Open Letter to “The Voice of Formerly Affiliated Seniors”

30 Jul

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Yesterday, I received in the mail an interesting letter. The envelope was hand-addressed to me and marked personal; curiously, however, there was no return address. I opened the letter and immediately scanned to see who wrote it. It was merely signed “The Voice of Formerly Affiliated Seniors.” The letter was cc’d to Temple Torat Emet (my synagogue in Boynton Beach) Temple Anshei Shalom (Delray Beach), Temple Beth Kodesh (Boynton Beach), Temple Sinai (Delray Beach), Temple Beth Tikvah (Greenacres) and Temple Shaarei Shalom (Boynton Beach). These are all Conservative and Reform congregations in the south-central portion of Palm Beach County.

As Rabbi of one of the congregations to whom the letter addresses, I wish to acknowledge the pain and frustration expressed by the author and believe the author raises important points that should concern all synagogues in our area and beyond. It troubles me that the author did not feel safe personally approaching any of the rabbis of the congregations to whom the letter is addressed. In this light, I’m sharing this letter publicly, not to embarrass the author but to give a public voice to the genuine concerns expressed. I will then respond to the individual concerns and offer a helping hand.

July 27, 2015

Dear Rabbi:

From time to time, articles appear in the Jewish newspapers about the low rate of affiliation among Jews in Palm Beach County. The rate is well under twenty per cent.

Some of the reasons given are “retired people already joined up North and do not wish to do so again,” “other Jewish organizations and activities suffice”, etc. Sometimes efforts are made to remedy this, such as recent programs to welcome LGBT Jews, which is as it should be. However, I believe that many more of the unaffiliated Jews would be members, or at least attend services from time to time, and donate some revenue, IF THEY FELT WANTED.

As a 20 year resident of Palm Beach County who was always and is no longer affiliated, here is what I see:

  1. When a member drops out of a temple, nobody calls to ask why. It would be nice if somebody noticed the sudden absence and called to see what happened. Membership retention activities do not seem to exist. Maybe the person is ill, has financial problems, or other reasons for not attending. Long time members do not suddenly abandon their Jewishness. Nobody inquires. Yet sometimes arrangements can be made.
  1. Many seniors are visually impaired and cannot read the prayer books. There are large print prayer books and they can be obtained FREE OF CHARGE. Most temples do not have any and refuse to stock them. Sitting through a two or three hour service with no text to follow is not pleasant so such members drop out.
  2. Transportation to and from services is a major problem for many seniors. Many do not drive at night or do not drive at all. Two things could be done about this. Every temple could have a volunteer group to drive people to services — occasionally, not every week. Volunteers could be recruited from each community and lists of potential drivers made available to anyone needing a ride to services. Also, just as the JCC has a minivan available to take folks to their activities, temples could do this on a low-cost-fee basis.
  1. Regarding adult education courses, it would be nice if some of them could be offered in the afternoon rather than the evening. Also, let us enroll in just the course or courses we wish to attend — not an entire list of courses that are too expensive when all we want is one!

In Palm Beach County, we are largely an aging population which has caused temples to close or merge, leaving many former members without accessible temples. For the first time in their lives, they have no way to get there. Doesn’t anyone care? If not we will see continued erosion of affiliation — and financial support. If only 30 people come to a temple occasionally and donate $100 each in a year, the temple gains $3000 in revenue. And, if more become members, the revenues will result in the needed funds to continue running the temples.

Overheard in a recent conversation among active temple people is the following: “If they are not active, who needs them?” Hardly a Jewish attitude, I think.

I believe the elderly Jews in Palm beach County deserve attention. Many of us want to come but, with present conditions, we are completely disenfranchised. We are the ones who built and sustained these temples with our work and our money. We are the former founders, officers and committee members who built and sustained these temples. We want and deserve better.

Rabbis should use their community leadership positions to make temples more welcoming to everyone, not just the young and the wealthy. Many elderly Jews become poor due to the expenses of ill health and loss of spousal income. We still love Judaism and wish to participate but it becomes impossible for many. We are “Jewishly homeless.” With your help, this could change!

Sincerely,

The Voice of Formerly Affiliated Seniors

 

CC: Temple Torat Emeth

Temple Anshei Shalom

Temple Beth Kodesh

Temple Sinai

Temple Beth Tikvah

Temple Shaarei Shalom

 

 

Rabbi Edward Bernstein responds:

To Whom It May Concern:

Thank you for your letter. I very much appreciate that you took the time to express your concerns. Our Torah teaches Mipnei seivah takum, v’hadarat p’nei zaken, “You shall rise before the elderly and honor the presence of the aged” (Leviticus 19:32). The value expressed in this verse is a cornerstone of Jewish tradition.

 

It pains me that even one Jew in our community feels underserved by our area synagogues, which, I believe, are the bedrock for Jewish life in the broader community.  It also troubles me that you felt the need to remain anonymous. I don’t know how many people for whom “The Voice of Formerly Affiliated Seniors” speaks; however, whether it’s one person, 30 people or 1,000, you are welcome in my shul.  I honor the wealth of experience that you have earned through years of Jewish communal involvement both prior and since your relocation to South Florida. The community can only benefit from the contribution of your wisdom to meet today’s challenges.

 

I detect from your letter a yearning to return to synagogue life, but perhaps you’re not sure how to take that first step. Let me address the specific points you make, and perhaps we can find a way for you to reenter the warm embrace of shul.

 

  1. It sounds like you had a prior affiliation with a local shul, you did not renew your membership and no one called. That troubles me, and you deserved appropriate outreach. You remind us that we in synagogues need to do better. That said, at Temple Torat Emet, we have a hard-working Tov Team that keeps close tabs on members who are ailing or feeble or who otherwise have difficulty coming to synagogue. In many cases, they organize rides to synagogue, deliver meals to the home during acute illnesses and make phone calls just to show we care. Our membership committee also tracks members who may be on the margins to remind them that they are important to us. You note the financial challenges and write, “sometimes arrangements can be made.” Indeed, many of our members have made special need-based arrangements in a dignified, confidential process. Our membership dues provide vital funds without which we could not exist. At same time, our doors are open 365 days a year with an active daily minyan morning and afternoon and vibrant Shabbat services every Friday night and Saturday. These are open to the public. Please come.
  2. I’m sorry that you have not found large print prayer books at shuls you’ve attended. I can assure you that at Temple Torat Emet we have an ample supply of large print books easily available at every service. Recently, a visually impaired member of our congregation pointed out that while the words in the large print siddurim were readable, the page numbers were too small. So, we fixed that! A young lady performed her bat mitzvah service project by working with the congregant and placed stickers of enlarged page numbers throughout each of the 20 copies of our large print siddur. In this one act of kindness, an intergenerational bond was created between a senior adult and a teenager, plus the congregation will benefit from the product of her labor for years to come. That’s what a synagogue community is all about. By the way, Temple Torat Emet also has assisted listening devices available to congregants who need for all services and programs in our Main Sanctuary. Our bimah is equipped with a ramp so everyone can receive an honor, irrespective of any mobility limitations.
  3. Transportation should not be a deal breaker for you. For one thing, as I’ll note in #4, we have lots of programming during the day. Unfortunately, a shuttle service is very costly and investment in that service would necessarily divert funds from other precious programs and services. That said, give me a call and I’ll find you a ride. We have many congregants who drive from different parts of our area, and many people carpool to services and events. As you may know, last year our congregation became Temple Torat Emet when the former Temple Emeth of Delray Beach joined forces with the former Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach. As such, we have many members who regularly make the modest five-mile trek up Jog Road from Delray to Boynton. Plus, you never know—maybe a cost-effective plan for a shuttle could be found. You can help determine that by contacting us directly, and we’ll research the matter with you.
  4. Three of the synagogues on your list, Temple Torat Emet, Temple Shaarei Shalom and Temple Beth Tikvah, formed a vibrant consortium for adult education. Here is last year’s course lineup (last year it was just Torat Emet and Shaarei Shalom; Beth Tikvah joined us for the coming season). You will see that the majority of courses are during the day, and the pricing is very reasonable (my weekly Talmud class is free!).

 

I am sorry that you overheard in a recent conversation “If they are not active, who needs them.” It must have hurt to hear that. I disagree with you, however, that you are disenfranchised. Palm Beach County is blessed with a strong Jewish community of which senior adults are a significant population. All of the synagogues you address, including mine, enjoy active participation by our seniors.  Given everything I said above, I humbly ask you for your trust to give synagogue life another try. I extend to you an open invitation to participate in worship services and educational and social programming at Temple Torat Emet. My hope is that you will not only come to our events but you will stay involved because of the warm personal relationships you will develop with other members of our community.  I wish you good health, and I hope to see you and your friends soon.

 

Sincerely Yours,

Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein

Temple Torat Emet

Boynton Beach, Florida

 

 

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