Thursday, October 22, 2009

My Yom Kippur Appeal

As a member of the Board of Trustees of Congregation Adas Emuno, I was called upon to deliver this year's Yom Kippur appeal.  For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, it's an appeal made to the members of the congregation for donations, and also for volunteers, but mainly for financial support to help make ends meet.

It's done of Yom Kippur because that's when the most people are in attendance, people who don't go to services all year come for Yom Kippur.  It's the big one in our religion.

I found it very gratifying to be able to put my experience as a writer, public speaker, and communication scholar as the service of my congregation in this way.  Given the state of the economy, donations had been down, and that made it especially important to deliver a strong appeal this year.  And I was very moved to learn last night at our Board of Trustees meeting that donations are already much better now, with a few more months to go before the end of the year, than they were last year at the end of December.  That means more to me than anything, I can tell you.  So anyway, here it is:

You Kippur Appeal

Whenever the subject of the Yom Kippur Appeal comes up, I have to force myself not to call it the Kol Nidre Appeal.  That's what it was called in the Reform Temple I went to when I was growing up, over in Queens, because the appeal was made during the Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur.  I recall that it was always given by an older member of the congregation, which makes me wonder what I'm doing up here because it seems like just yesterday that I was that little kid.  And I remember them saying every year that the Kol Nidre Appeal is a silent appeal, which always puzzled me, because it always involved quite a bit of talking, sometimes for quite a length of time.  As a kid, I realized that adults often don't say what they mean, or don't say everything they mean to say, and eventually I came to understand that this silent business meant that no one would come out and ask for donations, that was what the little white envelopes were for.  Even in the years when my old Temple in Queens was facing severe financial hardships, that was not something that would be mentioned during the Kol Nidre Appeal, which always focused on the value and importance of Jewish identity, the Jewish religion, and specifically Reform Judaism and our congregation.  The Appeal did not ask for support, not for financial support, nor for volunteers to give of their time, effort, skills and services.  The speaker simply gave the reasons why we should support our congregation, and left it up to the audience to fill in the missing part of the message, that the Temple wanted, and in fact needed their support.
The Kol Nidre Appeal was a silent appeal in part because it would be crass to speak of such things in what used to be called polite society.  It was a silent appeal as well because in Jewish religious tradition we are not supposed to work or deal with money on the Sabbath or holidays.  And how much easier it would be if we could just pass around the hat, or collection plate, or set up a basket or bin.  But we don't do that.  It would also be easier if we could threaten you with eternal damnation in the fiery depths of hell.  But we don't do that.  And it would be easier if we could tempt you with visions of an eternal reward in heaven, especially one filled with the pleasures of feasting and frolicking.  But we don't do that.  Maybe I could just say something about the opportunity to get some good karma.  Karma, mitzvah, they're both Yiddish words, right?
Back when I was a kid, one topic that would come up now and again in the Kol Nidre appeal was the Holocaust.  Almost all of the adults present had lived through the Second World War, had had personal experience with anti-Semitism, and felt the threat of the Nazis even from afar.  Many of those present had escaped from Europe just before the war, and a number of congregants were Holocaust survivors, my parents among them.  Growing up in that milieu, in the shadow of such monstrous evil that had been directed specifically at our people, it was easy to summon up a sense of obligation, to agree that we must not let the light of living Judaism go out.  And we were reminded that it didn't matter if you were a member of a congregation or not, if you practiced or not, if you believed or not, even if you converted to Christianity, it didn't matter.  To the Nazis, a Jew was a Jew was a Jew, there was no escaping who you are, no escaping your identity, no ticket out of Auschwitz.  Like the prophet Jonah, we cannot run away, we cannot live in denial indefinitely, we have no choice then but to claim our birthright, like Isaac, like Jacob.
But the generation of survivors is dwindling, and with them the living memory of the Holocaust.  Time passes, new generations are born, wounds that may never heal can still grow less raw, less painful.  Memory, that may not fade entirely, grows less vivid, more distant.  We still live in a world marked by anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, and threats to our very existence, but here in the United States we have grown very comfortable and secure, doors that once were closed to us are wide open now.  Where we once huddled close together for mutual protection, we now walk confidently alone in search of the American dream.  Earlier, I mentioned the word mitzvah, and I think that it is not a coincidence that this word, which means commandment, to us means good deed.  In other words, what was once understood to be an order, from on high, is now seen as an option.  And that is, in fact, what Reform Judaism is all about it's about making your own choice, as an individual, about what you believe or don't believe, making your own choice about what laws and rituals to observe and what not to observe, making your own choice about how to worship and how not to worship.  It's all about choice, which is a matter of freedom, which is what our nation founded upon, freedom for democracy, and what our tradition is founded upon, freedom from slavery in Egypt.
In Reform Judaism, we also speak of choice in respect to conversion, and we now  refer to converts to Judaism as Jews by Choice.  Conversion was relatively rare when I was a kid, this too has changed over the years, and our branch of Judaism has always been especially open and welcoming.  But the point I want to make to you is that all of us are now Jews by Choice.  We all have to make the active decision to be Jews, to live as Jews, to be a part of the Jewish community.  We all have to make the active decision to carry on our religious and cultural traditions, to provide our children with a Jewish education, to be members of a Jewish congregation.  If we didn't make these decisions, if we chose to do nothing, that too would be a choice.  It would be a choice to abandon who we are, not all at once, but little by little, a choice gradually to melt into this truly great society that we live in, a choice to fade from history like the fabled ten lost tribes of Israel.
It is not an easy choice to make.  There are so many distractions today, so many different voices competing for our time and attention.  There's so much shopping to do, so many wonderful things to buy, and have fun with.  And there's so much entertainment to watch and listen to, so many websites to surf, so many videogames to play.  As my old mentor Neil Postman put it, we are in danger of amusing ourselves to death.  But we are also working ourselves to death, because today we work harder and longer than anyone ever has, except for factory workers during the Industrial Revolution.  Our lives are full of obligations and assignments, and interruptions.  How do we decide what's important.  How do we decide what matters?  Maybe it helps to think about those times in our lives when everything grinds to a halt, when we have to drop whatever we're doing, when we have to focus on the moment at hand.  The death of a loved one is such an event, and where do we turn, for guidance and comfort?  The birth of a child is another such time, and where do we turn to celebrate that new life?  Marriage too is an occasion when all other activities are set aside, and where do we turn to consecrate that union.  Our rites of passage, the bar mitzvah and confirmation ceremonies, are also unique moments when time seems to stand still, moments that only occur in the context of a congregation such as ours.  These special times, when everything else gets put into perspective, when we are called out of our everyday lives and put in touch with the sacred, these are our best guideposts to knowing what is important.  We have an overabundance of almost everything, of consumer products, of activities, of demands.  But what we don't have an abundance of is meaning in our lives.  We search for meaning, we want to live meaningfully, but where do we go to look for meaning?  You can't find it by googling it.
We are all seekers, in one way or another, and our branch of Judaism is not so much about having the answers handed down to us from authority figures, as it is about working together to find our own answers.  And we are indeed fortunate here at Adas Emuno to have a spiritual leader who is so caring and compassionate, so dedicated, and talented as our Cantor.  With her help, our little shul is full of music and joy, comfort and enlightenment, learning and meditation.  And ours is a congregation where everyone has the opportunity to participate, everyone can take an active role, indeed, everyone is needed to lend a hand.  We are a do-it-yourself, open source congregation, but we also have the benefit of a fulltime spiritual leader, a thriving and outstanding religious school, an excellent location, and facilities that need some work, but are certainly adequate for our needs.  We are blessed here at Adas Emuno, but those blessings, like the fruit of the earth and vine, are the product of labor and investment on the part of many individuals, stretching back for many years.
My family joined Adas Emuno over a decade ago, when we moved to Palisades Park.  My son Benjamin had his bar mitzvah here a few years ago, which was an occasion of great happiness, and meaning.  But there was a touch of sadness too, because we thought that our daughter Sarah would never have the same opportunity, because Sarah, as many of you know, has moderate autism.  But Cantor Shapiro insisted that Sarah could have her own ceremony, and went out of her way to learn how to work with children with autism.  I have to tell you that we have heard numerous horror stories about congregations from all of the different religions being unwilling to allow autistic children to take part in ceremonies, including even the son of one congregation's rabbi.  What makes Congregation Adas Emuno special is that here we chose to include rather than exclude, and last April Sarah had a brief but very beautiful bat mitzvah ceremony.  It didn't have to happen, we had to choose to make it happen.  And from Sarah's bat mitzvah came the idea to hold a monthly Saturday afternoon service for children with developmental disabilities, the first one being this Saturday at 2 PM.  If you live in Northern New Jersey, chances are you know someone who has been touched by autism, and I hope you will let them know about this special Shabbat Meyuchad service.
Ours is just one of so many stories in this congregation.  When we came here, a decade ago, there was a family with children who were hearing impaired.  As a consequence of that, they started to use sign language in our religious school when they sang the Sh'ma.  That family has since moved away, but that gift, and it truly is a beautiful gift to see our children praying through such beautiful gestures, that gift remains.  Here, at Adas Emuno, you have a chance to make a mark, to make a difference, to make something meaningful, and lasting.
The new year that we are celebrating is called fifty-seven seventy, but have you stopped to think about what that means?  Five thousand, seven hundred and seventy years!  What does our calendar, the oldest one in existence, trace back to?  We know it's not the creation of the world, as was once believed.  But five thousand, seven hundred and seventy years ago, the first system of writing was being developed by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia.  This was the beginning of what has traditionally been called civilization, the first cities, and the first historical records, which could only be possible after writing is invented.  We live by a calendar as old as recorded history, as old as civilization.  We are the living links of a sacred chain that goes back to humanity's awakening.  The Jewish people emerge out of Mesopotamia about four thousand years ago, that's the story of how Abraham left the Mesopotamian city of Ur. When I think about how we search for meaning, how we look to be a part of something greater than ourselves, I think about those four thousand years, about being a part of the world's oldest community, about all of the people who came before us who chose to be a part of that community, and in doing so, chose to keep that community alive.  And I think about how we, each one of us, have to make the choice for ourselves, to chose whether the community continues on into the future, or comes to an ends here and now.  We each have to make that decision.
I think sometimes about all the times when I've been to a stadium or arena where people have done the wave.  You know what I mean, when people stand up and sit down in coordinated sequence, and it looks like a wave is passing through the stands, from one end to another.  And the funny thing is, each time the wave comes around, it doesn't really matter whether I myself stand up or remain seated, the wave keeps going regardless.  But other times, the wave dies out because too few people made the decision to stand.  Somehow, the wave is made up of all of our individual choices, it depends on all of our individual choices, and yet it is greater than all of our individual choices too.  We are part of the great wave of Jewish history, and our congregation is a little wave within that greater tide.  And being a little wave means that our decision to stand, or not to stand, makes a big difference.  We all have to choose to stand up and support our congregation to keep it going now, and to keep it going into the future.  This is my silent appeal to you.  And I ask that if you understand my appeal, if it rings true for you, that you respond, silently by standing now for Congregation Adas Emuno.

When I gave this talk, I finished, said Shana Tova (which means happy new year, Yom Kippur being the completion of the 10-day period that begins with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year), and turned to go back to my seat (the board members were sitting up on the bimah so there'd be more room in the pews), and while I was walking back, everyone actually did stand up!  I didn't realize it until someone told me to turn around and look.  As I said, this really meant the world to me.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Time-Binds and Biases

So, I know I'm not blogging as much as I should be, but right now I'm working on my keynote address for the 67th Annual Conference of the New York State Communication Association.  You can read all about the event by heading over to their website, New York State Communication Association, but here's the deal.

The conference is on October 23-25, and it's in the Catskills, about an hour north of New York City.  NYSCA always has a great little conference, small and intimate, with meal plan included and meals taken together so there is lots of time to get to know each other and otherwise schmooze.  Neil Postman loved NYSCA, and was a great supporter of the organization, and James W. Carey was also part of the crew.

In fact, this year's conference theme was chosen, by conference organizer and NYSCA Vice-President Donna Flayhan, to honor Carey's memory:  Examining Ritual, Technology, and Community in This New Century.

John Durham Peters from the University of Iowa, author of the excellent book on communication, Speaking into the Air:  A History of the Idea of Communication, is one of the keynote speakers, and I am very much looking forward to hearing what he has to say, especially since his topic is "God and Google:  On Seeking in the Digital Era."  He'll be giving the Saturday night keynote.

As for the Friday night keynote, well, c'est moi.  I know, I know, they must be pretty hard up to have to resort to me, well, what can I say?  My title is, "On the Binding Biases of Time."  And as the title suggests, Alfred Korzybski and general semantics, and Harold Innis and media ecology will be a part of it.  James Carey too.

I'll also be chairing a couple of sessions, one on general semantics, one on media ecology.  And I'll be participating on a session devoted to poetry!

Hey, NYSCA is relatively affordable, and always a great time, so come join us if you can.

And, ok, as a bit of a teaser, here is an excerpt from my address (still in draft form and subject to change): 

Korzybski was wounded as a Polish soldier in the Russian army during the First World War, and went on to publish Manhood of Humanity in 1921, Science and Sanity in 1933, and found the Institute of General Semantics in Chicago in 1938. Harold Innis was wounded as a Canadian solider in the British army during the First World War, earned his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1920, and went on to teach at the University of Toronto, where he became Canada's leading economist. The parallels are interesting, but as far as I can tell, they never met or communicated with one another. Innis published several books on the subject of Canada's political economy during the twenties, thirties, and forties, and did not turn his attention to the study of communication until after the Second World War. It was not until 1950, the year that Korzybski died, that Innis published Empire and Communications, followed the next year by The Bias of Communication, and then by Changing Concepts of Time, published in 1952, the year that Innis died. And it was in The Bias of Communication in particular that Innis discussed the biases of time, and space. Whereas Korzybski was concerned with the question of what distinguishes humanity from other forms of life, Innis was concerned with the question of what distinguishes one type of human society from another. And whereas Korzybski brought an engineer's concern with work and energy to the study of time, Innis brought an economist's concern with raw materials and staples; if time is energy to Korzybski, the media by which we communicate over time is akin to coal and oil to Innis.

So, if that hasn't scared you off, and you have the time and means, I hope to see you there!  If not, well, I'll let you know how it went.  In time.

Monday, October 5, 2009

He's Making a List...

A bit early for a Christmas post?  That's okay, I don't really do Christmas.  In fact, this post is about something that occurred to me during Rosh Hashanah services at Congregation Adas Emuno not too long ago.  Rosh Hashanah, that's the Jewish New Year, at which time we say:  May you be inscribed in the book of life for the coming year.  It's actually a fascinating metaphor, if you think about it.  In this conception of the divine, God writes down in his book everything that's going to happen to us.  It's all recorded (but not finalized, or sealed, until Yom Kippur).  This complements the idea that God records everything we do, keeps track of it all, and punishes or rewards us accordingly.  A popular Christian corollary is that when you get up to heaven, St. Peter is there at the pearly gates with his book, examines the records of everything you've done, and then informs you of whether you gain admittance to your eternal reward, or are damned to the fires of Hell (or have to endure the interzone of purgatory).  And of course the popular image of Santa Claus is that he too is keeping track of good and bad deeds, at least among children, making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who's naughty or nice...

The point I'm getting at is that in a literate culture, we are afraid of (at least concerned about) what's being recorded.  The written word is a visual form, and with it comes the notion of divine surveillance.  And literacy facilitates high-level abstractions, so we imagine total surveillance by an all-knowing, all-seeing omnipresent God, and divine record-keeping that accounts for everything that we do.  In contrast, in oral cultures, the anxiety is whether you are being heard or not, whether your deeds go unsung.  The gods are fallible (and sometimes crazy) and can easily miss what you're doing, but that means it's also possible to trick the gods--you might even fool mother nature!

And now that we're in an electronic culture?  Well, there may be a sense that everything we do becomes data that's entered into the heavenly memory banks, but it's not so much about judgment as it is an automatic process--call it karma, which is essentially gigo, the computing acronym that means garbage in, garbage out.  So as for God, it's like he's TiVOing us, but will he ever get around to actually watching what he recorded?  The fear today, then, is that (along the lines of Martin Buber's Eclipse of God) we lost our divine audience (or never had one to begin with)!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

To Blog or Not to Blog

To blog or not to blog, that is the question.  Sort of, maybe.  It's not that I've abandoned Blog Time Passing, or run out of things to write about.  It's just a matter of my being worn out after the conference, and with tons of stuff to catch up on.  This is a very busy semester for me, so I hope you will bear with me, I will try to be a better blogger.   Be a better blogger.  Let me try saying that ten times fast...

Be a better blogger
Be a better blogger
Be a bletter bogger
Be a bletter bogger
Be a blegger botter
Be a blegger botter
Be a beggar blotter
Be a beggar blotter
Be a booger beater
Be a booger beater

Okay, something more substantial, next time, soon, I promise...