early on we went by the open field where the young king - to - be David took out his slingshot and killed the Philistine giant Goliath. We went through Gath and are spending the overnight in Ashkelon. Together they are two of the five Philistine cities - the others are Gaza Ekron and Ashdod - that were extant and flourishing when the motley crew of freed Israelite slaves entered the Promised Land. Very quickly our ancestors figured out that they would be wise to steer clear of the Philistines, who had mastered iron ( this was Iron Age I) and were able to produce weapons for which the Israelites had no answer. The Goliath story was scarcely repeated until eventually the Israelite monarchy led by David and Solomon was strong enough to conquer anyone in its path.
Gath is a sleepy little town. Ashkelon is quite an attractive city that is growing despite the occasional rocket from the most southerly of the five cities, Gaza. Israeli control of Gaza and its environs was given up for a variety of reasons some years back; it represents now one of the significant political and security problems that Israel ( and now Egypt) faces. But on a beautiful fall day, only an Air Force jet streaking towards Gaza and riders yelling "car back" break the spell of tranquility.
Tomorrow is the longest day of riding. Up to 93 miles and a lot of elevation. I hope to report in on the day's ride and some narrative about co- sponsor Hazon tomorrow evening. Best to,you for a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
October 23, 2013
More on the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews, released three weeks ago. Last week we looked at some of the chilling data about us: a general decline in belief and affiliation, a dramatic growth in our secular ranks where kids are rarely raised Jewish, and identification with the Conservative movement declining. Hopeful signs exist but seem mostly on the surface. People in my line of work still are talking about little else since, including a session sponsored by our Jewish Federation on Monday that drew over a hundred lay and professional leaders.
There is enough in this survey to occupy us for months, but as promised I want to comment on the one chart of all the charts that jumped out at me, the findings regarding Jewish identity. What does being Jewish mean in America today? Respondents were asked to choose from among 9 choices on what is essential to their sense of Jewishness. Here is the percentage of “Jews by religion” (the 78% of the sample) that indicated that a particular choice was essential. Secular Jews (the 22% who say they have no religion) had lower percentages on each of the choices, but the rank order was exactly the same, so there is something here. The 9 choices and the % that said each was an essential part of what being Jewish means to them are (formatting was good but will be lost):
Remembering the Holocaust 76%
Leading an ethical and moral life 73%
Working for justice/ equality 60%
Being intellectually curious 51%
Caring about Israel 49%
Having a good sense of humor 43%
Being part of a Jewish community 33%
Observing Jewish law 23%
Eating traditional Jewish foods 16%
Before my brilliant analysis, please stop and take a pencil and list which you consider essential. I would love to know how your list compares. Anyway, is this not fascinating? For me, it is emblematic of where we are as Jews in America and I can’t say that I like where we are. God Torah Israel – they used to be our mantra and they scarcely show up as choices. What does it mean that remembering the Holocaust is the most essential part? I certainly don’t want to offend survivors or Museum supporters, but I think they also would not want this to be the first choice. What is the takeaway from remembering the Holocaust that has any chance of building Jews who love being Jewish and want to make sure that their descendants do too? Leading a moral life and working for justice/equality are nice, but Gentiles do that too, and often better nowadays. Intellectual curiosity? More Nobel prizes, but what about Torah curiosity and the mitzvot that follow? In fifth place, finally, we get to something that I would call core and “sustainable” and uniquely Jewish– caring about Israel. But it is only slightly more essential than having a good sense of humor! Community and leading a Jewish way of life? Very important I would have thought and on the top of my list, second and third from last. I see little here that points to a better future than Pew found in our present, and I see a lot that explains why our Jewish story is not very compelling to more and more of our people.
As the community and your leadership absorb these survey findings, there will be more to say. In the meantime, we can blame ourselves for not being more effective teachers and cheerleaders and role models for what is great (and essential) about being Jewish, or we can blame America and western culture for the erosion of faith that we are seeing all around us, or we can blame both and that would be blame well placed.
The next two Wednesdays I hope to be on travel and writing from a remote location. The timing is such that the columns may not appear at their usual time. Don’t panic. Best regards and have a good day. Bill Rudolph
P.S. RSVP deadline for our annual Gala is Friday. The Gala is November 9th. It features “Forbidden Broadway,” which does to the world of theatre what Capital Steps does to politics, and it features hundreds of your Beth El friends joining together to enjoy the entertainment and support the cause. I hope to see you there.
October 16, 2013
I could write an It’s Wednesday every day this week and still not exhaust the important matters before us. That would include the rabbis who tortured husbands who wouldn’t give their wives a get, the death of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the energetic and refreshing Centennial Convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism just now concluded, the continuing partial government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis. But, promises are promises, so let me turn to the Pew study.
The Pew Research Center’s 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews was released two weeks ago. People in my line of work have talked about little else since. You can find it yourself at the Pew Forum website. The survey research was done with great care and expense, with advice from many famous Jewish demographers, so we have to take it seriously as chilling as it often is. A few highlights of the chill follow. The survey talks about a general decline in belief and affiliation among American Jews. We have talked about this decline in American society in general, but we Jews are few in number and we can’t just ignore the estimated 2.4 million people in America who are of “Jewish background,” meaning they are not Jewish anymore; there are only 5-6 million who do identify as Jewish. Among the latter, fully 22% (and 32% among Millennials) are “Jews of no religion” (also commonly called secular or cultural Jews) whereas in the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey only 7% were that; two-thirds of Jews of no religion are not raising their children Jewish or even partially Jewish. After WWII [when there was a middle ground], Conservative Judaism was the largest denomination; now 35% of U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, 18% with Conservative, 10% with Orthodox, and 30% are “just Jewish.” When you look at household composition, the average Orthodox household has 1.7 children compared with 0.3 children per household for Conservative Jews and 0.4 for Reform; that means we see aging populations outside the Orthodox world. Within all three denominations, there is switching but almost always in the direction of less-traditional Judaism: about 25% raised Orthodox are now Conservative or Reform, 30% of those raised Conservative have become Reform, and 28% of those raised Reform have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely. Very few move in the opposite direction. And so on.
Am I going to leave you with just this? Of course not. 94% of those interviewed are proud to be Jewish; even among the Jews of no religion the figure is 83%. Three quarters have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. The 30% whose denomination is “just Jewish” are not excited about organized religion but are looking for community and we think just haven’t yet found their home in the Jewish community. Seven in ten of us feel either very attached or somewhat attached to Israel, same as in 2000. And, since all “politics” are local, I look at Beth El’s 1100 family units and the more than 800 kids we have in BEPS, the Religious School and the Jewish day schools and – not even counting toddlers – our children per household rate is at least 0.73.
Next time we will comment on the fascinating survey findings re: Jewish identity. What does it mean to be Jewish? What is essential to our sense of Jewishness? In the meantime, don’t forget that Simon Rawidowicz wrote an essay decades ago called “Israel: The Ever-Dying People.” We Jews are constantly afraid of our extinction, always it seems for good reason, yet here we still are.
Have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. The Israel Media Series starts its fourth year this Saturday evening, 7:30PM. We will screen the film ”The Other Son.” Beginning in November, we will show Season One of Hatufim (Prisoners of War), the Israeli TV drama series that was sold to 20th Century Fox Television and adapted into the acclaimed series “Homeland.” I am proud of the IMS. Come see why.
October 9, 2013
Last Wednesday I plunged into the struggle over the Affordable Care Act that has brought about a partial government shutdown. I plunged deeper on Shabbat morning. I recommend Dan Balz’s excellent analysis of the political pickle we are in (“The Shrinking Middle Ground”) on the front page of the Sunday Post. Beth El is doing what we can to help during the furloughs – we are planning another lunch for Friday. The situation is always on my mind, meaning I like many of you alternate between anger and distress much of the time. The column needs to go forward, regardless.
Last week I promised a discussion (delayed by the shutdown), catalyzed by the debate about our response to the Syrian chemical weapons, about whether America is special. Some say that we are indeed a country founded on a vision of freedom, dignity and equality for all, our history driven by a desire to get closer and closer to that dream within our own society and for all humanity. America’s uniqueness is not borne of a sense of our being better than others. Rather, what makes us unique is precisely that we have the humility as a nation to realize that we must collectively answer to a higher cause and seek the welfare of all humanity, that we cannot turn inward selfishly and worry only about our own wellbeing. We cannot ignore the suffering of others.
I happen to think this is true. With all the problems we have, I do think we have a vision of a just world that leads us to intervene in world events more than almost any other country. While some say our interventions are ultimately about markets and money, I am not convinced. I think we have become the world’s policeman, and the main source of aid to victims of natural disasters, because we think that is our duty as citizens of the world.
What’s more, I think that Israel shares a similar “exceptionalism,” the result of an understanding that it has a sacred prophetic obligation to be a light unto the nations. That has led Israel to be among the first nations to respond to global disasters with teams of medical and search experts, and that has led Israel to set up field hospitals and provide medical care to so many injured Syrians carried from the border by soldiers of the IDF every day, despite the fact that Israel and Syria are still at war. How extraordinary is that? And while these interventions have a modest public relations value, I think the motivation is more the prophetic vision. So, I am doubly proud to be an American and a Jew, even with what is transpiring on the Hill.
Next time and beyond, as promised last week also, I take up the fascinating and worrisome Pew Research Center’s Survey of U.S. Jews that was released last week. You can find it yourself at www.pewforum.org. Just a few teasers for now: after decades of high assimilation and intermarriage rates there are now an estimated 400,000 children with at least one Jewish parent who are not being raised Jewish at all and another 300,000 who are being raised partly Jewish and partly another religion; after WWII when there was a middle ground Conservative Judaism was the largest denomination, now 35% of U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, 18% with Conservative, 10% Orthodox, and 27% are “just Jewish." 34% of respondents said that believing Jesus was the messiah is compatible with being Jewish. (That is especially shocking.) It’s not all bad news: 94% are proud to be Jewish (including 83% of those who are Jews of no religion) and the “just Jewish” people have strong Jewish identities that can be tapped. And there are Conservative shuls like ours and camps and youth groups that are flourishing. More to come on this.
This Shabbat is the Bar Mitzvah of Benjamin Harris. It is the first clergy Bar/Bat Mitzvah at Beth El since Marc Rudolph had his exactly 13 years ago, so it is a big deal and we all look forward to celebrating with Greg and Rebekah and Ben and Maayan and Shoshana. In the meantime, have a great Wednesday. Best, Bill Rudolph
P.S. Samuel Scolnic Institute classes began this week, Tuesday morning and now Wednesday evening. The great lineup of courses for tonight can be found on our website. You can register at the door. On Sunday at 10:30AM, our Age and Stage programming kicks off for the new year with the first of a number of sessions on parenting. Sharon Duke Estroff, educator and contributor of parenting articles to over 100 publications and mother of four, talks about digital parenting based in part on her book “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?”
October 2, 2013
With the holidays concluded, I was all ready to start a Syria related thread about America: that we are (or are not) a country founded on a vision of freedom, dignity and equality for all, our history driven by a desire to get closer and closer to that dream within our own society and for all humanity. America’s uniqueness is not borne of a sense of our being better than others. Rather, what makes us unique is precisely that we have the humility as a nation to realize that we must collectively answer to a higher cause and seek the welfare of all humanity, that we cannot turn inward selfishly and worry only about our own wellbeing. We cannot ignore the suffering of others.
Then came yesterday’s government shutdown, and I know I need to comment on that. In future weeks we will return to the postponed matter above as well as to the Pew study of American Jewry that came out yesterday and has many American Jews very nervous about our future.
Given what is going on 10 miles away on Capital Hill, we certainly cannot claim to be better than other nations. We are more a laughingstock than special. It is just about impossible to discuss this without being partisan, and I will fail on one count. The blame game for the standoff is in full motion, and there is a lot at stake. I will restrict my comments to the Affordable Care Act. (I would never btw call it Obamacare, which makes it about Obama and not about the tens of millions of people in our society who can’t access affordable medical care. We join with Turkey and Mexico as the only industrialized nations that do not guarantee access to health care.) It is not partisan to say that a large number of Republicans are using the budget bill as a means to roll back the ACA. They say it. They also say that we have a great/ the best health care system in the world and why would we tinker with it? This is where I lose my neutrality. We may have great doctors and medical professionals, but we don’t have anywhere near the best health care system in the world. The data are clear. Life expectancy: 27th out of the 34 industrialized OECD nations; highest or near-highest prevalence of infant mortality and heart and lung disease; 46th among 48 countries in a Bloomberg study of the most efficient health systems. At the same time, the WHO reports that we spend more on health per capita and as percentage of the GDP than any other nation. And remember about Turkey and Mexico. To want to preserve that “system” is beyond defense and, frankly, anyone who argues for that should be embarrassed.
So, I am more than perturbed. My only consolation is that, having watched Israelis do such a poor job of governing themselves and thinking maybe Jews are just not good at that, I now am comforted to know that Americans are not much better. More seriously, I think what we see on the Hill is just a symptom of our division into two countries, red and blue for short, and there is very little common ground. That is very distressing for both the long term and for the short term when it produces the havoc in the lives of countless good citizens that this shutdown is causing.
It is never good to end on a distressing note. So that you can feel constructive and that you are helping to shape a small piece of the future, read the P.S. one more time. And have a great Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
P.S. We have over 250 responses to our High Holiday survey. When we launched it, I bet Sid Groeneman a DQ Blizzard that we would get significantly more. Are you going to let me down? Please do the survey now, before 50 emails pile up on top of this one. Thanks. https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/highhholidayssurvey
September 25, 2013
There is an important announcement in the P.S., which is where anything of value in this column usually ends up anyway. See if you can control your desire to see what is there – delayed gratification they tell me is a sign of advanced maturity.
Sukkot is winding down. It began for me with true proof of the adage, shver tzu zein a Yid, that it is hard to be a Jew. It’s Wednesday late morning, erev Sukkot. I have already written to you and taught my Parshah class. I have no schach for the roof of my sukkah and the clock is ticking. Schach has to be organic, like the bamboo I usually use. But bamboo is so messy and shrivels up to non kosher status (=doesn’t cover half the roof) within seconds of being put up. Since I am cutting back on high fructose corn syrup, the Men’s Club corn stalk deal didn’t resonate either. So the stand of Leyland Cypress that the previous owner put up to shield our house from the next door neighbor’s comes into view. It is fifty feet tall and growing out of control and needs a good trim. The very neighbor offers to help. Because it requires ladders and chopping up big limbs, it’s a two-man job. We start around noon. I have an hour available for this, after which I have hours of shul work that cannot wait and I will just barely be ready for 6:30 minyan to welcome the Chag. The neighbor decides this is a chain saw job. Hasn’t used his in a while. Half-hour later it is working. Within minutes we have cut down more than enough for my schach needs. But the neighbor thinks the stand of trees looks ragged and would benefit from a little trimming here and there. To make a long story short, after three hours we are done, with the Cypress looking good and enough schach for fifteen sukkahs laid out, but the rest of my day’s work is still awaiting me. It was only with the grace of G-d (Jews don’t usually talk about “grace” but it was that) that the work gets done and I get cleaned up and to shul by 6:30. But I have yet to recover from the stress and it’s six days later.
Sukkot ends with three special days. Today is Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot where we make extra hoshanot (circumambulation prayers) in the chapel with our lulavim, after which we will beat our willows into the ground, symbolically removing (hopefully) the last vestiges of the regrets and shortcomings that we have been working to shed all these days since Rosh Hashanah. We say that Yom Kippur is the last repentance opportunity, but actually we have till today. Tonight is Shemini Atzeret, a mysterious full holiday that either concludes Sukkot or is a separate holiday of its own, take your pick. It is best known as the beginning date for six months of prayers for rain and for the Yizkor memorial service that is included in the morning service (at the 7:00AM or 9:30AM service). Then tomorrow night is Simchat Torah with lots of Torah dancing and candy bars and schnapps. Friday morning is more of the same and aliyot for everyone and our honoring Marci Kanstoroom and Craig Futterman for service to the congregation. And then, because we shouldn’t have too much of a good thing, there are no holidays till Chanukah. The spacing remains problemmatical.
Moadim L’Simchah, a happy Sukkot to you. Next week we begin a new thread. Bill Rudolph
P.S. This year we have decided to democratize our debriefing on High Holiday services. Sid Groeneman, a survey and market research consultant who is a Beth El member, helped us design a survey monkey to get your feedback. Please help us know what is working and what needs to work better. And please do so before you have forgotten totally about the services, let us say by October 1. I took the survey and it was 5 minutes. If you want to write some comments, it will be longer. If something is not covered, write to me at the address below. Thanks in advance for doing the survey. https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/highhholidayssurvey
September 18, 2013
Maybe we are getting used to it, sad to say. Or maybe if it’s not kids it doesn’t hit us as hard. They tell me that Jon Stewart said nothing about it. President Obama, standing but a few miles away, gave it a few minutes then launched into his scheduled press conference on the economy. The media, on the other hand, covered almost nothing else all day. Such was our Monday, the day of the Navy Yard shooting. Another sad day, in the tradition of Columbine and Virginia Tech and Aurora and Sandy Hook and on. Isn’t it agonizing to see these horrors and to know that the next one is just waiting to happen? Men with a history of psychological problems with easy access to deadly weapons is our unfortunate reality that just about guarantees it. Events like this do put in perspective the little things that we let bother us, and do make us appreciate our loved ones more than usual. Jewish tradition doesn’t have too much to say about going off to work (or school or the movies) and not coming home alive, other than teaching us to make our days count and giving us a mandate to be God’s partner in making the world a safer and better place.
Yom Kippur, which actually has some aspects of an encounter with death, is in the rear view mirror, and Sukkot – one of my favorite holidays – comes along at a good time for us. Thursday and Friday are holidays, as are next Thursday and Friday, with sukkah dwelling and semi-holidays mixed in. Do we know how to pack a lot of holidays into one little period of time or what?
The first day of Sukkot features our annual Hiddur Mitzvah Judging Contest – seeing who best dresses and protects their lulav and etrog. There should be little doubt I will run off with the lulav holder trophy this year with my brand new entry, being held in secrecy till the morning; my only concern is that the judge who was most favorable to my entries has retired. Anyway, we have a lot of fun, the competitive juices flowing in an unusually civil way given that it’s Bethesda. Friday is our eighth annual Deli Lunch, preceded by my special sermon on some aspect of the ancient tradition of corned beef and rye. This year we will add to the regular fare a bit of deli from KOL Foods, whose meats come from pasture-raised, humanely treated, sustainable, kosher-slaughtered animals. There will be vegan smoked and peppered Tofurkey slices for the veggies also. And ice cream sundaes for dessert. Only kidding on the dessert.
Sukkot actually revved up on Sunday when sukkah building began in earnest, both in the shul’s back yard and in many of yours, and in about 30 homes where sukkot were put up and decorated by Religious School classes as part of our Build the Joy program. I got to three of those this year. They were so cool that my post Yom Kippur exhaustion didn’t hit till the afternoon, or maybe it was the Redskins that brought about my long nap. Anyway, Sunday was a beautiful day to be outside, and watching the kids building and making decorations and using so many of their senses, and seeing the parental figures schmoosing and taking it all in, reinforced what I always talk about, that Jewish education needs a good dose of the experiential and fun and family involvement. Yasher koach to Rabbi Mark Levine and Tali Moscowitz for arranging all this and thanks to the host families.
It has been a privilege to embark with you on another new year. I hope you have a good one, and a good Wednesday. Chag Sukkot Sameach, a happy Sukkot to you.
September 11, 2013
Who will forget what we were doing when the horror that came to be called 9/11 was unfolding on our TV screens twelve years ago today? Who would argue that our view of the world wasn’t changed by that day’s events? You just have to drive by the NIH, or the White House, or check in for a flight to see. Syria is a different kind of disaster; if it weren’t for wanting the President’s word to mean something, it would be a little hard to rationalize bombing empty buildings to make a point when 100,000 were killed before the poison gas and we did next to nothing.
Last time we talked about the passage of time, the big anniversaries (Battle of Gettysburg, March on Washington, Kennedy Assassination) and how Rosh Hashanah helps us mark time and think about how to use time more wisely. This Wednesday let me share my final helping of High Holiday material that won’t make it to prime time.
The story is of a man who comes to a Brooklyn shoe store in 1949. He presents a wrinkled, tattered shoe repair ticket. He says, "Mister, you're not going to believe this, but I brought shoes to you in 1942 before I enlisted in the war. I forgot about them. I enlisted, I served, I got out. Thank God we won the war. Later I moved to Baltimore, married, had a family. Last week my wife is cleaning out my old suits and finds this shoe repair ticket. It jogged my memory. I was going to be here in New York on business today, and I thought I'd give it a shot because they were my favorite pair of shoes." The shoe repairman looks at him incredulously and says, "Unbelievable; how do you expect me to have shoes after seven years?" "Would you please go look? It's very important to me." "Okay, what did you want done?" "I wanted the soles repaired." "You wanted soles repaired. Okay, let me go look." He goes into the back, comes out 20 minutes later and says, "Mister, you won't believe it, we have your shoes." "You have my shoes after 7 years? I can't believe it. I'm so grateful. Well, can I have them?" The shoe repairman says, "Come back Tuesday, they'll be ready then."
We think we have all the time in the world to repair our souls – get the pun? – and yet, even though we have had all this time, we delay doing it. Yom Kippur, which touches many senses through its crush of people and powerful prayers and the humbling fast, beckons our return to being the best persons we can be. It is our ticket to a year to be proud of. Please don’t wait to start on the repairs.
Best wishes for a good Wednesday, a good new year and that by Saturday night when we belt out that final Avinu Malkeinu you will have completed a chatimah tovah (a good sealing in the Book of Life.) Bill Rudolph
P.S. Check your tickets for service times and locations. Bring non-perishables for the Manna Food Center collection at Kol Nidre – in affluent Montgomery County, Manna needs to distribute approximately 16,000 pounds of food every single day of operation. Don’t miss the Seminar; if you didn't get the text yesterday, let me know. And don’t forget your assignment: make a list of things you did in the last year that you wish you hadn't done. And then make a list of things you did in the last year that made you proud of the kind of person you are. Bring it with you to services. It will remind you of the capacity we all have for doing evil and for doing good and will help us make the first steps in repairing our souls.
September 4, 2013
Now for a final helping of pre High Holiday material that won’t show up in prime time. First it was the CEO and the boiled seeds and the truth, last week it was the hunters and the two buffalo on the tiny plane and how we keep doing the same things. This Wednesday I want to talk about the calendar, as some of my colleagues will, because...
This is the earliest that Rosh Hashanah has fallen since 1899. And wait till Thanksgiving, when we light the first Chanukah candle the Wednesday night before. Never have those days coincided and they will never again. You will be inundated with great revelations on that topic, but not from me I promise, because I am already saturated with emails about it.
For now, I think Rosh Hashanah (early or late) does help us mark time in two important ways. One, it helps us to be more contemplative of the passing of time. On the world scene, look at the anniversaries that we mark this year: the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the ADL (in response to the last official lynching to take place in Georgia, that of Leo Frank), the 100th anniversary of Franz Rosenzweig's Kol Nidre epiphany (he walked into church that night, ready to convert to Christianity, but the effect was opposite and he went on to become one of the great Jewish thinkers of all time), the 100th birthday of Menachem Begin, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, and the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. These events and milestones carry much significance and are worthy of contemplation.
And what about the passing of time in our own personal lives? Think about the past year. What would be the moments that you would want to redo? What moments were so special that you would want to freeze them in time if you could? Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to replay those moments and learn what we can from them or just enjoy them again.
And the other calendar related focus? The holiday also gives us the opportunity to think about how we might use our time more wisely. Most of us are have calendars that are over full, working parents especially. But many of us can blame ourselves for some of the overload – it is often of our own doing and we could carve out at least a little more free time if we wanted to. Less TV. Less web surfing. More reading or study. More community building. More family time. More of whatever we know we are lacking in the lives we are living. Rosh Hashanah, like January 1, is a time to think about changing how we live our lives. Unlike January 1, Rosh Hashanah gives us real and undistracted time – in sacred community not on the sofa watching parades and football games – to think about adjustments. Let us use the time wisely.
Rosh Hashanah does come early. Tonight. May it be the start of a good and sweet new year for you and yours, a year in which we all benefit from the wisdom of the Psalmist who said, “Teach us, O Lord, to number our days.” Best, Bill Rudolph
P.S. Check your tickets for service times and locations. And don’t forget your assignment: make a list of things you did in the last year that you wish you hadn't done. And then make a list of things you did in the last year that made you proud of the kind of person you are. Share your list with loved ones if you wish, but surely bring it with you to services. Think about it periodically but not during the sermons. It will remind you of the capacity we all have for doing evil and for doing good.
August 28, 2013
Now for more pre High Holiday material that won’t show up in prime time. Last week it was the CEO and the boiled seeds. Most of you liked that except for B who thought the boss was a psychopath. The more common understanding: truth has to be a core value for any business and for any person.
A group of hunters chartered a plane to fly them to a clearing in the thick jungle. Following their instructions, the pilot returned two weeks later to retrieve them. He looked at the animals they had killed and said:
“This plane can only carry the weight of one buffalo. You will have to leave one behind.”
“But last year the pilot let us take two in a plane exactly this size,” they protested.
Under duress the pilot relented and said:
“If you did it last year, I guess we can do it again this year.”
The plane took off with the hunters and the two buffalo, but the small plane was unable to gain altitude and crashed into a low-lying hill. Miraculously, the men were safe. When they climbed out to survey the situation, one hunter asked:
“Where do you think we are?”
The other looked around and said:
“I think we’re about two miles to the left of where we crashed last year.”
The message: we keep doing the same things. Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The beauty of the High Holidays is that, if we allow it, we get to stop time and think seriously about the things we do and resolve to try a different path. The rest of the year we are too busy or preoccupied for that important work and we keep crashing.
Now your assignment for the coming days. We will spend so much time on our sins – we say the Al Chet and Ashamnu close to 20 times on Yom Kippur alone - and not enough on the good we do. Your assignment is to make a list of things you did in the last year that you wish you hadn't done. And then, the chiddush (the new thing): make a list of things you did in the last year that made you proud of the kind of person you are – things you did or said, acts of respect, telling the truth, keeping gossip to yourself, sticking to your principles, doing tzedakah. Share your list with loved ones if you wish, but surely bring it with you to services. Think about it periodically but not during the sermons. It will remind you of the capacity you have for doing evil and for doing good.
Best wishes for a good Wednesday. And speaking of wishes, it’s time for the traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting: L’shanah tovah tikatevu. May you be inscribed for a good year.
P.S. To get further into the holiday spirit, join our Selichot programs/services at Beth El and Ohr Kodesh on Saturday night, and check out the Hazzan’s melodies on the sound cloud: https://soundcloud.com/beth-el-melodies/sets/new-high-holiday-melodies
August 21, 2013
Two weeks from tonight it’s Rosh Hashanah. As has been the custom of late, I share with you in the weeks leading up to the big day(s) some of the material that I come across in my preparations that doesn’t make it to the big time but is important or provocative enough that I want to share it with you. Last week’s discussion of working vacations and summer camp evoked many great responses, but with several funerals and so much else going on, I haven’t even had a chance to acknowledge the contributions let alone organize them into a coherent column.
A colleague shared this story, called “The Seed,” about how we should live our lives, which is kind of what the High Holidays are about. Here it is, in abridged form; even so the column will be longer than the usual for which I apologize in advance.
A successful businessman was growing old and knew it was time to choose a successor to take over the business. Instead of choosing one of his Directors or his children, he decided to do something different. He called all the young executives in his company together. He said, "It is time for me to step down and choose the next CEO. I have decided to choose one of you. I am going to give each one of you a seed today - one very special seed. I want you to plant the seed, water it, and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from the seed I have given you. I will then judge the plants that you bring, and the one I choose will be the next CEO."
One man, named Jim, was among those who were there that day and he, like the others, received a seed. He went home and excitedly told his wife the story. She helped him get a pot, soil and compost and he planted the seed. Everyday, he would water it and watch to see if it had grown. After about three weeks, some of the other executives began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow. Jim kept checking his seed, but nothing ever grew. More weeks went by, still nothing. Others were talking about their plants, but Jim didn't have a plant and he felt like a failure. He just knew he had killed his seed. Everyone else had trees and tall plants, but he had nothing. Jim didn't say anything to his colleagues, however... He just kept watering and fertilizing the soil - he so wanted the seed to grow.
The year finally went by and all the young executives of the company brought their plants to the CEO for inspection. Jim told his wife that he wasn't going to take an empty pot. But she asked him to be honest about what happened. Jim felt sick to his stomach. It was going to be the most embarrassing moment of his life, but he knew his wife was right. He took his empty pot to the boardroom. When Jim arrived, he was amazed at the variety of plants grown by the other executives. They were beautiful - in all shapes and sizes. Jim put his empty pot on the floor and many of his colleagues laughed, a few felt sorry for him! When the CEO arrived, he surveyed the room and greeted his young executives.
Jim just tried to hide in the back. "My, what great plants, trees, and flowers you have grown," said the CEO. "Today one of you will be appointed the next CEO!" All of a sudden, the CEO spotted Jim at the back of the room with his empty pot. He called him to the front. Jim was terrified. He thought, "The CEO knows I'm a failure! Maybe he will have me fired!" When Jim got to the front, the CEO asked him what had happened to his seed. Jim told him the story. The CEO asked everyone to sit down except Jim. He looked at Jim, and then announced to the young executives, "Behold your next Chief Executive Officer! His name is Jim!" Jim couldn't believe it. “Jim couldn't even grow his seed. How could he be the new CEO?" the others said.
Then the CEO said, "One year ago today, I gave everyone in this room a seed. I told you to take the seed, plant it, water it, and bring it back to me today. But I gave you all boiled seeds; they were dead - it was not possible for them to grow. All of you, except Jim, have brought me trees and plants and flowers. When you found that the seed would not grow, you substituted another seed for the one I gave you. Jim was the only one with the courage and honesty to bring me a pot with my seed in it. Therefore, he is the one who will be the new Chief Executive Officer!" End of story.
The rabbi who shared this went on to these nice, high holiday type, conclusions: If you plant honesty, you will reap trust. If you plant goodness, you will reap friends. If you plant perseverance, you will reap contentment. And so forth. I really liked the story and the conclusions he made about it. Until I began to think on it more. Were the other execs really unfit for leadership? Nobody loves the truth more than I, but was what they did really dishonest? What would I have done in this situation? Sometimes life gives us lemons. Is it wrong to try to make lemonade out of them by adding some sugar and ice and other ingredients? Isn’t resourcefulness a virtue? Is following the instructions always the best course of action, even if it leads us on a path to nowhere? In High Holiday Torah terms, when God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac and he goes ahead and is ready to do it, did he pass the test or did he fail it? I am not sure what to think about Abraham, or the CEO test.
Ponder this. Talk to your friends. Write what you think. Better, write to each other. I can’t promise a response anytime soon. It’s the High Holiday season.
August 14, 2013
Let me share a concern and a question while it is still summer vacation time. Next week we get to more serious matters, for which I am ramping up slowly.
The concern: there is increasingly no such thing as a vacation. You may have seen the new Harris Interactive survey that found that 61 percent of Americans plan to work during their vacations this year. That is up from 52% last year and 46% the year before, and Generation Y’ers are at 73%, so it’s a fast rising boat. And the saddest part for me is that only one third of those who plan to work while on vacation is not pleased about it, meaning the other two thirds don’t seem to mind.
Why so? The conjectures are 1) that the job market is still shaky enough that people feel edgy about completely uncoupling from the office, and 2) people are staying plugged in because they are afraid of being overwhelmed when they return to work.
Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, thinks it’s the latter. “It’s less the bad people making us do it. It’s more ourselves and worrying about what will happen when we don’t.” And, she says, while staying plugged in may ease our first day back, people need downtime and a chance to really recharge and to see things we don’t see until we really step back from work.
I for one struggle with this reality. I no longer let the emails accumulate until I am back working. I read them at least once a day on vacation, sometimes several times a day, and it’s not necessarily relaxing. I just don’t want to face the hundreds I will face if I wait even a week, which would make coming back to work too traumatic. I will try to do better next year but I am not sure how.
Now to my question, which is also about percentages: why do Jewish kids seem to go to summer camp in so much higher a proportion than other kids? I don’t have any scientific data to prove that this is so, but I am certain it is. And when mentioning this to people recently, I heard from congregant L, who is now the first researcher on the It’s Wednesday payroll. She went to two local country clubs on a warm weekend in July. At the Jewish one (starts with a W) the pool was empty, maybe 9 people including a few kids. At the club that wouldn’t be called Jewish (starts with a C) the pool area was teeming with people, including tons of kids. How’s that for survey research? Kidding aside, I think the differential is real but I cannot figure why. It’s not like Jews like camping. Some have suggested that Jewish parents are more anxious to get rid of their kids for the summer, but I dismiss that out of hand. I do think there is something behind this, not sure what.
So, now is the time for your reasoned theories about this phenomenon. Please make them brief and send to my email address below. In the meantime, have a great Wednesday and, if on vacation, give that smartphone a rest.
August 7, 2013
Like clockwork, this column reappears once again on the first Wednesday of August, to continue more or less uninterrupted till next summer. Except this year, in which you got the bonus edition about Jefferson. I have received the requisite corrections about his greatness – he didn't mind slavery very much, his policies led to the War of 1812, he died in debt – so we need to curb our enthusiasm.
The first column always causes me angst. Not a good column, I say to myself, and nobody will read the rest of them. That paralyzes me. So I beg your indulgence while I get warmed up for greater things by sharing some of my summer reading.
For many of us the main drama of the summer – besides trying to figure out why the same Nats team that was the best in baseball last year can be so ordinary this year - has been the fate of Edward Snowden who blew the whistle on N.S.A. surveillance and was holed up in the Moscow airport seeking asylum. Would he, like Tom Hanks in “The Terminal, “ ever get out of the airport? He did, and now the focus is on what he revealed. Most of the surveillance that Snowden revealed comes out of a project called Prism, begun in 2007 to help prevent terrorist attacks, tapping into the servers of the nine leading U.S. internet companies, and making many of us and many in Congress nervous and/or upset. Imagine that your email to me about legumes on Passover was being recorded and joked about around the lunchtable at N.S.A. And of course more serious invasions of our privacy are contemplated.
One of the best pieces I saw about this was in the June 24 New Yorker, a piece called “The Prism” by Jill Lepore, a Harvard prof and staff writer at the magazine. It is subtitled “Privacy in an Age of Publicity,” and talks about the relationship between those two values. Late in the 19th century, two Boston lawyers, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, published an article in the Harvard Law Review called “The Right to Privacy,” arguing for the legal right to be left alone. That right had never been defined before. (The essay lies at the heart of every legal decision that has been made about privacy ever since.) While sitting on the Supreme Court ca. 1928, Brandeis expressed the view (minority opinion in Olmstead v. United States) that wiretapping constituted a violation of one’s right to be let alone, and predicted that there would be far more pervasive means of espionage against our citizenry with the progress of science. Going forward in the 20th century, conversely, we experienced the golden age of public relations, where publicity – the attention of the press - came to be something that many citizens sought out and even paid for. These two realities provide the background that helps us understand where we now stand, which is face to face with what Lepore characterizes as the paradox of “an American culture obsessed, at once, with being seen and being hidden, a world in which the only thing more cherished than privacy is publicity. In this world, we chronicle our lives on Facebook while demanding the latest and best form of privacy protection so that no one can violate the selves we have so entirely contrived to expose.”
Fascinating take isn’t it? Lots of people protecting their privacy, Congress investigating how it has been lost, while we at the same time are watching ourselves, and one another, refracted, endlessly, through a prism [eg. Facebook] of our own design. What is it exactly that we want?
Ponder that and have a good Wednesday. Today is the first day of Elul. One month from now is the first day of Tishri, otherwise known as Rosh Hashanah. Use the month to do what you can to make judgment day a good one.
P.S. This Shabbat morning, in the main service, Rabbi Mindy Portnoy will give the sermon, on Elul of all things. Rabbi Portnoy joins Rabbi David Abramson as our Adjunct Rabbis, very part-time positions that enhance our pulpit and teaching capacities. We are fortunate to be able to call upon them to help meet the needs of our growing congregation.
July 31, 2013
Though it is not the first Wednesday of August when It’s Wednesday makes its customary grand return, I am more or less back at work and thought that something simple to execute – but of course meaningful – might provide a little food for thought on this last day of July which is also the last day of my vacation. It’s been a good vacation for me, shorter than usual and closer to home than usual, but still good.
The last piece of our travels was five days in faraway Charlottesville. Gail and I spent some time at Monticello and came away as greater Jefferson groupies than we thought possible. What an amazing man! Besides being President and drafting the Declaration of Independence and founding a great University, Monticello reveals that he possessed a breadth of knowledge and skills that is pretty unique – architect, student of Greek and Roman culture, meteorologist, botanist and gardener, and more. He was also a keeper of more lists than even I. Whenever someone looks out at a crowd of very wise and learned people, as I do often from the Beth El bimah, s/he could well quote the adage that before him/her is the greatest collection of intellects since Jefferson had breakfast by himself. I think the adage is not far from the truth.
Jefferson said wise things too – his sayings fill many books. One grouping of twelve will be my bonus edition It’s Wednesday (and it’s almost Elul) food for thought for you. It has been called “canons of conduct in life” and is taken from a letter he sent in 1811 to his granddaughter Cornelia Jefferson Randolph. Numbers 5 and 11 are missing from the grouping of ten that he shared in a different letter. My favorites? Numbers 6, 9, 11 and 12.
Join me in hoping that the peace talks will go somewhere, and have a good day. Bill Rudolph
1. Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today.
2. Never trouble another with what you can do yourself.
3. Never spend your money before you have it.
4. Never buy a thing you do not want because it is cheap.
5. Take care of your cents: dollars will take care of themselves.
6. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst and cold.
7. We never repent of having eaten too little.
8. Nothing is troublesome that one does willingly.
9. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened.
10. Take things always by their smooth handle.
11. Think as you please, and so let others, and you will have no disputes.
12. When angry, count 10 before you speak; if very angry, 100.