Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Community Dying

I belong to a Jewish community that can only be described as dying. The bigger question for those of us who even care is...WHY?

Well, technically, the reasons are obvious. Our membership is down. Income is down. There are fewer and fewer children in the religious and Hebrew schools. The same four people work every event and the same seven people attend. All of this in and of itself spells death for our community.

But, personally, I think there may be bigger and more insidiuous reasons and more than a few center around our rabbi, which then begs the question....did the community kill the rabbi or did the rabbi kill the community?

Our rabbi has been under our employ for about 16 years or so. She came to us about 10 years out of rabbinical school, unmarried and probably more than a little ambitious.

While our community is technically a Reform congregation, we have many members who are Orthodox or Conservative and so our minhag reflects that. Our services are an eclectic blend of all three and I am sure because there really isn't any other choice out here in the boondocks and a good thirty miles from the next larger Jewish community, well, it works, or at least HAS worked, for us.

Now, though, who knows? Does it work anymore? What is the problem? Is it the area's population-retention problem in general or is there a more specific cause?

Since our rabbi first signed her contract with us, she has married and had a child. Her husband does absolutely nothing along the lines of rebbetzin even though he likes to point out that this is his title within the congregation. Generally he sits in the back and makes strange comments to people or tells off color jokes to the young women.

The boy is another ball of wax altogether. He is the rabbi's son after all. He rules the roost and acts as a Pied Piper in leading all of the other children astray. The adults generally click their tongues and shake their heads as his behaviour increasingly becomes worse and worse. But nothing can be done because neither the rabbi nor her husband WANT anything to be done.

The child tortures children who are less able or who have handicaps and the mother makes excuses, blaming the less abled child for making HER child uncomfortable around them. When the toilets exploded, nothing was said, although tzedakkah was offered on behalf of this boy.

And I will concede that he is bright and capable and able. I do take issue though that from among ALL the children he is the MOST abled.

When he is running wild through the oneg, kicking people and screaming, blindsiding his father to the floor and then running off to throw books at the EXIT lights until they fall down there ARE actually people who will tell him to his mother looks on wanly from the sidelines, forever his best friend and champion since it will be true that SHE never corrected him.

But I suppose he has a good example for his behaviour as the rabbi, herself, is known to snark when someone makes a mistake in front of her or to throw a temper when her contract comes due.

Two months ago as her contract was being renegotiated, her son proudly stopped playing with the posse of lemmings who blindly follow and obey him, and looked at a congregant and told them, "My mom is going to quit this place and move us to the BIG city and then this place will collapse and die!"

Then he ran off.

Sadly, this may very well be true since most of the members don't believe we can replace her. That no rabbi would come to this one horse town for the one horse salary we are able to pay.

Community members who tell me they'd like to come to services then tell me that the rabbi is a very "coarse" woman when I tell them to call her to make arrangements to attend.

What do new members think?

I know what I thought!

Despite being her student, when I attended services, I felt alone and embarassed because never once did she introduce me to another person. During class she spent the one or two hours talking about herself and then would cancel months worth of lessons afterward. Now, granted, she did have huge commitments that year that prevented regular classes but I always felt she finally took me to the mikveh more for my potential dues than for my definite readiness.

(Fortunately for me, I had started taking classes in the next larger community and I was assuredly READY despite her lack of attention although it does make me wonder - how ready was everyone else she converted, especially those we never see again?)

I have to wonder - did her enthusiasm due as a result of our apathy? Did her commitment and ambition become casualties of a community that was withering on the vine? Did she pour her energy and her soul into us only to have them sucked out of her until she was completely dry and just couldn't care anymore? Or did her lack of concern suck our own enthusiasm dry? When she shot down ideas to revitalize ourselves, did that steal our own enthusiasm? Was our energy sucked out by having to support a family at the helm who clearly didn't care or respect US????

It all comes back to the sad fact that our community is dying - whatever the cause, it has put us on life support.

And to solve this problem, I really feel we have to conclude WHAT exactly was the cause?

I may be wrong and G-d knows I have been before. Maybe more people love this rabbi and her family than I am giving credit. Maybe the major cause isn't the turmoil within the walls of the synagogue but really, truly a great exodus of the area's population which, naturally, would include any available Jews who would normally be members. Maybe it's just exactly what the URJ says it is and that is a declining interest in affiliation with ANY movement...a natural by-product of the in-fighting between the branches of Judaism today. I admit that that would probably, in the end, be PART of my own reason for choosing to unaffiliate.

But whatever it is, clearly, there are issues which cannot be painted over. We cannot pretend they aren't there and don't exist.

A lot of people say, "Wait for the boy's bar mitzvah" and think that she will leave after that...implying that while there IS a problem, it's only temporary. Others feel that an influx of new members and hence, an influx of new money will make everything all better. New ideas, new blood....THAT will save this congregation!

But will it really? Or will it simply band-aid over what the real disease is - what is really killing us from the inside out.

I can't help but think that until the REAL problem is discovered, thoughtfully resolved and action taken, nothing we do can save this community.

And although this is an issue faced by the entire Jewish community as a whole, for our little corner of the world, it really is very, very sad.


Anonymous said...

It is hard to get clergy to leave the coasts and come out to the smaller towns. And rabbis' kids are often trouble-makers, though your rabbi's son sounds exceptionally annoying. I'm sorry your congregation is going through this.

The proper care, feeding and - "lulei demistafina" - management of clergy is an interesting subject for us lay leaders. You want a rabbi with a strong personality but "coarse" is not so good -- a rabbi should at least be a mensch.

Sometimes you have a congregation with a somewhat distant rabbi but a very warm and welcoming cantor, or board president. Someone has to make people feel welcome there. (Especially important in parts of the country where connections to Judaism are tenuous at best.)

Unknown said...

Very very wise words. I think the questions are more important than what is actually happening. And yes, making people feel welcome would be a great start. But it just seems that there are deeper issues...and what are they? Truly...did the community kill the rabbi's spirit or did the rabbi's spirit kill the community? When IS it time to say goodbye and how do smaller communities do that AND stay vibrant? I am sure these will all be answered should she ever leave - either by her own free will or a mutual agreement with the congregation - but how will they be resolved if she DOESN'T leave? At this point most people just want to keep the status works even if it IS irrevocably broken.

Shira Salamone said...

Oy, does this ever sound familiar! My own shul is also on its last legs. No one's joining to take the place of the members who've been removed from the rolls by the Mal'ach HaMavet (Angel of Death). We're old, and we're dying. At 56, I'm one of the youngest members of the congregation who attends Shabbat morning services weekly.

As for the rabbi, he's a decent man, and learned, but socially clueless, and a misfit, as one might expect of an Orthodox rabbi serving a Conservative congregation. He, too, is here because we can't afford anyone better.

We've already had to move from a large building to a much smaller one. It's just a matter of time before we have to sell our current building, as well, and buy a house, thereby proving that there's such a thing as a non-Orthodox shtieble. We'll probably be gone, altogether, within the next 15 years.

At this rate, my husband and I may be among the last remaining Jews in this neighborhood.

Shira Salamone said...

Re the "misfit" part, I did not intend any offense. What I mean is that, if one asks a question concerning any aspect of Jewish tradition, one gets a response that reflects an Orthodox interpretation, which is not necessarily what one has in mind when joining a Conservative synagogue.