Saturday, August 1, 2015

Building a Better Temple

Sinai Reform Temple of Bay Shore, NY died on June 26, 2015, the date of its final service, at which I officiated. Its gravestone arrived on Friday via Priority Mail in the form of a hundred page document dripping with legalese ratifying the temple’s dissolution into B’nai Israel Reform Temple (BIRT) of Oakdale. It provides an opportunity for dissenters to present what amounts to “just cause” to refute the merger at an imminently forthcoming court hearing. I won’t. I don’t have the money. And with my work commitments during the summer, I don’t have the physical time. Besides, the chief proponents of this debacle have been extremely industrious in ensuring that everything has gone their way. Everything is all tied up in nice, neat little bows. I’m not surprised. They had a lot to gain. I respectfully submit that had they devoted even half the time and effort they expended on destroying the place on saving it, we’d have a small but thriving congregation.

Sinai Reform Temple did not die peacefully or justifiably. Indeed, it was raped and murdered, its violated corpse looted of valuables without hesitation, mercy, or remorse. The perpetrators of this crime, Apathy and Avarice, are seasoned destroyers of life, hope, and possibility. They have ruthlessly mangled the perceptions of countless well-intentioned individuals throughout their ages-long campaign of unrepentant desolation, ensnaring them in inescapable nets of obfuscation. They have set many a moral compass spinning in confusion, allowing them to at last come to rest pointing in the wrong direction.

Apathy and Avarice have killed before. They will kill again.

As with so many other things so tragically lost before their time, though Sinai Reform Temple leaves behind a multitude of good deeds done in its decades-long history, it likewise leaves behind a vast ocean of potential that will now forever go untapped. Only the swirling mists of history and memory remain where once it stood, full of hope, beauty, and grace. We will never see its like again.

As some of you may be aware, I (along with some others) spent the last year or so swimming against a rather determined tide to save Sinai Reform Temple from its premature and wholly misguided end. It was not pleasant. I learned some deeply discouraging lessons about the power of apathy and the willingness of otherwise decent and intelligent people to narrow their vision in a way that allowed them to justify destroying a 68-year old institution and looting its coffers for their own benefit and self-aggrandizement. Though some of the chief engineers of this travesty will avow that they did it “for the good of Judaism on the South Shore” or some other nonsense, the cold, hard reality is they did it for themselves. They were too apathetic to try to save the place and too greedy to stand down or walk out the door as they should have and left SRT to those who wanted to save it. But of course, trying to save it would have left far less money in the bank in the event a reinvention plan ultimately failed and we had to merge at a later time.

How much less? I am so glad you asked. At the time this process started in earnest a year ago, Sinai Reform Temple had over 2 million dollars in the bank from the sale of our building a year or two before (we had been leasing space since then). If managed and utilized properly, that money could have provided us with a truly remarkable opportunity, one that none of us will ever see again: The chance to build a better temple.

With some assistance, I created a viable framework that would have allowed SRT to move forward in our originally intended goal of reinventing our congregation. It was a plan, incidentally, that included a contingency clause that would have allowed us to merge at a later time if the plan didn't work.

I would have been the person spearheading that effort and I have no doubt that there would have been times when I would have deeply resented the accompanying stress, aggravation, and commitment of time required to do the job right. But I would have done it anyway. I would have done it because it was the morally right thing to do. The plan would not have been easy to enact and there’s a pretty good chance it would have ultimately failed but it was well-considered and built on a foundation of faith and possibility as opposed to the apathy and avarice driving the dissolution.

Even if we had burned through a staggering 1.5 million dollars of that money over the past year to fund the plan and it ended up netting us nothing, we still would have had $500,000.00 in the bank. Given that our congregation had dwindled to about 45-50 people at the time of SRT’s death, that left about $10,000.00 per person to finance membership and other perks at another temple for five, maybe even ten years. It would have been more a more than sufficient final gift to our congregants.

As it stands, with Sinai Reform Temple’s death came a very big bus ticket; one that ensures lifetime membership and assorted perks for all concerned. That’s what most of the board wanted. That’s what they sold to the bulk of the congregation, and that’s what they got. There is no possibility the money will ever run out within the lifetimes of even the youngest SRT members. Clearly, a healthy dollop of spiritual materialism goes a long, long way.

Some may think me hypocritical in deciding with my family that we will begin the next phase of our Jewish journey at B’nai Israel Reform Temple but such an allegation is inaccurate. I and my family no longer have a temple to go to. Our temple has died. The one that’s geographically closest and therefore, the one we’re most likely to drive to on a Friday night, is the one in Oakdale. The struggle to save Sinai Reform Temple never had anything to do with B’nai Israel as an institution. It’s been around a long time and has what appears to be a fairly thriving congregation. Had we not initially visited Sinai Reform Temple and been so captivated by the warmth of the congregation and the charisma of the remarkable Rabbi Emily Losben, it’s entirely possible we would have ended up at BIRT to begin with. I have no reason to believe that it’s not a wonderful, albeit different place than the one I came from. Even if for some reason that turned out to not be the case, though the financial benefits of attending BIRT can’t be denied, the bottom line is, if it doesn’t fit my family, we’ll find somewhere else to go. Most any temple will work with most any family to come to a viable financial arrangement. If they don’t, find yourself a temple that does.

Whether they're willing to acknowledge it or not, those members of the SRT board of trustees who dedicated themselves to its destruction abjectly failed the very institution they were elected to protect. To brutalize Robert Frost’s classic line, they took ‘The Road Most Easily Traveled,’ ‘The Road Most Convenient & Self-Serving.’ They mortgaged their responsibility to the founders of SRT to carry it into the future against a really good deal. They should be ashamed of themselves. And if they’re not, they should be even more ashamed of themselves.

I believe with unwavering conviction that the manner in which the dissolution process was conceived, constructed, and conducted was, to put it lightly, rife with profound ideological and logistical flaws. Though it had an outward appearance of perceived transparency, the truth is it was often underhanded, secretive, and at times overtly antagonistic toward anyone who tried to get in their way. Individuals on the board that I had had respect for or even considered friends stood by and watched as my erstwhile co-president censored an article I wrote for our temple newsletter expressing an alternative to dissolution, attempted to silence me during a congregational meeting, and engineered an attempt to remove me from the board over a typo. Before this process started, she is someone I would have described as a good friend. Now, despite my generally forgiving nature, she is someone I can visually identify.

I could spend another several thousand words recounting the details of the conflict, relaying my thoughts and feelings about it, the things I could and should have done to dismantle the whole, revoltingly greedy debacle of it. Those details mean little or nothing at this point so I will begin winding down my post with this:

My defiance of the dissolution freight train required me to think outside the box and make some choices that no doubt infuriated certain members of the board and possibly some congregants as well.

I. Don’t. Care.

Indeed, over the last several months, I’ve conducted several exploratory and investigative inquiries about this matter in my head and my findings are absolutely indisputable:
  • My eyes are clear.
  • My head is held high.
  • My moral compass is resolutely pointing North.

The actions I took were driven by what I believed was right with every iota of my being. My only regret is that I wasn't able to do more to stop that train before it drove Sinai Reform Temple off a cliff.

So, where does this leave me?

Well, the first order of effect is pretty ground-level in scope: It leaves me thoroughly disheartened. It is an unfortunate truth that we are often at the mercy of the small-minded and narrow of vision. For purely self-preservational reasons, I will play no part whatsoever in the administrative affairs of any temple or similar organization for the foreseeable future.

The second order of effect is more esoteric in nature. Long before the atrocity of SRT’s death, I have struggled with matters of faith, with the nature of God, about how much S/He is truly capable of and how much s/he truly cares about what we mere mortals do from moment to moment. This experience has not been helpful in assuaging those concerns.

Despite the relative doom and gloom of much of the above, I feel it’s essential to note that it does NOT leave me without hope.

My theological / spiritual skepticism is not borne of doubt about whether there is a God. The inherent miracle of life, of existence is simply too remarkable, too spectacular, too exquisitely beautiful and joyful to be the result of momentarily congealing chaos. There simply must be more.

I believe there are forces out there, forces we do not and cannot fully understand that nonetheless wish us well; forces that will help us if they can.

I believe that there is ample opportunity to discover wonder, magic, and joy in our restless quest for goodness and meaning in this life.

Many years ago, I heard the following quote on the television series ‘Beauty & the Beast’ starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton. The show significantly amplified my respect and admiration for poetry and introduced me to my favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. This quote, from ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ typifies the thoughtful, meditative, and hopeful perspective I so love about his work.

“How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once, beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.”

-    Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Letters to a Young Poet’

Lastly, I leave you with a far simpler and more contemporary quote from performance artist Henry Rollins. I came across it a couple of years ago, loved it, and added it to a special collection of quotes I keep on my PC. But as with many such things, it eventually slipped beneath the waves of active memory. However, in preparing materials for the final SRT service, I rediscovered it. And you know, I think it just may be my new mantra. The quote is this:

“My optimism wears heavy boots, and is loud.”

-    Henry Rollins

May God bless the spirit of Sinai Reform Temple.

Thank you for reading.