Wednesday, March 24, 2010

You Shall Tell Your Children

I had a profound experience a few nights ago. I sat on our couch with my son Elisha, just shy of 2 ½, and an illustrated haggadah, and I used the pictures to tell him the story of the Exodus. As I talked I was overwhelmed by a feeling of deep fulfillment. For my whole life I have read, studied, and analyzed the verse "you shall tell your children on that day, this is because of what God did for me when I went out from Egypt." I can offer ten different approaches to understanding its meaning. The whole seder experience is really a grand exegesis of these two words, vehigadeta levinkha, you shall tell your child. Yet in a way it feels like all of the sedarim I have participated in and led were just place-fillers until I could do exactly that – sit with my son and tell him the story.

It is what I imagine the medieval sages felt who finally saw the Land of Israel after a lifetime of imagining it in their prayers. It is also the most profound message of arami oved avi, the biblical passage whose exegesis is the heart of the haggadah. This short passage is a brief history of the Israelites' journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. They went down to Egypt and were enslaved, but then God brought them out and brought them to Israel. What is most important about this text, though, is when it was used. It was recited when an Israelite brought the first fruits of his land to the Temple to give thanks to God. In other words, an Israelite living peacefully in Israel and enjoying the rich fruit of the land would come to the Temple bearing that fruit and say, I am the end of the story. All of the travails and hardships that my grandparents endured were to enable this moment to happen. This moment is the realization of that vision. In the words of Sweet Honey in the Rock, "We are our grandfathers' dreams." A simple moment of living life, a simple act of giving thanks. The Seder is, in a way, our first fruits moment, when we sit as free people and acknowledge the ways in which this moment, and our blessed lives, are the fulfillment of the dreams of many generations of ancestors.

This telling is also about the challenge of conveying who we are. I have been steeped in the story my whole life. For as long as I can remember it has been self-evident that this is my story, that it is essential to who I am and to my place in the world. Now I look at my own son and ask, how do I actually shape that experience? How do I encourage him to embrace this identity and see it as a source of pride? This is the first moment where I am not just teaching him things – words, ideas, behaviors. It is where I begin to tell him, this is who we are, this is our story. It is a task which will occupy many years, one whose path is uncertain but whose outcome is deeply important to me. It is a moment where I acknowledge that I have a vision for who I want him to be, a vision that I will try hard to impart while always knowing that I do not control who he will become.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Do shuls want to be fixed?

Last week, Rabbi David Starr posted this comment:

"A note to all of you elitist minyanaires out there: what would it mean for you to try to fix problematic shuls rather than forming affinity groups just for folks like you?"
This is a challenge often made to Indy minyanim. The premise is that there are lots of existing, established institutions which are underperforming, and that young Jews should be working to transform them to meet all of the religious and social needs that are currently not being met rather than deepening their crisis by investing resources in new institutions.
If the rationale is that we should support these struggling institutions because they are there, it is not compelling. Few of us believe in sustaining ineffectual institutions for their own sake – for an extreme formulation of this attitude, see Elie Kaunfer's new book. So let's focus on the idea that we can actually accomplish more by working through existing institutions than we can on our own.
Elie argues that, by not being tied down to real estate, Independent Minyanim can be nimble, have low overhead, and focus on their primary mission. This idea is attractive but has definite limits. Many have been limited by challenges of space. There is no room for proper children's programming, or the space is not always available. There is also a severe limit to resources – organizing the range of offerings that its constituency needs demands much more money and time than a lay-led, nomadic minyan can invest. These are things that established shuls often have in abundance. And we need shuls to get involved with because no place will have the concentration of like-minded people we have on the Upper West Side of NY, Dupont Circle in DC, etc. Creating a symbiotic relationship should be both obvious and easy.
Why isn't it? Here are some key reasons:
  1. Most shuls that want to be "reinvigorated" actually want an influx of young people to enable them to keep doing what they have always done. They do not want experiment with new models of prayer or programming. This is especially the case in struggling shuls whose membership tends to be older and more deeply attached to "the way things have been". But this culture is precisely what needs to be changed in order to bring in new life. Even where the leadership promises that they are open to new ideas, change is in reality extremely slow and laborious.
  2. In many shuls, the religious needs of the membership and of young observant families barely overlap. At one shul, there is little integration between the populations despite years of joint programming, mostly because they have little in common. Another has wonderful children's programming which minyan families avoid because it is full of shabbat violations.
  3. Some of the things Indy minyaners find most onerous are built into the culture of many shuls. Five different special blessings for various celebrations. Bnai Mitzva being given such prominence that the rest of davening feels like an afterthought. Rabbis who conduct and control the flow of services from up on the bimah, even in shuls with an educated membership who don't need it. Hazzanim who discourage participation rather than encouraging it. And so forth.
I do not speak for everyone, but here is my understanding:
We would love to find shuls who would welcome us and where we could be part of revitalizing a community rather than starting a new one. Most of us are willing to make significant compromises to make that possible. We are also willing to invest in making that happen. But it can only happen in places where the shul and shul leadership are willing to fully understand what we are looking for and what it would mean to cultivate this kind of culture. I don't know KI in Brookline (Rabbi Starr's example), but I know that its rabbi is someone who understands and embraces that culture. It is certainly the right kind of place to start.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Becoming Passe

A comment on my last post and an observation by a friend last shabbat coincided to get me thinking about another aspect of the Independent Minyan problem.

In a comment, BZ noted that there is a major gap between those who finished college before the Indy phenomenon hit full stride and thereafter. Many people who graduated in the late '90s and early '00s moved to NY, DC and other centers expecting not to find the kind of religious community they wanted. When they got there, they either were part of starting up an exciting new minyan or found a nascent community that was far more fulfilling than they had expected. This was the population that enabled the phenomenon to grow and to spread to new communities, and many were both excited about their discovery and committed to helping it grow.

But things change fast in our world. 10 years ago most college students had no idea what was happening beyond the boundaries of campus, whereas today's students, with so much information in easy access, are much more in tune with developments in the larger community. And these minyanim are now so well established that new graduates are barely conscious of a world without them. In part that means they feel less of an obligation – these minyanim don't need their contributions to survive, and are no longer the dawn of a new age. It also means that they feel less of a sense of ownership, since they are joining a group that they did not shape, and thus are less committed to its success.

Then this past Shabbat, my friend Uri, a long-time Hadar member, attended a new, start-up Friday night minyan which met at Shaare Zedek, a local Conservative shul. He described the culture of the group to be quite similar to Hadar's, yet he guessed that he recognized less than a quarter of the (mostly young) faces. There are undoubtedly multiple reasons for this (it's not senility – he's younger than I): some may have been people who get to shul more often on Friday night than shabbat morning, or people just checking out a new thing. But mostly it seems to be people in their early 20s who are interested in participatory, musical, lay-led davening and yet have never or rarely been to Hadar and are not going to Kol Zimrah (I would love to get a KZ person's take on this). I don't have the answers to why they don't come to Hadar, nor do I know where (if anywhere) they are going shabbat morning. But I do know this: Hadar is feeling demographically limited from two sides. Many of the new people who get involved are mid to late 20s people whose friends have been involved for years. But it is starting to seem like for the new crop of 23-year-olds, Hadar is just not the hot new thing. It's the thing that is established, not the thing they have the opportunity to shape. I haven't gathered data about other Indy minyanim, but I wouldn't be surprised if the same issues are surfacing elsewhere.

It may be totally fine that a new generation is doing their own thing. But I think that we assumed that if we built it, they would come – that each successive wave of new grads would gravitate towards our minyanim and the unique culture they were creating. If we were just riding a wave borne of being the hot new thing, then we have to ask how we respond to that and what it means for the future of these minyanim that we value so highly.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Founders and Foundering

A conversation last night with my friend Rabbi Marc Baker, who is also involved in an Indy Minyan, helped me to get some clarity on the questions I addressed in my first post.

All start-up programs face serious challenges when it comes time for their founders to move on and pass the torch. Anyone involved in such a transition can tell you they spend a lot of time thinking about how to transition successfully, yet it is inevitably more difficult than anticipated. Part of the problem is that such projects inevitably come to reflect the passions and personalities of their founders, and rely on those individuals' strengths and talents. Even as it grows and flourishes, rarely does anyone stop to reflect on whether there are others in the community who could successfully fill those founders' various roles. The other challenge is empowerment: Founders think of a project as their own, and feel some latitude to shape and revise its practices and culture in line with their vision. Successors generally feel more constrained – they were appointed to preserve something that people like and value, not to formulate a new vision, and are thus less free to innovate or try new things. The result is a project that is less agile, less innovative, and less able to stay cutting-edge, likely the keys to the start-up's initial success.

Some start-ups make this transition more or less successfully, others lose their edge or direction and start to founder. Many of those that stick around shift into "keep going" mode instead of "keep growing" mode. And we are left wondering, what are the keys to a really successful transition?

One key which is often overlooked is knowing what it is you're replacing. This was the argument underlying my post about rabbis. When a minyan goes through a leadership transition, we talk about who is going to take up the organizing and planning roles. There are practical things that need to get done in order for the minyan to function, which involve many hours of work, and the need for this kind of leadership is obvious. There is also a need for a decision-making mechanism and a range of options for how to arrange that. But those founders also provided another, more intangible type of leadership which we ignore at our peril. They are probably the ones who conveyed a sense of mission and purpose which informed the community's growth. They were always asking how the minyan could do things differently, better, to reach more people and try new things. They were the people who could not only give a dvar torah but give mussar as well, who carried enough weight in the community to be able to openly confront the ways in which it inevitably failed to live up to its own ideals.

We don't necessarily have a name for this role; it's not a "leadership position" and it is not obvious that it needs to be filled. Moreover, the ideology of being democratic and lay-led argue against this. I argued in my earlier post that we don't realize how much we lose when we give up on this kind of leadership. What Marc pointed out is that this need not involve hiring someone, or even bringing in someone new. There may be 5 different people already involved in a community who could play this kind of role, who could be voices of inspiration and of tikkun (self-repair). But no one will just step forward and start doing it. You can't start using that voice until your community has conferred on you the authority to do so. You don't just volunteer for this kind of leadership – you are entrusted with it.

It may have simply been understood that the founders carried that authority by virtue of the fact that the community was shaped by their vision. Or the enthusiasm of new beginnings may have carried the minyan through its first stage of growth. But if we want our Independent Minyanim to survive and to flourish, we need to find those voices that can help clarify and refine our sense of purpose and inspire us to reach higher, and find them platforms to speak and to lead. This, I would suggest, is crucial to keeping up the sense of dynamic growth and excitement often associated with the founding generation.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Faith and Reason; or Reasons for Faith

A bibliographic note: While it is no secret that I am dealing with questions that have been discussed many times before, a friend pointed out to me one book on the topic that has been on my shelf for years but I'd never opened, and that I (having now read it) would urge anyone concerned about the questions I have raised to read. Larry Hoffman's The Art of Public Prayer tackled these issue brilliantly in 1988, and is still right on the mark today.

It is unquestionable that Orthodoxy is the only sub-community in the Jewish world whose numbers are growing. That said, it makes me crazy when Orthodox leaders point to this phenomenon as evidence of the inherent correctness of their theology. It is a lot like the Church asserting that the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the 4th century constituted proof that Jesus was the Savior.

Underlying this is a deeper misconception. It is easy to assume that the reasons people belong to a particular religious community are primarily theological. Jews believe certain things about how (or whether) God gave the Torah, or about how (or whether) Halakha (Jewish law) developed, and therefore join particular synagogues. But more often than not, the opposite is the case. Hoffman argues that faith in God is not the product of rational deductions about the nature of the universe. Faith is generated when we experience profound moments of emotional high and spiritual fulfillment in a religious context. Those experiences lead to an awareness of God's presence within moments of transcendence, and to a desire build up our connection with God. Put simply, spiritual experience creates faith, and the beliefs we embrace about God are a largely a result of that faith, not their cause.

This is especially true of those who become Orthodox. Of the many baalei teshuva (those who join Orthodox communities as adults) I have known, most are very strident in asserting their belief in Orthodox doctrine. But few of them became Orthodox as a result of this belief. In search of something, they tried out or just stumbled upon a shul or yeshiva which offered experiences or a community which they found deeply fulfilling. Wanting to be a part of it, they took on the set of doctrines that their teachers taught them were required to be full participants. Thus whether one is convinced that Torah Codes are real, that God revealed all of Halakha to Moses at Sinai, or that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah, often depends on who first enabled those profound experiences.

All of this demagoguery is to make one simple point. People choose communities based mostly on where they find social support and spiritual fulfillment. Indeed, for young parents theology is well down the list of priorities. But what community they choose will have a profound impact on the beliefs and identity of their children, who will grow up shaped by their parents' choices. And a community's beliefs will also, over time, shape the religious vision of those who find inspiration and fulfillment there.

I am personally convinced that what kind of Torah Jews will teach to the world depends on the kind of Torah being learned in communities of committed Jews. If we want a progressive and socially conscious Torah to have a serious influence on the Jewish future, our most important work has to be replicating the major successes of Orthodoxy: shaping profound religious experiences that draw people in, and developing real communities of shared religious commitment and values that make them want, even need, to stay.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Children and Identity

Like any group, a minyan that reaches a certain age needs to re-evaluate itself. It needs to look at its goals and needs to ask how it is meeting them and whether it could be doing so more effectively. Part of this is making choices. As we grow, the needs of different parts of the community grow diverse and we need to ask whether to try to meet them all or focus on a narrower population. This is a matter of whether the multiple directions are compatible and whether we are comfortable with one sub-group going elsewhere.

This statement may seem so simple as to be banal, except for two things: One, it is much more difficult to redefine the identity of an existing institution than to define it as it starts out; and two, it is not necessary to day-to-day functioning and thus is often forgotten, especially by overtaxed lay leaders already giving their max just to keep things running. So it is common for a minyan at the outset to be perfectly matched to the needs of its constituency but to fail to adapt as those needs change.

The most obvious "changing need" in a young adult community is that of families with young children. A minyan started by 25-year-olds is, after 10 years, going to have 35-year-olds, many of whom have started families in the interim and now need different things from their shul. But it also has a new crop of 25-year-olds who were attracted to the minyan because of what it has been and, they expect, will continue to be. And so we face two questions: Can we effectively meet the needs of both groups? And should we? It is hard to even effectively ask the question because lay-led minyanim by definition depend on huge amounts of volunteer labor, time that parents of young children are not willing or able to commit. So for any real rethinking to happen, it is the younger lay leaders who need to make it a priority.

To be clear, I do not presume that the answer is necessarily that we should be working to meet all of these needs. There may simply be a point at which families graduate from a minyan and look for a shul that offers more resources. There is a benefit to this – it provides a conduit for bringing the energy and culture of a successful minyan into shuls which can get stuck in their own ruts. There is also a price – the more a minyan sees itself as different and unique, the harder it is to accept closing the door on families who want to be part of that, many of whom are the minyan's founders or previous leadership. Of course, what we want in theory must be balanced with the practical – is it even possible for a minyan with limited budget and in rented space to keep these families? Is it even worth trying?

There are certainly examples of minyanim that have done this successfully – I make no claims to any new discovery. But insofar as numerous places are currently struggling with this question, I want to briefly sketch out a few principles that I take to be essential to effective retention of families, and invite readers to add to the list, in the hope of encouraging minyanim to address it proactively and thoughtfully.

  1. If you don't have good childcare, you will lose every young family, no matter how unique and amazing your services are. If there's nothing for my child to do at shul, I will spend the whole service either shushing them or in the hallway, so I won't enjoy it anyway.
  2. Services need to be child-friendly. Parents who are long-time members will figure out the line between acceptable and disruptive noise. The community's priority has to be creating a culture where they are welcome.
  3. The best childcare allows the parents to spend some time in the service. Many 'tot shabbat' programs require the participation of both parents and children. This can be wonderful but it removes them from the community despite being in the same building, and thus defeats much of the purpose.
    1. For younger kids, regular babysitting with occasional programs may be the best (and cheapest) model.
    2. Location is everything. A space for quiet play at the back of or adjoining the prayer space allows a parent to be part of both or a child who needs her parent to find him. Babysitting or tot shabbat rooms should be as close as possible – when they are far removed, parents who go to drop kids off or check on them often never make it back to the service.
  4. Recruit! The biggest needs that a shul can meet for young parents are having peers for their kids to play with and other parents as a social network. In this area, critical mass is, indeed, critical. Don't assume that "if you build it, they will come." You'll end up planning a nice program, getting only the 2 kids you already had, and feeling defeated. Find the people who would love your minyan if not for their kids, and pull them in.
  5. And a final note which will eventually merit its own post. Parents need to reclaim a sense of responsibility to the minyan. We often use parenthood as an excuse for being less involved. Division of labor has to mean not that one parent is 'on' while the other reads the Times, but that one parent is free to make it to shul for shacharit. If not, the intense and participatory culture that we so prize in these minyanim will dissipate, and grown-up communities which are as spiritually fulfilling as these minyanim will remain a pipe-dream.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

When Torah Has the Chance to Teach

A brief interlude in my progression of diatribes to call your attention to this story in the NY Times about kosher food at the Super Bowl. The article describes the rapid growth in the purchase of kosher meat among non-Jewish consumers. I was especially struck by those who buy kosher meat as a stand-in for organic or as a response to concerns about cruelty to animals. So many people are looking for express their values through their daily lives, and often they look to religion to provide that guidance. It is disturbing that many observant Jews think smugly that this trend confirms the inherent moral superiority of halakha. In fact, what it shows is that people want high moral standards and trust us when we claim to adhere to them, without examining the details. Which makes the reality that those high standards are applied only to the ritual aspects of halakha but not the moral aspects all the more disheartening. And makes ventures like Magen Tzedek all the more urgent.

To me, the most important verse in the Bible in terms of how we think about halakha in our world is Deut. 4:6: "For [the law] will be a sign of your wisdom and discernment before other nations." In a world where religious commitment is valued highly, we have the opportunity to model the adherence to high moral standards for all of American culture. But it doesn't work if we cling to fantasy that stringency about the laws of kosher meat magically lead to morality in some mystical, inscrutable way. It works if we return the moral demands of halakha to a central place alongside the ritual, if we examine ourselves and accept no less than the lofty spiritual discipline that we claim to represent.