This People

Odd-fish1

How do you make peace with a broken synagogue? In fact, I think going out of your way to make peace with a broken anyplace with which you’re affiliated is the worst thing you can do. For you and the broken place.

Take my broken place. For three years I’ve complained about the way my shul manages to repeatedly send a message of marginalization to entire segments of the community, with promises of change that never happens. I’ve been disheartened watching our rabbi disconnect emotionally from the congregation while strategizing an exit plan. And I’ve witnessed a steady stream of people affiliate with us, clue into the above, and walk away.

Throughout that time, I’ve spoken about these issues with many rank-and-file members and several past and present members of our board who share my concerns about them. We always ask each other why nothing ever changes. I think part of the problem is because we keep trying to answer the question: how do you make peace with a broken place?

In organized Jewry, dissent is rarely an option–or at least an option that doesn’t end up with you shouted down out of some misplaced ancestral idea that if Members of the Tribe dare to disagree, cossacks will ride down from the nearest hill and slaughter us all. With that survivalist mentality in the back of so many Jewish minds, here are their most frequent responses to the question that I’ve seen at my shul:

  • try and get involved at the board or volunteer level to make beneficial change happen;
  • remain a dues-paying member but just kind of give up inside and stop coming to worship services and events; or
  • walk away entirely and make somewhere else your religious home.

Very often at my shul, it’s actually a progression from involvement to walking away. It’s almost never a reverse trajectory. Rarely do I hear people express how left out they felt before they became involved and found that their voice was valued. That’s because at my shul, like many others, because of the negative inertia of entrenched and short-sighted interests, only some voices are allowed to matter. If yours isn’t one of them, you could stand in the middle of the sanctuary with a megaphone. You simply will not be acknowledged. I think that’s why so many Jews who feel marginalized at synagogues like mine walk away instead of actively speaking truth to power.

I am not one of those Jews.

The question should really be, How do make a broken place less broken? But the place that’s broken has to admit there’s a problem first. Oh, first step. How difficult you always are to arrive at.

It pains me to acknowledge that for the past three years on my blog and on my Facebook timeline I have recorded instance after instance of the institutional marginalization and/or ridicule of Jews who don’t fit into a very narrow conception of who and how a Jew should be. That has included:

For three years I have asked privately and publicly for our shul to be more mindful of the fullness and diversity of our community of members. For three years I’ve been told, “You’re right, our bad.” And for three years, nothing has changed. Last Saturday, a security incursion happened during Saturday morning Shabbat services involving an individual potentially casing our building in order to firebomb it. Our synagogue immediately alerted families with children in religious school. It also alerted the Chicago Police (who alerted the F.B.I.), the Alderman’s office, and every single major Jewish institution in Chicagoland.

However, I learned about the incident–along with every other childless member of our congregation–via an email sent by the Alderman to all of Edgewater. That’s because our leadership once again as so many times before simply erased from their minds the fact that there is more to our community than our religious school. I complained about that on Facebook and was told by a member of our synagogue’s office staff that speaking out like that was lashon hara and chillul chashem.

But I define speaking ill of others and defaming the name of God in different terms.  They are not always to be found in mere words. Actions often speak louder. Marginalizing members without children in institutional messaging is lashon hara. Telling members when they complain that they feel marginalized that they should not say so in public–as often happens at my shul–is lashon hara. Doing things like this repeatedly until members start to walk away because their complaints are consistently ignored is chillul hashem.

My synagogue thinks it is a transparent place. It is not. It has a troubled board that lends its ear only to those with whom it agrees. It has a small but willfull clique of long-term members and leaders who go out of their way to bully other members into agreement or acquiescence with the status quo to ensure discussion of issues like the ones discussed in this post never takes place. And it does not share timely–or often any–information about decisions affecting the future of the congregation made at the board level with anyone not in the room or with access to a copy of the minutes.

Had the board actually discussed with all members of our congregation instead of a select few ongoing plans for our lead rabbi to reduce his role at our synagogue and for a succession committee to be formed, I wouldn’t have been so shocked to open this week’s issue of Crain’s Chicago Business and find my rabbi discussing his potential retirement plans on page 27.

And so, very often, members of my congregation either keep silent and wish for things to be different, or leave us entirely. It’s certainly easier that way. After all, if the people who run the show and their allies are invested in and willing to cut off your voice, silence debate, and refuse to acknowledge the way some members actually experience and are impacted by the status quo, why bother?

I’ll tell you why. Because a synagogue is for all people. It is for all members of a Jewish community–young and old, families with children and without, gay, straight, black, white, Jews-by-birth and Jews-by-choice. But just because the people in power at a given shul believe their own press that this is actually the way things are in their community does not somehow magically make it so.

There is a third option, besides giving in or walking away. That is, of course, speaking truth to power. All that has ever been necessary for that is firmness in the belief that what your kishkes tell you to be right often is. Although the modern ability to bypass willful informational roadblocks and disseminate your thoughts and feelings to anyone who cares to listen on the Interwebs is helpful, too. 

I am sure this post will anger many people. I am also sure an equal if not greater number of people will agree with everything I’ve written. And I have no doubt the former group will feel less afraid to share with me their thoughts than the latter group, because that’s how Jews try to keep each other in line.

In the spring issue of Reform Judaism, URJ President Rick Jacobs calls out congregations that refuse to put out the welcome mat for all types of Jews. He calls for Reform shuls to engage in acts of “Audacious Hospitality,” saying:

“To be sure, many of our congregations do an outstanding job of welcoming, but many do not…Audacious hospitality isn’t just a temporary act of kindness so people don’t feel excluded. It’s an ongoing invitation to be part of a community–and a way to spiritual transform ourselves in the process…Only by being inclusive can we be strong. Only by being open can we be whole.”

He’s talking about the welcoming of Jews unfamiliar to the congregation. But how do you achieve that kind of congregational strength and wholeness when some Jews who are actually a part of the congregation don’t feel particularly welcome, themselves?

At some point, “Oops, we goofed,” becomes less of an apology and more of a planned response for a lack of giving credence to others. Just because the gatekeepers of a place say it doesn’t mean there’s actual meaning in the words.

Whether you’re affiliated with my shul in Chicago or a broken synagogue halfway around the world, if my words ring true to you, my advice is to stop trying to make peace with the brokenness. As Jews we are commanded to be in awe and fear of God, not of our fellow human beings–no matter how loud fellow Jews may try to shout us down.

No synagogue should ever make its regular worshipers feel like they aren’t valued. No one should ever walk out of a Shabbat service or get to the end of a shul e-newsletter and wonder why they feel left out. No one should ever attend their shul’s board meeting as I did on Tuesday night and hear their rabbi say that institutional security measures planned two years previously were never fully put into practice simply because no one in leadership bothered to follow up on them. (Including, of course, the rabbi.)

I used to say my shul was the primary emotional connection keeping me in Chicago. But I’m also tired of keeping the benefit of the doubt open for a place I used to consider my spiritual home that, when I stop making excuses for it and pay attention to its actions instead of its repeated promises, seems clearly to care more about the monetizability of large family units than the religious needs of small ones.

“That’s the way it has always been,” and, “Other synagogues are the same way,” are not excuses. They are rationalizations. Synagogue leader, clergy, or rank-and-file member, if you aren’t heartbroken when a current member leaves or a potential member declines to affiliate with your shul, you should probably rethink the your commitment to Jewish ethics. As a people, haven’t we spent enough time wandering? Our task is to welcome.

This people is one people, whether you like it or not. And if you don’t like it, you don’t get to redefine our peoplehood for your own purposes. We welcome because as Jews we are commanded to do so. Do it with a smile on your face or through clenched teeth. It doesn’t matter which option you choose. Judaism thing is not meant to be easy. It is meant to be honest and real.

And the reality is, audacious welcoming has a long way to go before it truly arrives at the door of my shul. Refusing to hear that does not make it any less so.

Shabbat Shalom.

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