Jewish Life

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On Pew Study 2013

Response to the Pew Study

On Human Frailty


Shmuli the Synagogue Squirrel

On Purim

On Pew Study 2013

The Pew Foundation released its demographic study on Jews in the United States and their affiliation/participation rates. The results stopped many of us in our tracks to ask: What are we doing?
The Reform Movement is still the largest Jewish movement in the United States today according to the survey. However we are shrinking. The Conservative Movement has shrunk even more dramatically, which makes all of us all the more nervous. The Orthodox movements is holding steady. These trends are continuations of trends published by UJA surveys done in the 1990’s and 2000’s.

The Pew Survey teaches us two new items. First, all the money and energies thrown into the effort to reverse the trends of affiliation and participation in Jewish life, from Chabad at one end to Reform Outreach initiatives at the other end, have done little to slow, much less reverse the trends towards non-affiliation. The younger generations are not affiliating at ever higher rates. When Jews choose to affiliate, more choose Reform yet more choose not to affiliate whatsoever.

The second item we learn is that Jews who choose not to affiliate are marrying other American citizens who have chosen not to affiliate. They are not necessary choosing not to marry other Jews, they are attracted those who choose a secular, unaffiliated religious life. Slightly more than half are choosing Jewish partners.

As one wag has already broadcast, rabbis had better rejigger their sermons and cantors had better find new sheet music, as if all of the clergy has stood still as the previous studies were rolled out; as if other Pew studies did not show the same trends in the Protestant denominations and the American Catholic Church, where the trends are actually accelerating much faster. No one can be accused of having done nothing for the last two decades. Everyone has been searching, and we have learned that solutions are more than rejiggering words and adding sacred drums.

We need to reconsider the role of the synagogue in the community. We are the anchor of long term, life fulfilling Jewish life. How we address the greater community and how we welcome the greater community into our midst are fundamental questions we have to answer with new solutions. At the very least, I hope that the study done by the Pew Foundation is a call to action for all the institutions of Jewish life in the United States and spurs us to renew our resolve to build a healthy future for the Jews of the next generation.


Response to the PEW Study


The Jews, We Are A-Changing
(with apologies to “The Times, They Are A-Changing,” by Bob Dylan –
recorded exactly fifty years ago this month)

Come rabbis now gather wherever you preach
It’s more than creating an eloquent speech
Admit that we must change the way that we teach
It’s a brand new game that we’re playing.
There’s so many people out there to reach
For the Jews, we are a changing

Come cantors, musicians and all those who sing
Let’s think of the spirit that we try to bring
Cause people won’t pray if it don’t mean a thing
And don’t understand what they’re saying
Plug in your keyboards, and tune up your strings
For the Jews, we are a changing.

Come organizations all over the land
Will people come forth for things that are bland?
Are we hearing precisely what these times demand?
Our institutions are graying
It’s time now for asking: just what is our brand?
For the Jews we are a changing.

Come all you philanthropists, all those who lead
We must understand now just what people need
A sense of belonging not only a creed
You know that our people are straying
It’s time to respond and to do it with speed
Cause the Jews, we are a changing

We wonder exactly how this came to be
Maybe it happened because we are free
To keep or discard our identity
But this great tradition’s worth saving
Let’s say it one last time, we all can agree
That the Jews, we are a changing.

On Human Frailty

We are hurtling through the seasons, but not without bumps and detours along the way. In my own little corner of the county, quite a few congregants and their families faced procedures, surgeries, and diagnoses these past several months; most unexpected and difficult to accept. Too many days were spent seeking room numbers in anonymous hospital corridors.

These are the wages of mortality – our bodies have flaws and weakness even in the strength of our days. Many days we draw our breath without conscious thought of the complex ease of the act of living, and then those dark days arrive that literally take our breath away. Illness, disease and pain are an unwelcome part of our lives but also an inescapable reality of our days on this earth.

Yet, in the face of serious trauma and in the days of impatient waiting for results and cure, I have witnessed the utter nobility of the human soul. Walking the corridors of the hospitals, many times I peeked in to view the patients lying in the bed or perhaps sitting up in the chair. Often the rooms are gloomy despite the fluorescent bulbs and the sick ones are slack and immobile. In other beds I see patients no less ill or racked with concern and pain struggling to bolster their resolve and their spirit; the room seems brighter and the machines near alive with gurgles, beeps, and rushes of air. One woman in particular, who was by all accounts closer to death than life at the moment, wore a smile and a look of expectation of visitors and conversation; she still enjoyed life, conversation and friendship. Her demeanor reminded me of the tenacity of life and the power of the human will to overcome the direst of circumstances. Pity had no place in her presence, only a good ear and conversation were needed.

I have seen the taciturn transform into the companionable and the easy-going morph into the advocate.

I have seen bodies beaten down but the spirit within blossom and flower.

I have witnessed the human power of perseverance in the face of real fear.

I take reports and listen to anecdotes: “I cannot believe how many came to visit me” or “Would you look at the flowers they sent” or “The telephones calls just keep coming, from everyone.” Strangers become acquaintances, and congregants who were only faces before become comforters. Because of sickness and pain, new friendships emerge and new bonds of trust form. A community bound by vague resolutions of religion and belief, finds the true source of spirit in God and humanity, in their reaching out to each other in time of need. They discover blessing.


I turned the corner only to hear with great whining concern, “Hanukkah is so late this year.” Although I’m not in the habit of eavesdropping on conversations between parents and their children, this plaint may have been heard clear across the Delaware River, so heartrending was the performance. The child was correct of course, Hanukkah begins the night of December 25th and it is a long way off using kid time as a measure. The kid was very impatient.

Heck, I’m impatient and my sympathy went out immediately to that little girl. Impatience is the product of the day and is found in every age group, gender, and demographic. Patience, a great virtue in many tales of morality, is so . . . so “old school.”

Don’t want to wait for that wonderfully engaging rerun of that TV sitcom, buy it “On Demand” from your cable company. Can’t stand to be without your ‘tunes’ at the moment you must hear the music in your ears. Download the latest and most hip to your up-to-the-date cell phone. Instant karma, instant cappuccino, and hot snacks on demand from your microwave – living life well means never having to wait for anything.

Patience is passé. At least that is the message that bombards me in every store, on every radio station, TV station and in the magazines of every stripe and interest. Do you realize how fast you can produce stud-like muscles and curvaceous figures if you ingest the proper ingredients? Overnight delivery isn’t just for important documents anymore, it’s also good for what you want when you want it. Now. I am amazed, but also confounded.

Impatience is one of those human traits that can be either good or bad. Impatience is good when it is linked with anticipation. Impatience reminds us of what is important to us, even if we don’t consciously recognize it. Impatience is an internal cue that something important, meaningful, or worthwhile is near at hand. Anticipation helps prepare us for the event to come and to savor its value. When the moment arrives, we have prepared our full attention upon the fulfillment of our impatience.

Yet, when impatience is bound together with boredom or the fear of it, then impatience is a pernicious and addictive vice. Impatience is an anxiety that drums fingers on the table and gnashes teeth behind drawn lips. Boredom is an evil and one should never be bored. One should never have to be alone with one’s thoughts unless that solitary state of affairs was desired in the first place.

Boredom is the antithesis of adrenaline and is the human condition of being at involuntary rest. At its best, boredom forces a person to consider their state of affairs and to make plans to do away with the tedium. Wearied monotony is the negative emotion needed to get a person out of a funk and back into the rest of the world; it is moving from the humdrum state of “nothing much” to the invigorated sense of “doing something.”

Boredom isn’t pretty or fun, but it is a necessary part of human life. When people mask or avoid ennui by hyping their impatience, they are avoiding a necessary component of meaning in life. Boredom is non-meaning, the zero state from which one starts, and starts again, to find meaning. The way human beings are built, the search for meaning starts from this state of non-meaning, boredom.

Feeling impatient for Hanukkah? Oh well, the holiday is worth the wait. You will just have to wait like the rest of us.


Shmuli the Synagogue Squirrel (A somewhat true story)

One day, Shumeli was climbing up and down his favorite trees when he saw something unusual. The huge rock that seemed so different from all the other rocks around his trees seemed to have sprouted an opening. From that opening came all sorts of wondrous smells, some of which seemed enticingly sweet. Besides it was rainy and wet out, and the open rock appeared dry and comfortable.

Shmuli went in.

The rock was big and hollow inside. The floor was hard and the walls were wood. At least the first ones were. Shmuli took a big sniff and ran for the sweet stuff. Down a dark run, he ducked into another big burrow and the smell was heavenly. Climbing up the human trash can, he found squirrel heaven. There was yellow cake, white frosting, syrupy cherries and apricots and even raspberries. He gorged himself.

When he was done, Shmuli realized that he didn’t know how to get back to his trees. Panicked, he scampered all around the hollow rock but he couldn’t find the opening again. He leapt up on a ledge and from there he could see the grass, the trees and the sky. Yet when he tried to jump onto the grass, he hit something invisible and solid. Then the smell of humans hit his nostrils and he became even more scared.

He ran back to the food room and climbed up a metal sort of tree and hid under its canopy. Humans came in and made noise. He was so scared, he couldn’t stop from chittering. Once, when he tried to run from the humans, they chased him around the room until he jumped back inside the metal tree.

The humans were in the fancy room singing and talking together. Shmuli sneaked a peek from the back and saw the males with a cap on the back of their heads. Shmuli liked the music, swaying to the tunes as music played and people sang. However, the singing stopped, the humans ate all of the sweet stuff and then they left. The place was cold and empty. There was no opening in sight.

This went on for days and Shmuli was sad. One early morning, Shmuli was back up on the ledge with the invisible barrier when he smelled something delicious. Peanut butter. He swooned with delight and crawled into the small metal sleeve to the peanut butter in the middle. The slides clanged down and Shmuli was trapped. It didn’t stop him from eating the peanut butter though.

Later that day, one of the humans grabbed his cage and took him back out his trees. Shmuli ran for his trees vowing that never again would he try to sneak into a synagogue.

Next time, he was going to pay his dues first and walk in through the front door.


On Purim

I’m supposed to be happy at this moment. Monday night, March 13, is the start of the holiday of Purim, which is the celebration of the Book of Esther. The Hebrew calendar registers the date as 13 Adar and traditional minded Jews greet each other with the acclamation, “Be happy, it’s Adar.” Bah. Feh.

Winter has been a disappointment so far this year. There was a true lack of snow, cold, and icy misery. We had days in January when many of us did not even bother to wear a coat outdoors. Even the major snowstorm melted away within a day or two. As a Florida transplant who appreciates all four seasons of our region, I’ve been cheated and there is no one to whom I can lodge a complaint.

Purim is the first sign that spring is coming. The place of this minor holiday on the calendar lends it a certain power of anticipation that has been usurped by the mildness of the winter season. A wintry rant should be a part of the season. I’m not into personal suffering per se, but a little dip into curmudgeonly grousing is good for the soul once in awhile. If one can blame it on the weather, even if that fact isn’t necessarily the entire truth, such a rant has a particularly delicious flavor.

God gave us the ability to be grumpy, and who are we to deny the exercise of the full range of feeling endowed upon us by divine creation. I argue that nothing in creation quite lives up to the expectation of wading into the morass of one’s own personal basement of self-pity, regret and collected resentments. How can joy permeate every pore of one’s being as thoroughly and often as a full grown grumpy disposition?

A good grump fest is an energetic exercise of vitriol and nigh unprintable expletives. Children slink away and hide in their rooms with the doors locked and the music pumped up loudly. Those blessed with grandkids will find the imps curiously absent. Spouses put on that rare and specific face that reads a clear message of “knock it off or find another corner of the planet until you’re housebroken again.” After a good curmudgeonly fit, even the walls yellow and need repainting.

On my Jewish calendar this induced black mood is finally raging full throttled and a feeling of powerless creeps into the consciousness, this utterly frivolous holiday of Purim drops into one’s lap. This may be compared to sitting in the middle of a busy intersection waiting to make a left turn on a yellow light, and the opposing traffic actually stops and lets you turn before the light turns red. From where did that good fortune come?

When congregants arrive for Purim services, a number of the adults whose cars are in the parking lot are suspiciously absent from the sanctuary. After the brief evening service and a short reading from the Book of Esther, the entire congregation moves from the sanctuary to the Social Hall where a video camera is already trained on the stage ready to record whatever comes next. The presence of the camera is a hint.

Then the insanity hits. Some suggest that the absurd behavior is fueled by the lack of reasonableness and dignity artificially suppressed by alcohol. Talmudic law demands that adults get drunk on Purim, although it does not necessarily speak to mature adults making fools of themselves. This is not a moment for teetotalers to preach their philosophy; it would fall on deaf ears fueled by sudden religious devotion to the law.

To that age old question of how does one get mature, stalwart men and women of good family and reputation to make fools of themselves by dressing up as bad versions of the opposite gender, the answer is: tell them it’s Purim. From that point on, the rest of evening is a downward spiral of bad puns, tasteless innuendoes, and topical commentary of the cultural missteps of the day. Bad acting is the underlying element of the evening.

This one evening is potent enough to bring the most dedicated curmudgeon to his knees and to force the worst sour-puss face into bouts of whimsy. There is a certain piety to a people who are studiously dedicated to an evening to making fools of themselves in an effort to retell an ancient soap opera with modern buffoonery. The evening melts the coldest winter from the heart.

Now, if only it would get miserably cold enough beforehand. Feh.




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