I am not a happy camper! I was just about to get to bed at a reasonable time when yet another truly ridiculous, truly insulting and truly illuminating bad-synagogue story was related to me. Picture an 11 year old who uses a wheelchair (this is not a story about my son, by the way). This 11-year old who is physically disabled but intellectually sharp, bright and dynamic wants to attend Hebrew school at a local synagogue. The mItzvah projects and even classrooms, however are not accessible. The parents approach the synagogue and explain how very much their Jewish disabled son wishes to participate in Hebrew and Sunday school. That were it not for the physical limitations, he’d be there and could they possibly do something to accommodate his needs. They actually plead with the synagogue and Hebrew school director and when finally a small bit of leeway is offered, the school jacks up its prices and declares that no financial aid is available. This young man is today a college kid, who upon meeting my son on his college visit, shares this story and how he’d STILL like to become a Bar Mitzvah but has never (and neither have his parents) returned.
The High Holy Days that have just come and gone were wonderful for CSK. At CSK, all are welcome, no matter if any kind of financial donation is made. And you know who fills our seats in addition to our CSK regulars? Those cornerstones, whom the builders of our community have rejected. How is it possible that in a climate such as ours, with disaffiliation and disaffection on the rise with each passing Rosh Hashanah, that a synagogue says to an inquiring young adult moving to Houston that they cannot be offered a complimentary or significantly reduced entry into High Holy Days. Well, your loss is our gain but I JUST DON’T GET IT!
Here some of the greatest American Rabbis, Philanthropists and Academics combine their national and world wide community muscle to promote a new strategy for our Jewish world and the best that can be offered is that we need more Jews to marry Jews, to send kids to summer camp and day schools. Its almost as if the entire mainstream leadership has surrendered, because they’re just all out of ideas, or energy or both.
Wait! I have a few! Maybe our national Jewish community is suffering financially as well as spiritually because far too often our institutional leaders (clergy and lay) have not acted like mensches! Maybe it is as simple as Rabbi Alfred Wolf said to my class in Rabbinical school as he left our Practical Rabbinics class: “At the end of the day, to be a great Rabbi, you just have to be yourself. Unless you’re a shmuck, then be somebody else.”
Nobody is perfect and Rabbis, Cantors, Educators and Administrators make mistakes just like everybody else. But one of the great sadnesses of our entrenched institutional intransigence, is that humility is gone with the wind. There are too many stories of too many young people who have been rejected by too many leaders, teachers and mentors at precisely the times when they needed them the most.
Initiatiatives…shmanitiaves! What I think its time for, is a national Jewish community summit on the rapprochement needed within our communities. One only has to barely scratch the surface of so many Jews, Jewish families and those who love them to discover that the pain runs deep and it runs wide. The time has come, as Rabbi Heschel taught, for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity that establishes humility, not scholarship nor hermeneutics nor savvy nor rainmaking, but humility as the measure by which we assess our leaders.
I just cannot bear yet another story of a rejected child, a tossed away family, a forgotten senior or an ignored principle, particularly in the face of wringing hands over “what to do, what to do.” If we really want to understand what has gone wrong, gather your friends, your supporters, your members and in an open and safe forum, invite the synagogue’s stories that get hushed when the Rabbi walks by. This might just be a new way to begin. Al cheit sh’chatanu lefanecha….