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Category Archives: Atonement

High Holiday ticket selling: Money making or Soul breaking?

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Selling tickets for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services has always felt intrinsically wrong to me. It doesn’t matter if the synagogue says they won’t turn someone away. To me that is irrelevant. The fact is the inference (of selling tickets) ALONE makes those people who can’t afford to buy them feel inferior.  It’s a shanda and should NEVER be done. Dammit! We’re such hypocrates! This is a holiday we are to think about the wrongs we’ve done to others and to apologize to them. It’s a holiday about admitting our transgressions and fixing it.

Making money off of a Holy day where we are to spend our time in self-reflection and soul checking (chesbone nefesh)…a Holy day where we are to reach out and apologize to those we hurt during the year…and it being a Holy time we are to ask G-d to inscribe us in the book of life…Selling tickets contradicts the meaning of the day especially when it hurts those unable to pay to pray. The entire money-making thing feels like the corporate mentality of how can we profit at every single turn even if it’s not nice. Oh hell, some synagogues sell seating and aliyot to make more money on the high holidays. There is nothing more ridiculous than to come to services and be forced to sit in folding chairs in the way back because someone paid to sit in the comfortable seats. And there’s nothing more asinine than to show up to services, to sit in the back and then to see all of the paid seats are empty because those folks like to make an entrance halfway through the service.

Listen, I understand a synagogue needs money to survive.  But here’s the thing, folks. Selling tickets isolates those who can’t afford it. Synagogue members say a person won’t be turned away but in reality they are being turned away. Putting other Jews in a situation where they have to choose to say, “I can’t afford it” (which is embarrassing) OR to choose to stay at home is just wrong. The entire ideology of selling tickets sends a message to those of us who are less fortunate financially. That message is if you can’t pay then you aren’t welcomed. Period.

Here’s the thing. Maybe a synagogue only wants those who can pay. OK, then. Just say so. Stop hiding behind a righteous persona of accepting anyone and be honest. Of course I’d feel that would be very wrong and against any of my Jewish beliefs BUT at least it would be truthful.

Listen, I really do understand a synagogue needs to make money. I get it. It needs money to sustain itself. It takes money to grow. However, never ever should the way it is done turn another Jew away. On one hand we say the high holidays are about checking one’s soul and apologizing to those we wronged but on the other hand we show such a lack of respect to those less fortunate when we use tickets for the high holidays. It’s OK as long as we apologize? I think not. Making money should never come before treating others the way we want to be treated ourselves. The corporate world has capitalized on making the most money it can by exploiting situations and people. I choose to “exploit” in a much more productive and creative way that doesn’t keep my people and their families from the very purpose of our synagogue…to come and pray. Creating new methods and new ideas (never thought up) is the direction synagogues need to go. Those methods need to be INCLUSIVE and NEVER exclusive.

When I was a little girl my family and I lived in Atlanta, GA. We attended the only conservative synagogue which was 45 minutes from our house. The fact that my dad was basically a dead beat and my mom supported me and my sister off a secretary’s salary, I don’t know how in the hell she was able to give us the Jewish education that was so important to her.

I attended Hebrew school 2 days a week and Sunday school. I remember feeling different. Most of the kids in my religious school classes were from families whose vacations cost more than what my mom was making in a month. I knew our status was way below the others but our mom didn’t care. It was important to her we got our Jewish education and she did everything in her power to make it happen. It was also very important to my mom that we attended services…especially the high holiday services.

Now let me explain. The synagogue we attended had so many people who attended it was customary to have to park at least a mile away (on a good year). Sometimes even farther. There were so many people when we got inside the sanctuary we often had to sit in folding chairs so far from the bimah we’d have to watch services on a TV. The families who paid a lot of money got to sit in the comfortable seats with an actual live view of the bimah.

One more thing. I have to tell you a little something about my mom before I continue. She grew up in Birmingham, Alabama from 1930 to 1960. She was raised by a nanny and frequently vacationed with her aunt and uncle (who was the CEO of the Gillette company in Canada). I’m certain my mom hated not being able to provide the same opportunities to her children as she was given. Of course excluding the nanny for obvious reasons. Regardless, she always kept her head held high for her kids. And no matter what…if she was being treated unfairly, she never hesitated standing up against the injustice (even if it meant it would expose her own misfortunes and cause her embarrassment).

Ok, so back to when my family attended the synagogue in Atlanta. I remember as early as  5 years old knowing that the selling of high holiday tickets was more of a status thing rather than a feeling of supporting the synagogue. Yes, it supported the place but when it evolved to buying prime seating and buying aliyot, it grew into something much more evil. I could see it in the behavior and demeanor of the congregants. They felt power and had no regards for others. Even so, I ignored it. I loved going to synagogue during the high holidays…the mixed smells of perfumes, the smells of the Challot, hearing Cantor Goodfriend belt out a prayer and hearing the shofar being blown was exciting. As a kid the high holidays were a special time.

Having said that every year from the age of five to eleven the high holidays were tainted by one thing. I dreaded getting through the entrance of the synagogue where all of the ticket Nazi’s sat at these long tables. They were typically women and each of them had a thick packet of paper stapled together. On each sheet were lists and lists of names of the people who had paid. Now, maybe you’re thinking that my parents should have prearranged things so entering would be easier and less traumatic for me as a child. Well, they tried. My mom about a month before the holidays would contact the synagogue to tell them we couldn’t afford a ticket. She did that with hopes to get our name on the ticket Nazi list. During one conversation I remember hearing my mom talking on the phone about it. I remember the look on her face when she had to admit she couldn’t pay…I could see from my mom’s expression on her face the difficulty it was to tell a stranger why she couldn’t afford buying a high holiday ticket.  And I particularly remember my mom having to say, “No, I can’t even pay you a little bit of money.” I was assuming the person on the other end was trying to negotiate some kind of payment from my mom because then my mom said, “If I pay you $100 then I won’t be able to feed my family.” Y’all, my mom was always level-headed. She never exaggerated. So, I knew she meant what she was saying. When my mom hung up the phone that time I remember she sarcastically kept saying to herself, “And we say we never turn anyone away due to lack of paying.” I am guessing my mom had hoped by making that call it would reduce any embarrassment we would have at the entrance with the ticket Nazi’s. Better to embarrass herself with one person on the phone rather than with a crowd of people as we wait in line to get into the synagogue.

The stress and the pain it caused my mom has stayed with me. She was a woman who wasn’t afraid to work hard but life always seemed to get in the way of her success. Seeing the pain it caused her I swore when I grew up I would NEVER support any congregation who sold tickets…because I could never be a part of an organization that would treat others the way my mom was treated.  I feel strongly it sets up situations that go against every teaching of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. To me that alone is reason enough to stop it. In my mind the money received from selling tickets is tainted and worthless as long as we hurt people in the process.

If money is what is needed, then it’s time congregations looked to a new model. It’s no longer the lucrative days of the 1950’s and 1960’s when so many congregations were growing exponentially. Congregants gave money even when they couldn’t pay to repair their homes. The social expectations were different back then. There was a lot of pressure for families to give. Today, many understand we have to put our families first in regards to their every day needs. As much as we want our synagogues to flourish as they once did, we can no longer justify putting our family’s basic needs second. And frankly, we no longer are bound by the same social pressures as we once were.     And yet I find it interesting that we are running our synagogues as if we still lived in the 1950’s. Good or bad those days are long gone. We can no longer rely just on our membership to make a profit. Today, we have to work smarter by creating a more sustainable cash flow. Smaller towns have fluctuating members especially when there isn’t a lot of industry to bring new people into the community. It’s time to stop expending so much energy on looking for new members in such a way it feels more like desperation.  Religion is a personal choice and each have their own needs and wants.  Judaism is not a missionary religion and so folks are often turned off when approached. Here’s the thing. Even in the corporate world businesses no longer rely on their “walk through the door” customers.  It’s time to create a new model and one that isn’t filled with corporate jargon that only turns people away. It’s time to create a new environment which allows the synagogues to be approachable and welcoming.

AND SO, just a week away from the new year I ask my fellow Jews to think about the message that selling tickets sends. I challenge them to find other ways (than to sell tickets) so that the synagogues reflect the true spirit of the holidays. Of course complacently is easier and often it can feel safer. I get it. But if we are to grow and better ourselves, then we must step out into unchartered territory. Let’s not lose sight we are NOT only a “business” but we are also a place of worship. There is no doubt it’s imperative to assure money making BUT it’s never excusable to do it in such a way where it is soul breaking.

On that note I wish EVERYONE L’Shana tova, tikatevu…may this year be filled with sweetness, love and the ability to think beyond what has always been.

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I am just sitting here thinking about how quickly the Jewish high holidays are approaching. I never seem ready for them. See, they may be the same date every year on the Jewish calendar but because they are different on our daily calendar, we often seem shocked by their arrival. Often you’ll hear Jews say something like “Can you believe the holidays are so early this year?” or “Can you believe the holidays are so late this year?” It’s funny because you’ll never hear us say, “Well, hot diggedy dog, can you believe the holidays are right on time this year?”

Now listen, many know of course that Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year..go Jews! And we also know Yom Kippur is the day of atonement..oy Jews! Rosh Hashanah is more celebratory and is a time to really begin our self reflection and evaluation. You know…to think about how we have treated not only ourselves that prior year but how we treated others. It’s also a time where G-d is said to be deciding who will live and who will die, who will be sick, who will be well that coming year and I suppose anything else that was going to happen. Well, I can tell you now people. This past year G-d had it in for me. I cannot believe that when G-d closed that book of life last year at this time, it was written for me to loose my uterus but to gain 20 pounds! And to think I agonized over every damn fattening thing I put into my mouth! Why didn’t I just enjoy it if that was what G-d wanted? OY VEY! Well, this year I am making damn sure I ask that some of my weight be removed and passed along to someone else. You know, pass it to someone like one of those fashion models. It would be charitable and such a good deed…yes, a mitzvah to take my extra fat and to give it to someone who could use a little “thickening” up as I like to say.

Now talking about that closing of the book of life thing. Isn’t that a bit harsh? Does anyone else kind of feel that way? So, we made a few mistakes during the year. Who doesn’t? But, I realize not everyone can live. I get that, but I must admit, like hell do I want to be the one left off the list. Meanwhile, for those who don’t make it on the list. Does anyone else feel it would be common courtesy to be told whether they made it or not? How terrible it would be for someone to always be looking over their shoulder wondering if tomorrow will be the day. How cruel it would be to have that person even think they made it and one day before the book of life is to be re-opened that person dies. Come on! Really? And after having spent an entire 7 days (from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur) making amends and apologizing to those we’ve hurt and it was all for nothing? At least tell us if we made the cut. Don’t y’all think? Speaking for myself I spend countless hours talking to myself and to others who have passed… oh and yes, sure, I speak to G-d if that’s what you like to call it. Anyway, during that time I’m always stressing what a valuable addition I am to have hanging around for another year. You know. I believe you can never stress that too much. Hey, it has worked for me so far so why quit now?

Listen, I understand many religions have a New Year holiday and a holiday to atone. But, I think the Jews have a special niche. Yes, a special niche. Oh, who am I kidding? We Jews can’t just celebrate and leave it at that. We have to celebrate but then remember something tragic that happened to us. Damnit, no wonder our people are “bipolar”. We’re happy but sad at the same time. OY VEY! For example take our weddings. During the ceremony we celebrate the union between two people but at the very end we break a glass. Why? Well, it’s to remember the hardships of our people and the trials and tribulations we endured throughout time. Really? It isn’t enough that our people experienced what they did but we have to constantly remember it? OY VEY! Gee wiz at what point in our history did it become wrong to simply celebrate? All of our holidays are filled with “we’re happy but only after all of this horrible stuff happened to us first” scenerio’s. No wonder our Jewish mothers are a bissel meshuganah! Listen, I know…it has been said that to remember is so that history doesn’t repeat itself. OK, folks- The Jews have over 5700 years of history where bad things have happened to them over and over again. Um, I’m not so sure remembering each event has helped one bit. If truth be told I’m guessing it was more about superstition. I can see it now: In order to keep the Kena hora (evil eye) away we always have to remember something bad (as well as spit three time) when ever we celebrate. But, there again after 5700 years of repeated history, you would have thought someone would have said that didn’t work either. It just makes me laugh. We’re happy…we’re happy…..WAIT! Time out on the happy….let’s not EVER forget how our people had to walk to school up hill… both ways… in the snow… and by the way there was a monsoon coming with a side of locusts.

Lets face it folks we Jews are somewhat dramatic. We seem to thrive on it. Look at our story of Chanukah. You don’t think it seems a bit over the top? Come on! The Jews were a tiny army up against the huge, large Syrian army. But of course that wasn’t all. The Jews didn’t even have the weapons that the Syrians had nor did the Jews have the money to buy the proper weapons. It is hard for me to believe that the Maccabees won by their strength (and oh yeah, because we had G-d on our side). Really? What made us so special? Chosen people, you say? Come on! Why would G-d choose a people? After all wasn’t G-d supposed to be fair and loving to all? I think if the story had any validity it was that the Maccabees had a better military strategy. Even my 10 year old son understands that truth to winning a battle. I’m guessing that was how the Jews won with of course a side of luck. After all, we are all brilliant, right? Meanwhile, let’s look at this more closely. Knowing how my people can tell a story, this is how I see the Chanukah story happening. What if Judah Maccabee was an old man and was sitting with all of his 50 grand children. Well, you know. They had lots of kids back then. Anyway, his grandkids were begging him to tell them a story from his childhood. Judah wrapped up in their excitement to hear a really good story, he by no means wanted to disappoint them. He takes a moment to think to himself and then realizes telling them about how he and his family fought off the Syrians barehanded without having had food or water for an entire month… Don’t worry, Judah decides to reel it in just a little bit but hell, he has to add some cool parts to keep his grandkids thinking Judah was really far out.

And so as Judah began telling his story, his grandkid’s were on the edge of their seats excited to hear every detail of Judah’s story. He tells the kids he remembers being a little older than them when he would watch the Syrian army train for battle. He tells them he remembers there being thousands of Syrian men who were as tall as the sky. In fact they were so tall he wasn’t even able to see the Judean mountains because of it. OK, so Judah sort of left out a little, minor detail. Did the kids really need to know that he was only 5 years old and was very short for his age? Why of course not! All that mattered was that Judah kept his grandchildren interested in his story. And so Judah continued by telling the kids he and his family along with a very small army of Jews singlehandedly fought off that very same large Syrian army from when he was a kid. He explained how they got their Temple back. Of course I’m certain the kids cheered at that part. He told his grandkids how his family was disgusted by all of the destruction the Syrian’s had done to their place of worship and how they needed to light the menorah first before even beginning to clean. He explained to them that when they saw the Menorah, they were shocked to see it was lying on the ground with large amounts of oil (which kept it lit) spilled out. He told them how the Jews panicked for fear there wouldn’t be enough oil to keep the Menorah lit day and night as tradition dictated. Now folks, the panic in having enough oil for the Menorah I’m guessing was the same kind of panic we Jews have when we worry about whether we have enough food for our guests at a dinner party. The thinking is there must be an over abundance and when an itty bit of it is burned, dropped or missing in action, there is suddenly a fear there isn’t enough. So, I’m certain there was enough oil but once those Jews started panicking there was no reeling them in to think more rationally. The Jews could only think about the amount that had spilled and not about the actual amount they still had. In their mind they had to replace the amount that had spilled…after all that was the extra they needed just in case. Listen, I could even see the scene now. Come on. I’m sure you can imagine with me on this. At least 20 of them were standing around the Menorah arguing about not having enough oil. All 20 of them had different ideas on how to handle the problem. While the argument ensued, a by standard (who we will refer to as the Shabbas goy) walked in and analyzed the problem. OK, so as long as the Jews felt there was no back up oil, they were going to panic and make everyone’s life miserable. Sound the least bit familiar? And so the by standard figured he could head out to the nearest town and return with more oil before the group of Jews could decide what to do. When he returned 7 days later the Temple was just about clean but of course they were still arguing over whether the oil would last. Now, lets be honest, here. How many kids do we know would have been interested in that Chanukah story? Not many. We all know kids like action and the element of surprise. Judah knew that and that was what he gave them. Come on. It wasn’t as if Judah was lying. He just gave the story a little Jewish seasoning that’s all. AND SO Judah told his grandchildren there was only a very very tiny amount of oil to keep the Menorah lit for only maybe (barely) one day. That worried the Jews because it was going to take someone about 8 days to go to a nearby town to get more. However to everyone’s surprise when that person returned from the nearby town with the oil AN ENTIRE 8 days later, the Menorah was still lit. Lo and behold it was a MIRACLE! Now you could only imagine how wide eyed Judah’s grands were at this point and how they must have been cheering. Judah seeing their adorable faces so interested in his story, I’m sure it was exhilarating. Listen, wasn’t it Judah himself who coined the phrase, “Embellishments just happen?” Meanwhile, does it really matter? Eh! Who cares? The important part was his grandkids would retell that story over and over again keeping Judah’s story alive. So what there were a few over the top parts to it? And if truth be told…aren’t we all kind of, sort of related? So, Judah was kind of, sort each of our own great, great, great (plus), grandfather. And what talent our relative had to keep not only his grandkids entertained but also his grandkids for generations to come.

Can you imagine what Judah could have done with that story if he had WordPress? Judah would have had his very own blog. How cool would that have been? And what if he had had Facebook? Can you imagine what he would have posted after telling his grandkids the Chanukah story? “Told my famous Chanukah story to my 50 grand’s today. Little Schmuel was so cute when he hid behind his brothers as I described in detail how barbaric the Syrians were to the Jews.”

What if Facebook had been around during biblical times? Could you just imagine their posts? OY VEY! What in the world would have Noah posted? How about Abraham or Naomi? Certainly some good material for a stand up comedian!

Oh my gosh, I can see it now!

Noah: A picture of two unicorns and him posting, “Missing! They were last seen hitched to my boat house. Please contact me if found.”

Abraham: “Spoke to G-d today. He told me I had to sacrifice my son, Isaac. OY! My wife is going to be really pissed after waiting so long to try to have a child! By the way open invitation to come to our tent for Shabbat dinner this Friday. No RSVP necessary.”

Naomi: “Oh, Ruth! Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”

Moses: “OH G-D is SO annoying today…never leaves me alone! You won’t believe what I have to do today! I have to walk all the way up Mt. Sinai! Do you know how hard that is for a man of my age? What is G-d thinking? I am really getting tired of being his messenger. At any rate if anyone is free and in the area early tomorrow morning feel free to meet me at the bottom of the mountain for a cup of tea.”

OMG! How about if King David had Facebook? Something tells me that man would have gotten into a ton of trouble saying way too much on his FB page. Can you imagine? King David: “Oh, today I fought off the Moabites, the Edomites, the Ammonites and the Arameans…no big deal. All in a day’s work. Oh, I saw a beautiful woman bathing on her roof top. Soon she will be mine.”

As I was thinking about those biblical characters and what they’d do if they had facebook, I began thinking about us today and how facebook has singlehandedly changed our society. Lets face it with the use of Facebook we can now keep in contact with literally hundreds of people all at once. We can easily wish 50 friends and family with a hit of the button a happy new year as well as keep them abreast on what’s happening in our daily lives. It’s really remarkable how we can reach out with ease to those we know. It’s incredible to see updated photos of friend’s children and of their wonderful vacation excursions. Let’s be honest before Facebook there was no way to have written to one hundred people daily to keep them updated on our lives. Some feel that is a negative thing but I don’t see it that way. I love hearing about my friend’s and family’s children and about what is happening in their lives. And especially when an illness or tragedy happens where I can help provide extra support. I find Facebook a useful tool. Facebook has truly become an amazing way for us to laugh, cry and be a part of so many friends and family’s lives.

Now having said all of that I did question (for a moment) how FB has changed our approach to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For one as a child my parents would have sent out a card to each of their friends and family members wishing them well. Each card would have also included a hand written personal note talking about our family. Today, it is more common than not to simply post a generic “Happy New Year” to all. For those of us who were accustomed to the “old” ways, we can find it impersonal and somehow just not right. But, does that mean it’s wrong if someone does post a generic greeting? Does it make it any less personal? Well as a child, those cards my mom wrote to friend’s and family were the only time they received updates about us. And I must tell you more often than not my mom would write the same exact letter in each card. So honestly, how is Facebook any different? It’s just that on FB we are “upfront” about sending everyone the same card with the same message.

On the conservation side of things here there are some who feel we have too much paper waste by sending out a Happy New Year to all on FB, we are conserving – helping the earth. Don’t buy it? OK, I know. I must admit there is nothing like receiving something in the mail. Among all of the junk mail and bills I receive, I am like a little kid when I receive a hand written letter to me. I admit it. It’s nice.

However, the reality is times are a changing. By posting a New Year’s wish to all (on FB), it has allowed me to reach out to each and every friend and family member without the mistake of leaving anyone out. And plus there would be no way I could afford to send out that many cards. For me even when I post a message to all on my Facebook page it is a personal sincere message. My wishes are not any less meaningful. Listen, I get it. Many of us are from a different world. A world that was filled with strict rules and Etiquettes. But let’s face it. FB and other modern technologies are changing those rules. They aren’t as important anymore. Whether we like it or not, agree or disagree, we have no control over how the world around us is changing. Meanwhile, can you really imagine Moses posting on Facebook? Would he have resisted using it? According to the stories we’ve all been told Moses wasn’t one to quickly buy into what was popular. Regardless, it is certainly humorous and fun thinking about it.

You know when I was in Hebrew school back in the 1970‘s our teachers stressed the importance of making amends for our wrongdoings and taking this time to soul search for how we could make ourselves better. And in order to do so, it was stressed how we must contact those we’ve hurt in person and apologize. I remember a student asking if writing a letter was permissible. The teacher took a moment and then he told us, “Making amends is what is important. Sometimes we are able to speak to the person face to face and other times we aren’t. What matters is that we make the effort and reach out to the person we’ve hurt. There are times doing it face to face is not an option so that certainly doesn’t mean we are off the hook. We just have to look to other ways that are available to us.” Of course only as an adult could I understand what he was saying. Life is complicated. It’s never black and white. And so for me, yes, I could apologize to someone in person but I could never ever fully express myself as I could in a letter. So, that has been the method I use and has been even before Facebook. With someone with ADHD and learning disabilities, writing has been my saving grace. I look at it like someone who stutters but when they sing they don’t. When I speak to someone I can be off and running talking about this and that, but writing allows me that focus and the ability to say more succinctly and often more intelligible what I want to say.

AND SO, here we are about to head into our Jewish New Year and our week of self reflection. And here I am using Facebook to share these thoughts with over 500 of my friends and family (well, of those who choose to read it). I must admit my mother would be appalled because to her this just isn’t the proper way. But there again my mom’s world no longer exists and this is a new way of how we all express ourselves. Listen, you’ve got to admit it does force us to make sure we keep our stories in check because we know our friends and family will not hesitate one bit on letting us if we haven’t. I’m certain even if Judah Maccabee had written on Facebook, we all would have done the same to him as well.

FINALLY, I want to wish each and every one of my friends and family members a heartfelt, sweet and healthy new year. For those who have had a trying year, I wish you only good things to you for this next one. Please, know I have enjoyed all of your photo’s, your funny jokes, your political “arguments” (whether I agree with them or not) and everything in between that was posted on Facebook this year. Yes, you have made me laugh, cry and more than anything else appreciate the opportunity to be able to keep in touch with you.

Here’s to Facebook for allowing me to find “lost” friends and family and allowing me the opportunity to be apart of so many of their lives. I look forward to another (FB) year hearing about all of your wonderful families and the amazing celebrations you are having with them!

Shana Tova!

Love,

My family