Monday, November 22, 2010

Al Tifrosh Min Hatzibur
Do Not Separate Yourself
From The Community, Part II

Rabbi Jamie Korngold giving lessons online
My friend Ilene urged me to post and expand my answer to her question about an article that appeared in the style section of yesterday's New York Times. We have been friends since our sons Sammy and Harper were in the baby room at the JCC. I have learned over the years that you don't spit in the wind, you don't tug on Superman's cape, and if at all humanly possible, you don't say no to Ilene. It's like yelling at the whirlwind.

The Times article - Bar Mitzvah Studies Take to the Web by Amy Virshup - describes how some rabbis and cantors are using Skype and other web 2.0 technologies to connect with young men and women preparing to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It also explores how some of those clergy offer their services specifically to enable families who do not belong to congregations to maintain this non-affiliation. For some of these service providers, they describe what they offer as a financial benefit:
"they’re not paying dues and religious school fees to a synagogue for years of preparation. The e-rabbis generally charge on a fee-for-service basis —Yitzhak Miller (he prefers “Rabbi Yitzi”) charges $950 for 12 hours of Hebrew tutoring (in either 15-minute weekly sessions or half-hour ones every other week), another $875 for his Family Exploration program (in which participants study the meaning and importance of the bar mitzvah ceremony) and then $1,000 to officiate at a Saturday morning Torah service."
 Others, like adventure-rabbi Jamie Korngold, say that they offer something meaningful that established synagogues by and large do not.
“Our generation doesn’t view Judaism as an obligation,” said Rabbi Jamie Korngold, aka the Adventure Rabbi, who offers an online bar mitzvah program. “It’s something that has to compete in the marketplace with everything else they have in their lives...”
Taking the online route, according to those who’ve done it, is especially good for children with learning disabilities who might have trouble in a conventional classroom. It is also more convenient and flexible, better attuned to the hectic schedules of contemporary family life (no carpooling!). “Joining a synagogue? I looked at it, and there would have been no bat mitzvah,” said Shari Steele, whose daughters’ double bat mitzvah was led by Rabbi Korngold in August. “It would not have happened for my family.”
For some time now, there have been voices in the Jewish world saying (sometimes shouting) that the synagogue is just so 20th century - it no longer meets the needs of the Jewish people (at least those under 40). George D. Hanus, an attorney in Chicago, went so far as to publish monthly newspaper for a while in which he repeatedly accused the synagogue rabbinate of engaging in a form of fraud, by holding education hostage to synagogue membership. Of course his agenda involved getting all Jewish children into day schools - not a proposition whose success is indicated by the data. Day school is great for many, but there always be more who make other choices.

I am not unbiased, as a synagogue based educator, but I am unconvinced. Does the synagogue need to change and learn how to meet the needs of a new generation? Absolutely, and it always has needed to do so. Synagogues have risen or failed to rise to meet that challenge for millenia. To that end, I want to recommend a book to anyone who is a professional or lay leader in a synagogue (from any movement/non-movement).

Jim Prosnit, my rabbi suggested that our Senior Staff (2 rabbis, 1 Cantor, 3 educators and our physical plant director) and our president make part of our bi-weekly staff meeting into a book club. We are reading Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary by Isa Aron, Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence A. Hoffman and Ari Y. Kelman. It has been a fascinating read and we have had some wonderful conversations. I believe that this will spark a new level of visioning and development for our congregation. I will write more about this book later. The reason I bring it up in this discussion is to make it clear that there are many alternatives to tossing the synagogue and the synagogue school into the dustbin of history. The model is not useless simply because its roots are in centuries past. It needs to adapt to the needs of the 21st century. It needs Jews to join and create that evolution.

Another book that is helping me think this through is The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change by Beth Kantor and Allison Fine. They are two social media experts whose practice centers on helping non-profits (and the synagogue fits that category rather nicely) use social media to connect to their constituency - members and potential members, to a donor base and to the work that they do to change the world. One of the things they have taught me is that Millenials (born 1978 - 92) are passionate about causes, but not about organizations. This tells me that we have to change the way we and they think about the synagogue - refocusing on the idea that the synagogue is a community, not just another organization. They also expect web-savvy and social media competence. We need to get on that.

I recommend all Jewish educators get a copy of this book and start reading it. And join Darim Online's Facebook Book Group, which is getting ready to discuss it from a Jewish educational perspective. You can click here to listen to a very interesting webinar Darim conducted with one of the authors, Allison Fine.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know I am committed to the idea of encountering Judaism and our Jewish connections through both an analog and a digital lens. And I applaud the clergy people described in the article in the Times for using technology to connect with their students.I have no problem with using technology, but the idea of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah without being a part of a worshiping community is bankrupt. Sammy (Ilene's son) and Harper (my son) are not becoming Jewish adults this spring in a vacuum or so they can put it on a resume. They are assuming the role of young men who can say prayers to which the rest of the adults in the congregation can say "Amen."

Rites of passage in all cultures are not only about the one reaching a milestone, but about the change in their role within a community. There is nothing wrong with going to Israel or the Grand Canyon for a private or semi-private ceremony. That is just a Kodak moment. You don't "have" a Bar/Bat Mitzvah any more than you "have" a lawyer, doctor or tennis player. You become those those things.

And a child becomes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah by virtue of reaching the Jewish Age of majority, not because they participated in or led a service. The service is actually so that the adult community can publicly acknowledge that this person is no longer a minor in the eyes of the community, but someone whose prayers and blessings can count for all of us and to which we may say "Amen." (See Sanhedrin 68b)

But completely divorcing the process from a sacred community is not much different than the Faux Mitzvah - a non-Jewish riff on the Bar Mitzvah for the purpose of having a party to celebrate a birthday in a way that mirrors some of the B/M parties for which some communities have become a little infamous. It rips away the meaning.

I have admired much of the Adventure Rabbi Stuff Jamie Korngold has been doing. I think this may be a bit too much of an adventure. I do anticipate a time in the near future when our members' kids will have some of their BM lessons via skype. With two working parents, crazy schedules, etc, I see no problem with our cantor Blum scheduling a meeting that takes place in the comfort of their respective homes. In fact I hope it happens relatively soon. It responds to the needs of families and their unique needs. And we need to be asking the questions that will reveal the needs people have so we can meet them.

In this context, our cantor could be working with kids who go to religious school, to camp, on retreats and in the junior choir with one another - in short within the context of a sacred community of learners, of prayers and of doers of Tikkun Olam.

Solving the problem of the last Jewish family in East Cupcake, North Dakota or in Smolensk is noble and valuable. And technology can help do that for people who don't have much geographic proximity to a Jewish community, Giving a family in Chicago or Fairfield, CT  the opportunity to opt out of a congregation to save money or the commitment of time and energy in order to tag the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Base is just not Jewish.

We have all seen kids (and adults) who have no eyes. You know who I mean - the ones who never look up from their hand-held device: a Blackberry, an I-Phone/Touch/Pad/Pod, a GameBoy or other game system - and so we never see their eyes.

If technology serves to allow people to further separate themselves from the community, then community will only be virtual, not real. Technology needs to be used to bring us together, not give us the means to stay apart. Our congregation's Facebook Group is only a few weeks old and is already bringing people together. Our Kitah Hey (5th graders) connect with kids in Beersheva and Haifa via Skype on our SmartBoard.

But this past Shabbat, my twelve year-old son wanted to go to services with his dad. He's not too old to play with my tzitzit (and he is starting to think about what he wants his tallis to look like). And he wanted to sit with his grand-friend Jim Abraham in services and at breakfast with the Brotherhood. He set down his cell phone and connected in prayer and fellowship with his congregational community. And then when we left, he texted his good friends from Eisner Camp.

Rachel Gurevitz, my other rabbi, told me about a member of our congregation whose family began attending our monthly Mishpacha Shabbat. In the beginning, she and her husband would discuss it as the time neared. But community is habit forming. Now it just goes on the calendar at the beginning of the year. And that same member has become involved with a group of other parents in our Kitah Gimel (3rd grade). We don't have school the Sunday of Thanksgiving. So she and a group of other parents are arranging a Sunday morning get together because they don't want to miss out on their weekly community time together. 

Rabbi Fred Schwartz of Temple Sholom in Chicago once told me he believed that Jews should be allowed to die without benefit of clergy. If you don't affiliate or if you leave the synagogue, why should you expect a rabbi at you parent's funeral? Where were you when the congregation needed your support - and now you want theirs? And he wasn't talking about money. He was talking about being in the pews. At someone's shivah. At the Beit Cafe. Letting the Youth Group wash your car. Marching on Washington in support of Israel.

The woman quoted in the final paragraph of the New York Times article makes me very sad. "Once Joanne... had found a rabbi for Eli to work with, she pretty much bowed out of the preparations, she said. 'I just cared about the party.'" She misses the point of Eli becoming a Bar Mitzvah. This should be his coming out celebration - in the sense of the debutantes of yesteryear. How can he be a Jewish adult if she has disconnected him from the Jewish community? 

The point of the whole exercise is announcing that you are ready to engage in the richness of Jewish life and the community announcing it is ready to take your participation seriously on an adult level. Technology, like all innovations can be both tool and weapon. It can divide us or bring us together. As parshat Nitzavim reminds us, we must choose well, so we may live.

For more on this and the article inside the same section by Bruce Feiler please check out Sh'ma Koleinu by Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz.

ShareThis