BANKRUPTCY

“Na (sic) ha (sic) can you compete!” exclaimed my late Uncle Morris in his Polish accented English, as he commiserated with my father over their plight as small independent clothing store owners, attempting to eke out a livelihood in a city with more top notch retail stores than one could have imagined.

My Uncle Morris’ words came to mind last week, as I read about Sears recently filing for bankruptcy. Given the current retail climate in this country, Sears simply couldn’t compete.  My Uncle Morris’ words came to mind however for yet another reason. As a congregational rabbi, I’ve come to realize, that although in all likelihood I am a lone voice crying out in the wilderness, when it comes to competing, unlike retail stores,  synagogues shouldn’t compete.

Yes, competition is part and parcel of human nature. Communism was destined to fail from the start, because it did away with the individual as well as competitive spirit of the individual. I’ll be the first profess  that competition, if correctly executed (and it hardly ever is), is quite healthy and even desirable for humans. The intent and goal of Judaism however, isn’t to make us more human; the intent and goal of Judaism is to make us more humane. Competition is part and part of human nature. Judaism on the other hand, challenges us to rise above human nature. How else can we explain the basis of kashrut, which by its very essence, is designed to suppress human urges and to ask of us to work on rechanneling human nature? Judaism asks that each of us incorporate a non- compete clause into our very nature.

“Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people” according to David Sarna. Recently, I returned a call to someone from the greater New York City area who was looking to relocate to Dallas. It didn’t take long to realize that I was falling prey to the very competition against which I am inveighing. “I’m sure that you’ve reached out to other rabbis as well” I said in my phone conversation to the gentleman. “And how many rabbis have taken the time to get back to you”, I smugly asked. Implicit in my question of course, was the fact that I provide better service than do other rabbis. By asking about other rabbis, I succumbed to the very worst aspect of competition; I showed that I was there for him by pointing out that other rabbis were not. Mea culpa!

Yet as uncalled for as my question was, I was mild in my condemnation of those “competing” against me. One need only watch political commercials being presently aired to see the very worse aspect of competition. We call it negative campaigning. Rather than present their attributes and explain why one should vote for them, political candidates  point out the shortcomings, drawbacks and faults  of their rivals. In Judaism, we call that Loshon HaRa or slander. As far as our sages were concerned, Loshon Hara is about as low as one can go.

How did it ever happen that synagogues capitulated to clichés and worn out phrases such as “warm congregations,” “friendly services” and “caring rabbis”? How is it that congregations  deigned to respond to the repugnant term “Shul shopping” ? Recently, I heard a speaker tell us how Jews are defecting from Modern Orthodoxy, because it does not fill their needs as far as women’s participation and involvement. Politically, the current trend of Modern Orthodoxy is also not to their liking. Excuse me? I was always under the impression that religion was for prayer and connecting with G-d. How did it happen that religion must now compete for our political comfort as well as our personal view of the world? The real travesty however is that so many rabbis and so many congregations will spare no expense to keep the shul shopping congregant, real or perceived,  satisfied.

There is however one type of competition that congregations would do well to embrace. And that is competition against oneself. Rather than worry about what other synagogues are doing best, congregations are better served when they are concerned about their own performance, and constantly looking to live up to their potential and seek new spiritual challenges.

Perhaps it’s time for congregations and rabbis to show what they stand for. Perhaps it’s time for congregations and rabbis to no longer fall prey to merchandising. When all is said and done, since its inception, Judaism has shown itself to be impervious to bankruptcy.

 

RESURRECTED OR DEFECTED

Dan Bilefsky, New York Time’s reporter up in Canada would in all likelihood benefit from a vocabulary lesson. Last week, Mr. Bilefsky wrote an article titled “Old Houses of Worship Resurrected.” Mr. Bilefsky described how once vibrant Montreal churches are now operating as a gym and spa or a comedy club or a fromagerie (cheese shop). Excuse me? The literal definition of resurrected means brought back to life. Resurrected implies brought back to life as it once was. A house of worship that is now operating as a comedy club defies the term resurrection; a house of worship that is now operating as a comedy club is defined as desecration. Just look at what has become of a House of G-d!

Yet, it seems to me, that a house of worship need not close its doors to suffer desecration. Houses of worship have been undergoing desecration for decades now. And in some cases, synagogues; Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, have done their share to desecrate. Well-meaning rabbis envisioned that the congregation serve as a “one stop” recreation center for its people. Throughout the decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s, suburban synagogues were built with basketball courts, and exercise rooms with the pièce de résistance being “a shule with a pool!” Why, even the names of these congregations evoked the fact that all one’s needs are provided for. In the late ‘70’s, I was teaching Hebrew School at Van Cortland Jewish Center in the Bronx. Hanging on the wall in my office is a vanity license plate denoting my prior pulpit, (Temple) Beth Or. Yet, Temple Beth Or was incorporated as Clark Jewish Center!

Personally speaking, I am very much in favor of a synagogue being home to a Cub Scout pack or a Girl Guide group. I think it’s wonderful that Book Clubs take place in synagogue buildings and I would give anything if we could provide a meeting place for Jewish seniors to get together on a regular to play mahjong or Bridge.

Heaven forbid however, that all these pastimes and recreational activities be at the expense of praying! One of the saddest comments I ever heard, was from a well-meaning congregant who boasted that she was in the synagogue six days a week. What she neglected to say, is that as often as she was in the synagogue building, she entered the sanctuary a mere four times a year – both days of Rosh Hashana, Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur Yizkor. Regardless of the name on the building of a church, synagogue, or mosque; it is still first and foremost a house of prayer. People like to see synagogues active and vibrant. No one would argue that. Yet, when prayer becomes at best secondary to other activities taking place, then I cannot help but feel that it is time for the synagogue leadership to engage in some serious soul-searching.

Halacha or Jewish law was quite specific when it forbade the sale of a synagogue to a church. I cannot help but feel that Halacha or Jewish law saw the very walls of a synagogue being imbued with a sanctity that did not dissipate with the sale of the building. I also cannot help but feel that Halacha or Jewish law fell woefully short. If the sanctity of a synagogue is anything but ephemeral, then that sanctity must take presence over anything and everything that goes on in that synagogue. Let it never be forgotten that Book Clubs, Bridge Clubs, Youth Clubs, as well as all other activities are taking place in a House of Worship.

“My grandmother is happy I spend time in Church, even if I’m exercising my biceps and not my soul,” said Olivier Pratte in a Montreal gym that had once been a church.

Maybe your grandmother is happy, Mr. Pratte. Many other grandmothers are rolling over in their graves, seeing what has become of their house of worship as perspiration replaces inspiration.