Emanuel Congregation V.P. to Us: Drop Dead


good day sir

(Update: Sept. 22, 2015) After our negative experience with Emanuel Congregation, we spent more than a year unaffiliated with any synagogue, and a lot of time figuring out the criteria that constitute for us a truly welcoming, diverse congregation. This summer we found that congregationTemple Sholom–three miles down the road from Emanuel. We couldn’t be happier.

The same month I wrote this post, June 2014, Highland Park’s B’nai Torah congregation closed after 60 years. A Chicago Tribune article recounts the tale. When faced with a financial challenge, in the words of the synagogue’s penultimate rabbi, the board of the now-former synagogue came to define the shul as an “economic problem” instead of a “sacred gathering place.” As a result, so many members walked away and were not replenished with new members that eventually the congregation could no longer continue.

I learned this week that Emanuel Congregation’s senior rabbi will be retiring in June 2016. If I were a prospective rabbi for that pulpit, I would ask Emanuel’s board two questions: Tell me about B’nai Torah. And then tell me how Emanuel intends to avoid the same fate…


Today, a vice president of Emanuel Congregation submitted a lengthy comment in response to yesterday’s blog post regarding Ryan and my decision not to renew our membership after four years (see: The Benefits of Membership.) The nature of the comment merits it a full airing wider than yesterday’s comment thread, so I’m reprinting it here (numerous typos corrected for clarity), followed by my own response, paragraph by paragraph.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog and the numerous issues we’ve experienced with Emanuel, the following comment will more than likely speak for itself. If you’re new here, to understand what is going on here, see yesterday’s post and also March’s This People and April’s Impure


Although many of us in the Emanuel community, especially the leadership, have always and often been less than appreciative of you regular critiques of Emanuel in your various social media platforms, it’s clearly your right.”

Avoiding the goading, it is very true that I have blogged repeatedly, over almost four years, about persistent, structural problems at Emanuel Congregation impacting the member and worship experiences. Most of those blog posts make it quite clear that my blogging on the issues emerged only after repeated attempts to engage synagogue leadership in dialogue, alert leadership about issues, or more often than not, receive any sort of response at all. When you systematically shut out member input, there’s really no room to be “less than appreciative” when it appears elsewhere. It’s 2014, everyone has a “social media platform,” and the days of keeping internal issues quiet so that you don’t have to deal with them, whether at a shul or anywhere else, are long gone.

“I speak here though for myself. Not as a member of the lay leadership. As someone who is privy to alot of what is actually happening at Emanuel and who does whay, I gotta say that your name has, outside Membership, been pretty absent from any committee lists, event organizing, boards, or volunteer lists that I have ever seen or been part of. So it’s not like you actually joined, dug in, got involved, learned about what we think are the very real issues to work through, learned what’s actually going on to address them and worked with us on solutions. Nope. You have always seem more interested in what we are or aren’t doing for you. And as anyone knows it’s so easy to shoot spitballs from the stands.”

Everything a  synagogue board officer–in this case, a vice president–does and says in public reflects on their office and on their institution. Just because a board members prefaces a comment with “I speak for myself” does not mean they actually, or even reasonably, get to do that. The fact that the author of these comments is an Emanuel board member is in no way lost on anyone reading them.

In terms of committees, at Emanuel I’ve served on the Ritual and Membership committees, and technically am still a member of the Membership committee through June 30. As a member of the Ritual committee, I was responsible for Emanuel shifting to a silent Amidah during Shabbat worship services in 2012. As a member of the Membership committee, I repeatedly voiced the need for official materials to be mindful of the Emanuel’s diverse membership.

In terms of volunteering, Ryan repeatedly sought to volunteer at the synagogue for more than 18 months, submitting a series of volunteer forums to the office. No one ever responded to him. Not one time. Even after I raised the issue at the committee level and with office staff.

Ryan and I have also been tapped repeatedly for High Holy Day honors on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur since arriving at Emanuel, each time being told we had to accept the honors because we would know how to perform them and because so few other members would say yes to accepting them.

All of the foregoing was chronicled on CHICAGO CARLESS. So far from throwing “spitballs from the stands,” as I have said repeatedly on this blog–and which appears clearly to be borne out in the above comment–Emanuel leadership rarely pays attention to the activities of the shul’s own members.

“As a guy who complained that Bar Mitzvahs ruin Saturday Shabbat services because the families take over, it is clear to me that you not only don’t understand the function of ceremonies in Judiasm ( being communal vs. individually focused) but perhaps also what makes a synagogue member and community thrive. It’s communal vs individual.”

This is untrue. Judaism is both individual and communal. Though it’s worth nothing that debate about where in the middle to place the emphasis between these two central poles of Judaism is frequently divisive. A basic tenent of Reform Judaism is to find your own way through worship, faith, the commandments, and your relationship with God to find what rings true and what does not. Taking all of your cues from your community without question or pushback is not at all a part of liberal Jewish ethics. Believing that it is, as I have often blogged, immediately cuts off the input of individual Jews.

Ron Wolfson’s writing on how to be a welcoming congregation is pertinent here. I would suggest seeing his article in the Summer 2014 Reform Judaism magazine and his recent book, Relational Judaism. (Ironically, earlier this year, Wolfson was booked to speak at Emanuel but the speaking engagement never took place.)

“Believe me. If you knew me better you would know that I am the last person in that building that would say that things are all as they should be at Emanuel. But you don’t know what I think – or how anyone else working on the solutions thinks. Because you haven’t tried to be part of the solution.”

I responded to the erroneous idea that I haven’t engaged with synagogue community life further above. What I find troubling here is the idea that there is any public discussion or debate about things not being “all they should be” at Emanuel. There isn’t. Board members may talk among themselves, but at the level of rank-and-file members, voicing concerns about things not being as they should be is almost always met with severe, almost knee-jerk pushback. I’ve blogged about being on the receiving end of this many times, and it is obvious the comments to which I’m responding here are par in that regard as well.

“Did it occur to you that perhaps no one has really ever responded – or will respond now, other than me – because with all your very public trashing of Emanuel you haven’t really created an impression of an open, solution oriented person who wants to help things get better. Quite the opposite.”

Again, having discussed how I (and Ryan) actually have been involved or tried diligently to be involved, there’s nothing more to say in that regard here. But strikes me, though, is the surety with which an Emanuel board member believes beyond all doubt how a particular member or members have–or have not–engaged with the synagogue. Susan, if you really think what you wrote above, then you haven’t been paying attention at all. Institutional myopia like that is exactly the problem with leadership at Emanuel that I have blogged about for years.

What did occur to me is that Jewishly, even after almost four years of feeling persistently shut out by Emanuel leadership, it was my ethical duty to give Emanuel leadership the benefit of the doubt and to expect their actions to reflect their roles as Jewish leaders in charge of stewarding an entire community and embracing both people in agreement with them and people not in agreement. I’ve done so, for a long time.

It’s disheartening to know–judging not just from this comment but well exemplified by it–that my longstanding suspicion about the nature of Emanuel leadership as being essentially shallow, petty, cliquish, mean-spirited, spiteful, and gratuitously deaf to the needs of all members was not misplaced.

“And honestly we are all way too busy working hard on real issues and making things better at Emanuel to waste time responding to someone like that.

God bless,

Susan Bertocchi”

Susan, you don’t mean that at all. You actually mean to be bitchy, as that is the tenor of your entire body of comments. Using the words, “God bless,” in this context is nothing more than chillul hashem. When I said in yesterday’s post that we deserved to have a synagogue where the rabbi would visit one of us sick in a hospital, I meant that. No matter what the disagreement might be internally. That would have been the Jewishly ethical thing to do.

But this is not the place to remind you, your fellow Emanuel board members, or your lead rabbi, Michael Zedek, about Jewish ethics. If you don’t know them by now, if your collective words and actions towards the entire body of synagogue members aren’t deeply and unflaggingly informed by them already, what more could I possibly say?

God bless you and them. I truly mean that. You deserve someday to live up to your leadership roles.

And the congregation deserves for you to do that, too.

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What do you think?