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The Benefits of Membership

ryan hospital bed

UPDATE (3/26/18): In almost a decade and a half, I have never taken down a post on my blog and I won’t start now. I think it’s important to know where you’ve been if you want to really know where you’re going. But before you read this, I want you to know the anger and accusations in this long-ago post no longer reflect my current thoughts and feelings about Emanuel Congregation. Where there was anger, there is love and peace. It took me too long to get there. You really should read my teshuvah.


I do believe it says something fundamental about a congregation when a member of the membership committee decides not to renew their membership. Yet that’s my story as the traditional July 1st synagogue membership renewal date approaches. I wish I could say I hadn’t seen it coming.

But really, it’s been obvious for a long time for anyone paying attention. Which unfortunately doesn’t account for the leadership of my outgoing synagogue. I don’t think I need to make any finer point about the leadership and diversity problems at Emanuel Congregation. I covered that pretty well back in March and April (see This People and Impure.) The gist being that how the synagogue thinks it comes across and how it really comes across to rank-and-file members are two entirely different things–the latter being much less attractive than the former.

This is what’s relevant here. When I walked angrily out of Shabbat morning services three months ago, that really was the last time I set foot in the building. Ironically–or stereotypically–enough, the night I chanted Torah (my faux bar mitzvah) was the last time Ryan or I attended services there. We finally tired of the very well-known lousy attitude of Emanuel’s head rabbi and decided, like many congregants before us, that we’d had enough.

So after more than three-and-a-half years of regularly attending Friday night services and missing, at most, half a dozen Fridays in all that time, for the past three months, we’ve both been consistently absent. Not absent from a burgeoning and enormous regular crowd of worshipers, mind you, but absent from a weekly group of at most 20 people. So it isn’t as if our lack of attendance could possibly go unnoticed.

Neither the rabbi nor other leadership ever reached out to us.

Hold that thought and marry this to it. During our absence, about a month ago Ryan was rushed to the hospital via ambulance with chest pains (that we now know were due to a very stressful former work situation that he has now replaced with a new and awesome job.) I rushed up Lake Shore Drive from work as he panicked on the phone with me waiting for the paramedics to arrive. He sat in the hospital long enough for fellow congregants to visit us, and our Facebook walls were completely blown up with messages of concern from many others.

Neither the rabbi nor other leadership ever reached out to us.

This week, our membership renewal form arrived in the mail with accompanying literature telling us all of the ways that Emanuel would be a spiritual and congregational benefit to us as long as we continued to pay a couple of hundreds dollars a month for the privilege.

There are many things I could say here, but I think the above few paragraphs speak loudly enough for themselves. Although it’s worth noting that everyone deserves a synagogue–and a rabbi–that might actually notice if they lived or died. In the end, it’s clear all we ever were to Emanuel leadership was a budget item and nothing more.

You won’t be surprised to learn the renewal form went in the trash.

To new beginnings.

Categories: COMMUNITY Emanuel Congregation Ryan UNAFFILIATED

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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10 replies

  1. Michael
    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.

    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 its 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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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

    1. Wow. Nu, so you’re also too busy to “waste time” contacting a family in your community who just had someone wind up in the hospital? You’re too busy to wish them refuah shleimah or see if they need someone to make them a casserole or something? What kind of community is this, exactly? Because from where I sit, if you (collective “you”) don’t consider that a priority and don’t support any member family that way when they’re in a comparable situation, then that’s not a Jewish “community” of which I would care to be a part. If you would normally extend that kind of support and assistance to a member’s family but failed to do so in Michael’s case, well, I assume you realize that that looks even worse and constitutes a pretty enormous chillul Hashem.

      I’m not Reform, I don’t live in Chicago, and I have no real relationship with Michael aside from reading his blog occasionally, so I have no particular dog in this fight, but while I’ve disagreed with some of the points he makes in his posts, reading this gem of a post would ensure that I would never, ever care to set foot in a synagogue whose board speaks to its members that way, certainly not after the revelation that their husband was rushed off to the hospital, and no one in the synagogue or its leadership cared enough to do so much as pick up a phone and call. Whatever bad blood is between your board and this blogger, the fact that that lengthy post didn’t even include an apology for that oversight tells me everything I’d need to know as a prospective member.

    2. Wow, that’s about the worst possible reply someone from the synagogue could make. Instead of responding with, “We’re sorry, we really do need to tend to our flock better,” all you can come up with is “What have you done for US lately?”

      Not every member of a community, religious or otherwise, has the time, ability, or inclination to participate on a council, volunteer group, or other program. That doesn’t mean they’re not part of the community. And that doesn’t mean that you cast them out. It means you’re supposed to try harder to bring them closer to you; to embrace them harder and longer because maybe they need it. God calls upon all of us to demonstrate selfless love, even if, and especially is, we have a title in His name.

      Ms. Bertocchi’s response exemplifies what is wrong with a number of religious communities around the country, Jewish and otherwise, that are causing more and more people to move away from God.

      Good job, Susan.

  2. Thank you, Phil.

    Adam & Yaakov, I appreciate your comments. In the end, actions speak louder than words, and this year I decided to pay more attention to my congregation’s actions, not its words. (As in, official interactions from leadership towards us as members.) Based on that, except for the cantor who I really can’t fault at all (she is the one awesome bright spot there), we realized how fractured and disconnected a place it really was, especially in terms of the lead rabbi and longtime board members. We’re broken-hearted about it. But not as much as you might think. We’ve already made tentative plans for the HHDs, and they don’t include being in a synagogue at all. So our experience at Emanuel doesn’t really leave us wanting to connect with another synagogue anytime soon. And THAT is not an uncommon experience with ex-Emanuelites, either. All around, just unfortunate.

  3. Michael I am sorry that the leadership at Emanuel hadn’t reached out to you and especially Ryan at the time he was rushed to the hospital! Though I haven’t shown up as much myself I had no idea they ignored this crisis! It is shocking to me! I hope your search for a synagogue that can really care about you and Ryan totally and completely will be found soon! You both have been really great people considering that you put up with my sense of humor. In the meantime, happy gogue hunting!!!

  4. I can’t say as I blame you. I ended up leaving my former Unitarian church when I fell on hard times and got immense pressure from the finance committee to increase my former pledge for the year anyway. It hurt, and I left. I don’t like being reduced to just a number on a balance sheet.

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