Tag Archives: synagogues

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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The Torah’s call to create a culture of giving

3 May

imageThere’s a story about a child who asks his father a question. “Can you explain to me what a conscience problem is?” he asks. The father replies: “I’ll give you an example. If a customer comes into my store and buys something for one dollar, and by mistake gives me three dollars, I suddenly have a conscience problem–do I tell my partner or not?”

Let’s unpack this story. The humorous force of the story is tension of the pause in the father’s response. We expect him to struggle whether to keep the extra two dollars or return the money, as he should, to the customer. Instead, his extreme greed is exposed, and his struggle is over keeping all of his ill-gotten profit or sharing it with his business partner.

We all know that adherence to Jewish—and broader societal–ethics would demand us to return the money. Yet, many of us can sympathize with the temptation to keep money that lands in our lap. In fact, some people might say that we live in a dog-eat-dog world. You take what you can get, and if you let others take it from you, then you are a sucker and a loser. Leo Durocher’s saying, “Nice guys finish last,” resonates widely in our society.

It turns out, though, that Leo Durocher was wrong. An important new book explores the inner dynamics of giving and taking and upends conventional wisdom. The book is Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. The author is Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and management expert. At the age of just 31, he is the youngest tenured professor ever at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches. Grant notes that people in society fall into three categories: givers, takers and matchers. Whereas takers strive to get as much as possible from others and matchers aim to trade evenly, givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return. Through exhaustive research, coupled with an engaging narrative, Grant argues that giving is an under-recognized key to success.

The timing of this book is important. Grant writes that in earlier parts of American history people worked in independent jobs producing goods. They did not always need to collaborate with other people, so it was fairly inefficient to be a giver. But now, a high percentage of people work in inter-connected jobs providing services to others.

He notes that most people act like givers in close relationships. In marriages and friendships, we contribute whenever we can without keeping score. However, outside of our innermost circles, people are more likely to be takers and matchers. He argues that incorporating more giving tendencies in all aspects of our lives actually yields more happiness and success.

“When givers succeed, their success spreads and cascades,” he writes. “Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them.”  He quotes a venture capitalist who says, “‘It’s easier to win if everybody out there wants you to win. If you don’t make enemies out there it’s easier to succeed.'”

Last month, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story about Grant titled, “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?” The article not only discusses the book, it also profiles Grant himself and how he is highly regarded as a teacher. He both talks the talk and walks the walk. He is generous of his time with his students in providing extensive office hours, introducing them to connections in his network and answering every email in a thorough, thoughtful way. I must say that having read his book and learning more about Grant through interviews, I was inspired to write to him. I asked him some technical questions and also observed that his thesis that giving is the key to success is relevant to synagogue life (more about that shortly). Less than two days later I received an extensive personal response in which he answered every question. The email bore a time signature of 1:33 AM. I was blown away. Moreover, he identified himself as “a fellow lighter of the menorah,” and I was touched by this additional sense of personal connection.

I believe the Jewish connection to the book Give and Take goes far deeper than the author’s personal background. We close the Book of Leviticus with the double Torah portion BeharBehukotai that bursts forth with ideal of a society rooted in the culture of giving. Even one’s own land must be given a Shabbat every seventh year and not be tilled. The people must subsist solely on the land’s naturally yielded fruit. After seven cycles of Sabbatical years, the 50th year is a Jubilee year in which all slaves go free and all land returned to its original owner. Through these practices, the Israelites are to cultivate a culture of giving that connects God, the people and the Land in a covenantal symbiosis.

It’s to be expected that this ideal picture is not an easy sell. According to the text, God Himself anticipates the anxiety of the people in the Sabbatical year. They might say, mah nochal bashanah ha-sheviit, “How are we supposed to eat in the seventh year?” (25:20). Put differently, “I understand the ideal of all this giving stuff, but can’t I take something for myself?” God reassures them that they need not worry. They will be blessed with abundance. God then reminds the people what’s really at stake in this whole discussion:

Ki li Haaretz, ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi, “For the Land is Mine; you are but strangers and sojourners with me” (25:23). Rabbi Harold Kushner notes that the Israelites, like all people, are but God’s tenants. They are resident aliens in the Land. Only if they live up to the terms of the Covenant will they endure there.

The Torah reminds us that while we might think we acquire property, such as Land, let’s not kid ourselves. Ultimately, it belongs to God. During our lifetimes, we are given a sacred trust to safeguard the Land so that future generations may enjoy it as well. The Torah reminds us to take on the mindset of givers, not takers. Rather than tolerating people going through life as takers, concerned only with advancing our own personal interests, the Torah calls on us to think outside of ourselves. Doing so has the effect of benefitting everybody, including ourselves.

I am very taken by Adam Grant’s call to cultivate a mentality of giving. As the rabbi of a synagogue, I believe the congregation is an ideal laboratory for creating a culture of giving.  The book Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary, an important study of contemporary synagogue culture, notes that many congregations are “functional,” that is they are rooted in a consumerist transactional culture. The thinking in such synagogues is something like, “I pay dues, now what can you do for me?” Applying Adam Grant’s thesis, I now understand this as a “taker” or “matcher” culture. In contrast, synagogues that are rooted in a culture of relationship building are termed “visionary” congregations, and these are the congregations that will be most successful in this era.  Having read Adam Grant, I now understand a visionary congregation as embodying much more of a “giver” culture. In such a synagogue, there is a pervasive sense that we are part of something larger than ourselves. As we close the book of Leviticus this Shabbat, let’s take with us God’s reminder that we are merely tenants on this earth and that our lives will be most fulfilled when we cultivate humility, generosity and gratitude. In so doing, we will create wholeness in our community and in all of our relationships. May we be so blessed.