Tuesday, October 06, 2009

It's The Image, Stupid
Part I

I used to work at a conservative synagogue in Miami Beach, who's Rabbi was very old. He was certainly no younger than 80 when I worked their in the early 1990's. When he arrived at the synagogue - many years earlier - he set out to build the largest Jewish organization, and at one time it appeared he succeeded. By the late 1960's, his temple boasted around 2,000 members. At the time, it was the largest membership of any synagogue in America.

But by 1980, the demographics of the neighborhood began to drastically change. Within 5 years, South Beach was no longer a thriving area - in fact, following the Mariel boatlift, Miami Beach's Jewish presence fell from nearly 76% to under 50%. While many who stayed were elderly, this caused a great decline in membership in this once-proud synagogue.

I arrived there in 1992 with a mandate to create programming that would attract a newer (read: younger) generation. By this time, the South Beach area enjoyed a complete renaissance, thanks to the influx of a substantial number of homosexuals who re-ignited the area.

Unfortunately, most Gay Jews do not align themselves with the conservative movement (we're talking "conservative" Judaism, and not politically "conservative"). So the task was very difficult. To make matters not only worse, but eventually causing me to fail in my goals, was the old Rabbi and his wife.

This Rabbi built the shul (Hebrew, for synagogue) and it was his ambition and commitment that made it great. However, as it often happens, time plays a cruel trick and as the community migrated away, he failed to recognize the change in the wind. Like an obsessive gambler, he kept trying to do the same thing over and over again, hoping he could return to glory like he did once before.

He couldn't. By 1992, the member ship in the synagogue fell to just over 200 people. And from every census, we knew it was likely that as the older members died out (this IS Florida, after all), there was no one to replace them with.

But the Rabbi would not see the reality. Furthermore, the President of the shul - a man hand picked by the Rabbi (as was the entire Board of Directors) - were simply unwilling to contridict the Rabbi. The staff was well aware of what was happening, but we were warned that we could not question the wisdom of the Rabbi. In many cases, he was their parent's Rabbi, and in a couple of cases he actually circumcised them! Certainly, he officiated at their weddings, other simchas (Hebrew, for celebratory occasion) and everything else. In many ways, he was their father, leader and only connection to Judaism for over 60 years.

But even though I had known him for a number of years, and my father was his colleague for a few years when he was a Rabbi in North Miami Beach (before I was born), I was still unable to have any success in doing my job.

This all came to a head during the High Holidays that year. In the past, the Temple rented out the Miami Beach Convention Center for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. With 2,000 members, it was clearly a necessity, as the Temple often brought in a crowd close to 5,000. But as the numbers dwindled, the Rabbi was finally convinced to move the services to the Jackie Gleason Center for Performing Arts, which is right next door to the convention center. It is considerable smaller, but because at the time it was brand new, the Rabbi gave his blessing.

In 1992, we expected about 1,600 people, which was still a very nice number. But a large number of these people were retirees who belonged to no synagogue. Also, we gave out over 350 free seats, as well as 200 seats that were reserved for families that attended the conservative day school that was affiliated with the synagogue (up in Surfside).

Of course, when all was said and done, the press release talked about how 5,000 people attended and that the shul was thriving. You see, it made no difference what actually was going on. It was only what the perception was that mattered.

In the weeks leading up to the High Holidays, the staff was called into meeting after meeting after meeting to discuss each and every aspect of the services. Even the Aliyahs (being called up to the Torah) was choreographed to the finite step. Every single aspect of the the three days were expected to go without so much as a hiccup. Because this was not an orthodox synagogue, there was music (both choral and with instrumentation), lighting and sound.

For example, when the assistant Rabbi was on stage, the lighting needed to be softer, with a bluish tint. Furthermore, his microphone was to be turned off whenever the head Rabbi was on stage. Because of my own religious observance, I could only direct the production, but not do any of the actual work (yeah, corners were cut religiously, I know.

There were some issues that were unexpected. For instance, when the head Rabbi finished the Musaf service (the third of 5 Yom Kippur services), he discovered that his orange juice wasn't chilled. Even though that was delegated to someone else, being in charge meant I got the tongue lashing from the rebbitzen (Rabbi's wife). But all in all, the production was a success.

And that is exactly what it was - a production.

The High Holidays are a very intense time in the Jewish religion. But at no time during this experience did I feel any connection to Judaism or to G-d. It was completely hollow and meaningless because all it really was was a Hollywood-style production. The audience may have felt they were absolved of their sins for attending, but there was no interaction. No one in the audience stood up and prayed, and in fact, following Kol Nidre, a number of people applauded!

It was all about the show.

Why I am bringing this up is something you will have to tune into tomorrow for...


Ethan said...

Why was the Rabbi drinking orange juice on Yom Kippur? Talk about hypocricy!

S said...

You're right, E. But I give him the benefit of the doubt since he was over 80 years old.