Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bricks and Stones

The old playground expression is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” How untrue! In my years I have seen many lives destroyed by words, words that are the manifestation of evil, malicious, jealous, or misguided intentions. Through words, people can sometimes coerce, frighten, cajole or motivate others to perform horrific acts as easily as selfless and noble acts.

I recently attended an awards ceremony in which one of the speakers opined about the failure of Conservative Judaism to reach out to young adults and families, who statistically have shown themselves to be more interested in the spiritual aspects of Judaism than their predecessors, who enjoyed the more institutional and communal aspects of the religion that have always been the hallmark of Conservative Judaism. In the last few weeks, I have been extremely disturbed by a turn of events that illustrates for me just how far some people are willing to stoop to preserve the bricks and stones of their institution rather than the spirituality.

I believe I am in a unique position to comment on the state of Conservative Judaism in the Philadelphia area. Because of the egalitarian nature of this movement for men and women, and because of its foundation of traditional observance, Saul and I were always comfortable in the movement and tremendously involved in our synagogue’s life—teaching for many years, attending services, participating in events, cooking and serving dinners, making parade floats, studying Bible, assisting in fund-raising efforts, sending our kids to Camp Ramah, and all the other aspects of synagogue life that help develop strong family friendships and community involvement. These are the positive aspects of synagogue life that sustained our family and spurred our daughter to want to attend The Jewish Theological Seminary, where she met her husband.

Unfortunately, we have also encountered extremely negative effects on our family life that have caused us tremendous angst and suffering—rabbis accused of inappropriate sexual behavior; an executive director, (who was raised in the synagogue by founding members), who embezzled $10,000 from my small desktop publishing business which for 20 years produced an award-winning synagogue newspaper; having to testify in federal court to put that former “friend” in jail along with his cohort, the synagogue’s bookkeeper. No one will ever know the full extent of the millions of dollars they stole because prosecutors were only able to investigate the last seven years of the theft.

These were the major causes of angst, but there were many other less dramatic incidences of institutional failure, insensitivity, and downright malicious intent, enough, eventually, to cause us to leave many of our good friends and, in some cases, clients, behind in search of a kinder and more spiritually uplifting synagogue environment. For the last few years, we thought we had found it.

Although the building was shabby and unsuitable for the mainly elderly members, (many of whom could no longer comfortably negotiate the two flights of stairs necessary to reach the bathroom), the good karma in the sanctuary during services was palpable. Whatever differences of opinion had occurred in the past, most of the members seemed to have moved on from them and this congregation seemed genuinely to care for each other. The rabbi is a brilliant and engaging speaker who has shown himself, in recent years, to be approachable, empathetic and understanding.

But yet again, the carpet has been pulled out from under me. The good karma of this place has evaporated in a flurry of rabid disagreements, intolerance, disrespect, grandstanding, petty behavior, and malicious letter-writing. The members who care about the future of this synagogue have divided into two camps—those who recognize that the bricks and stones of the building are mooring us to a past that cannot long survive into the future, and those for whom the bricks and stones represent an unbreakable link to their family’s past that will be lost forever if they are forced to leave. In the effort to cling to, or flee from, those bricks and stones, some of the members appear to have forgotten that our love and concern for each other should supersede all else.

Our Jewish institutions that were set up in this country many years ago recognized a mandate to protect Jewish families from the ravages of a hostile environment. To this end, provisions were made to provide aid to struggling families and individuals through lending institutions that financed businesses, through chevra kadisha societies that provided proper burial, through subsidized summer camps, through occupational training programs, and through a host of other services to meet the needs and ensure the prosperity of our families. On a personal level, however, I have experienced and observed some very mean-spirited behavior on the part of individuals who begrudge their fellow congregants the opportunity to do profitable business with the synagogue. A lay member may donate thousands of dollars worth of volunteer effort for the benefit of the synagogue, but when a single dollar of profit is earned in their business dealings with the synagogue, there are those who will snicker that these volunteers are money-grubbing opportunists.

The failure to support and encourage those who supply services to our synagogues extends to exemplary and devoted educators who have had their contracts withheld by synagogue boards with hidden agendas, as well as competent rabbis and administrators who have been railroaded out of their positions by a few hostile board members. Somewhere along the line, many of us have lost the ability to rejoice in each other’s prosperity, to appreciate and reward our professional leadership, to provide networking opportunities for young and committed families, and to reach out to each other in friendship and mutual respect.

If Conservative Judaism is to die (and many think it is already dead), it is because it has failed to provide the welcoming, inclusive, and supportive environment that young people seek to nourish their spirit and enhance their life. The institution cannot expect that people will continue to commit their time and resources merely because that is what their parents did. To engage and encourage young people, it is necessary for all synagogue members to recognize that the well-being of the people within our building is far more important than the brick and stone structure that houses them.

Both camps have the survival of their congregation as a goal, but I fear the community will not survive the deleterious effects of the baseless hatred and contempt that has arisen from this controversy. I dearly hope that the animosity that has arisen between congregants over a vote to sell our bricks and stones and move to a more economical and feasible space will dissipate with the passage of time, that people will admit that they went too far in their zeal and that they will apologize to each other for their mistakes.

1 comment:

Elaine said...

You wrote this on Wednesday, before that dreadful, disturbing meeting? I thought you looked at the point of collapse on Thursday night, and missed you on Shabbat. A number of people were conspicuous by their absence. I hope that people will be able to bury the hatchet, dagger & vitriol, and once again be a real congregation.