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Next Time Synagogue


birds telephone line

The biggest surprise in walking away from my synagogue has been how liberating the past few months have felt. I didn’t expect that. While Ryan and I have adjusted to Friday nights without the pomp and circumstance of a (Reform) Torah service, we’ve both realized how much we treasure connecting with our own yiddishkeit without judgmental limitations placed upon us by clergy, other congregants, or institutional myopia, all things we fought against at Emanuel Congregation.

Many times I was told the things I expected from a liberal synagogue were too much to ask. Baloney. Here are the things I think anyone has a right to expect from their synagogue–and the things we’ll expect from our next spiritual home. If you think they’re too much to ask from a synagogue, maybe you’re stuck at a shul that doesn’t measure up. In which case the real question is why are you sticking around?

Dying shuls suffering from emergency budgets, inadequate membership numbers, and outdated development strategies circle the wagons and shut people out who don’t march in lockstep with the status quo. Emanuel certainly did that to us. Let them spiral into oblivion if that’s what they want. But you, should you be a fellow Jew, deserve a shul that treats you with love, respect, and inclusiveness.

In fact, anyone of any faith deserves that of the place where they make their spiritual home.

The next liberal synagogue that gets our money, our time, our friendship and love, and our congregational loyalty will give back to us these things that we never found at our last one:

  • The ability to have an actual relationship with our rabbi that is marked by fairness, friendship, respect, compassion, and love.
  • The ability to seek guidance from our rabbi without unnecessary or gratuitous judgment, closed-mindedness, or criticism.
  • A rabbi who allows all congregants to hold their own spiritual truths about the nature of God.
  • A rabbi who respects the emotional aspects of Judaism, prayer, and liturgy, including emotionally and personally connecting with God.
  • A rabbi who respects the beliefs of non-Jewish visitors at worship services and who would never stand on the bimah and tell them why their faiths are “wrong.”
  • A rabbi who speaks form the bimah to congregants and fellow clergy with love, compassion, friendship, and fairness.
  • Welcome and respect for Jews and Jewish families of all types, all colors, and all sexualities.
  • Respect for Jews-by-choice, their right to define their own identities, and their key impact on Judaism both historically and in the present day.
  • Holiday and educational programming throughout the year that consistently encompasses all types of Jews including most especially adult Jews, single Jews, and Jews without children.
  • An honest and open board of directors that shares its minutes, decisions, and activities regularly and widely with all members of the congregation.
  • A regularly updated and current website offering full and open information about the congregation.
  • A timely e-newsletter with similarly comprehensive information and resources.
  • A celebration of Shabbat and the worship service as central elements of congregational life.
  • A requirement for board members to attend worship services and participate in the religious life of the community.
  • Leadership that embraces innovative solutions and open-minded discussion, and that shuns leadership cliques and institutional secrecy.
  • Leadership that understands throwing a member with a problem on a committee is not a problem-solving strategy.
  • A congregation that understands they deserve all of these things.
  • And a rabbi who actually believes in God wouldn’t hurt, either.

Because for $2,500 a year, you deserve a hell of a lot more than a ticket to High Holy Day services and a shitty oneg.

No, really, you do.

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Emanuel Congregation V.P. to Us: Drop Dead


good day sir

Today, a vice president of Emanuel Congregation submitted a lengthy comment in response to yesterday’s blog post regarding Ryan and my decision not to renew our membership after four years (see: The Benefits of Membership.) The nature of the comment merits it a full airing wider than yesterday’s comment thread, so I’m reprinting it here (numerous typos corrected for clarity), followed by my own response, paragraph by paragraph.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog and the numerous issues we’ve experienced with Emanuel, the following comment will more than likely speak for itself. If you’re new here, to understand what is going on here, see yesterday’s post and also March’s This People and April’s Impure


Although many of us in the Emanuel community, especially the leadership, have always and often been less than appreciative of you regular critiques of Emanuel in your various social media platforms, it’s clear you’re right.”

Avoiding the goading closing sentence, it is very true that I have blogged repeatedly, over almost four years, about persistent, structural problems at Emanuel Congregation impacting the member and worship experiences. Most of those blog posts make it quite clear that my blogging on the issues emerged only after repeated attempts to engage synagogue leadership in dialogue, alert leadership about issues, or more often than not, receive any sort of response at all. When you systematically shut out member input, there’s really no room to be “less than appreciative” when it appears elsewhere. It’s 2014, everyone has a “social media platform,” and the days of keeping internal issues quiet so that you don’t have to deal with them, whether at a shul or anywhere else, are long gone.

“I speak here though for myself. Not as a member of the lay leadership. As someone who is privy to alot of what is actually happening at Emanuel and who does whay, I gotta say that your name has, outside Membership, been pretty absent from any committee lists, event organizing, boards, or volunteer lists that I have ever seen or been part of. So it’s not like you actually joined, dug in, got involved, learned about what we think are the very real issues to work through, learned what’s actually going on to address them and worked with us on solutions. Nope. You have always seem more interested in what we are or aren’t doing for you. And as anyone knows it’s so easy to shoot spitballs from the stands.”

Everything a  synagogue board officer–in this case, a vice president–does and says in public reflects on their office and on their institution. Just because a board members prefaces a comment with “I speak for myself” does not mean they actually, or even reasonably, get to do that. The face that the author of these comments is an Emanuel board member is in no way lost on anyone reading them.

In terms of committees, at Emanuel I’ve served on the Ritual and Membership committees, and technically am still a member of the Membership committee through June 30. As a member of the Ritual committee, I was responsible for Emanuel shifting to a silent Amidah during Shabbat worship services in 2012. As a member of the Membership committee, I repeatedly voiced the need for official materials to be mindful of the Emanuel’s diverse membership.

In terms of volunteering, Ryan repeatedly sought to volunteer at the synagogue for more than 18 months, submitting a series of volunteer forums to the office. No one ever responded to him. Not one time. Even after I raised the issue at the committee level and with office staff.

Ryan and I have also been tapped repeatedly for High Holy Day honors on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur since arriving at Emanuel, each time being told we had to accept the honors because we would know how to perform them and because so few other members would say yes to accepting them.

All of the foregoing was chronicled on CHICAGO CARLESS. So far from throwing “spitballs from the stands,” as I have said repeatedly on this blog–and which appears clearly to be borne out in the above comment–Emanuel leadership rarely pays attention to the activities of the shul’s own members.

“As a guy who complained that Bar Mitzvahs ruin Saturday Shabbat services because the families take over, it is clear to me that you not only don’t understand the function of ceremonies in Judiasm ( being communal vs. individually focused) but perhaps also what makes a synagogue member and community thrive. It’s communal vs individual.”

This is untrue. Judaism is both individual and communal. Though it’s worth nothing that debate about where in the middle to place the emphasis between these two central poles of Judaism is frequently divisive. A basic tenent of Reform Judaism is to find your own way through worship, faith, the commandments, and your relationship with God to find what rings true and what does not. Taking all of your cues from your community without question or pushback is not at all a part of liberal Jewish ethics. Believing that it is, as I have often blogged, immediately cuts off the input of individual Jews.

Ron Wolfson’s writing on how to be a welcoming congregation. I would suggest seeing his article in the Summer 2014 Reform Judaism magazine and his recent book, Relational Judaism. (Ironically, earlier this year, Wolfson was booked to speak at Emanuel but the speaking engagement never took place.)

“Believe me. If you knew me better you would know that I am the last person in that building that would say that things are all as they should be at Emanuel. But you don’t know what I think – or how anyone else working on the solutions thinks. Because you haven’t tried to be part of the solution.”

I responded to the erroneous idea that I haven’t engaged with synagogue community life further above. What I find troubling here is the idea that there is any public discussion or debate about things not being “all they should be” at Emanuel. There isn’t. Board members may talk among themselves, but at the level of rank-and-file members, voicing concerns about things not being as they should be is almost always met with severe, almost knee-jerk pushback. I’ve blogged about being on the receiving end of this many times, and it is obvious the comments to which I’m responding here are par in that regard as well.

“Did it occur to you that perhaps no one has really ever responded – or will respond now, other than me – because with all your very public trashing of Emanuel you haven’t really created an impression of an open, solution oriented person who wants to help things get better. Quite the opposite.”

Again, having discussed how I (and Ryan) actually have been involved or tried diligently to be involved, there’s nothing more to say in that regard here. But strikes me, though, is the surety with which an Emanuel board member believes beyond all doubt how a particular member or members have–or have not–engaged with the synagogue. Susan, if you really think what you wrote above, then you haven’t been paying attention at all. Institutional myopia like that is exactly the problem with leadership at Emanuel that I have blogged about for years.

What did occur to me is that Jewishly, even after almost four years of feeling persistently shut out by Emanuel leadership, it was my ethical duty to give Emanuel leadership the benefit of the doubt and to expect their actions to reflect their roles as Jewish leaders in charge of stewarding an entire community and embracing both people in agreement with them and people not in agreement. I’ve done so, for a long time.

It’s disheartening to know–judging not just from this comment but well exemplified by it–that my longstanding suspicion about the nature of Emanuel leadership as being essentially shallow, petty, cliquish, mean-spirited, spiteful, and gratuitously deaf to the needs of all members was not misplaced.

“And honestly we are all way too busy working hard on real issues and making things better at Emanuel to waste time responding to someone like that.

God bless,

Susan Bertocchi”

Susan, you don’t mean that at all. You actually mean to be bitchy, as that is the tenor of your entire body of comments. Using the words, “God bless,” in this context is nothing more than chillul hashem. When I said in yesterday’s post that we deserved to have a synagogue where the rabbi would visit one of us sick in a hospital, I meant that. No matter what the disagreement might be internally. That would have been the Jewishly ethical thing to do.

But this is not the place to remind you, your fellow Emanuel board members, or your lead rabbi, Michael Zedek, about Jewish ethics. If you don’t know them by now, if your collective words and actions towards the entire body of synagogue members aren’t deeply and unflaggingly informed by them already, what more could I possibly say?

God bless you and them. I truly mean that. You deserve someday to live up to your leadership roles.

And the congregation deserves for you to do that, too.

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The Benefits of Membership


ryan hospital bed

I do believe it says something fundamental about a congregation when a member of the membership committee decides not to renew their membership. Yet that’s my story as the traditional July 1st synagogue membership renewal date approaches. I wish I could say I hadn’t seen it coming.

But really, it’s been obvious for a long time for anyone paying attention. Which unfortunately doesn’t account for the leadership of my outgoing synagogue. I don’t think I need to make any finer point about the leadership and diversity problems at Emanuel Congregation. I covered that pretty well back in March and April (see This People and Impure.) The gist being that how the synagogue thinks it comes across and how it really comes across to rank-and-file members are two entirely different things–the latter being much less attractive than the former.

This is what’s relevant here. When I walked angrily out of Shabbat morning services three months ago, that really was the last time I set foot in the building. Ironically–or stereotypically–enough, the night I chanted Torah (my faux bar mitzvah) was the last time Ryan or I attended services there. We finally tired of the very well-known lousy attitude of Emanuel’s head rabbi and decided, like many congregants before us, that we’d had enough.

So after more than three-and-a-half years of regularly attending Friday night services and missing, at most, half a dozen Fridays in all that time, for the past three months, we’ve both been consistently absent. Not absent from a burgeoning and enormous regular crowd of worshipers, mind you, but absent from a weekly group of at most 20 people. So it isn’t as if our lack of attendance could possibly go unnoticed.

Neither the rabbi nor other leadership ever reached out to us.

Hold that thought and marry this to it. During our absence, about a month ago Ryan was rushed to the hospital via ambulance with chest pains (that we now know were due to a very stressful former work situation that he has now replaced with a new and awesome job.) I rushed up Lake Shore Drive from work as he panicked on the phone with me waiting for the paramedics to arrive. He sat in the hospital long enough for fellow congregants to visit us, and our Facebook walls were completely blown up with messages of concern from many others.

Neither the rabbi nor other leadership ever reached out to us.

This week, our membership renewal form arrived in the mail with accompanying literature telling us all of the ways that Emanuel would be a spiritual and congregational benefit to us as long as we continued to pay a couple of hundreds dollars a month for the privilege.

There are many things I could say here, but I think the above few paragraphs speak loudly enough for themselves. Although it’s worth noting that everyone deserves a synagogue–and a rabbi–that might actually notice if they lived or died. In the end, it’s clear all we ever were to Emanuel leadership was a budget item and nothing more.

You won’t be surprised to learn the renewal form went in the trash.

To new beginnings.

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Mourning and the Rest of the Day



Camoes and me October 2013

Those evenings when I used to sit and stare out the window of a our solitary high-rise home at the myriad Mounts Hozomeen across the Chicago River and cry at the folly of loving and losing you were always there in my arms, nuzzling my ear as if to ask what is your problem, I’m here I’m here…traipsing through the urban playland below us, walking walking walking off the hurt after Devyn, after Chris, after a return to my hometown that was never to be, always walking back to you and we always you and me against the world, like it used to feel with my mom except you came into my life long after…

I never wanted one like you, forced into it before, Pumpkin pissing on my futon while I was in Paris, here, Gerry, take her back…even when Isabel got her orange tabby and I decided I had to try again, I wanted Morris from TV, not you not you…a tiny white paw from a black-speckled kitten reaching out through the cage bars proved me wrong, told me what I really wanted, or needed, you chose me…always at home no fearful feline hiding under the couch you were bouncing happily from wall to wall as soon as out of the cardboard box that carried you home…

Lost you in a drawer and went door to door when you were four months, how did you get in there? Wanted to die until I heard the meow amid the socks…a broken your pelvis two months later, stop hiding in sheets, I yank sheets, never yanked another sheet again…made the promise you were home forever no declaw no kill no put to sleep ever, free reign, no permission needed, my top priority, my baby…not my baby, your name was no accident, no cat deserves fluffy or fifi, a respectable name from the annals of Portuguese history, my Lusiadas gato…you were respectable,not mine, not owned, my companion, 14 years my companion and who, even me, would know until the end my greatest relationship in life was with one who had no choice except for choosing me…

Ryan feared another animal after losing Jasper, never wanted a cat, what the hell do you do with a cat? Tell people about a cat as needy as a puppy and clever as a mischievous child, loving as both put together, no one listens…everyone thinks their animal companion–no pet, what a fucking awful loser word that is–is the best in the world…Ryan learned you were, yearned for your attention, still can’t believe you were both as in love with each other as we were but I saw it all along, still see it, no one does a shot for the memory of  a pet standing in the middle of the living room where you died, eyes bloodshot with tears, hands trembling…I eventually was jealous of you both, you were my best friend, but he was yours…

Never realized when we moved north that Hozomeen would be out the window…it’s shadow came one night we didn’t know why…God metes justice karma is karma, but if I ever meet the vet who misdiagnosed you alone hell to pay…six months staggering wasn’t a brain tumor–a brain trumor! a stroke! smartest cat in the world downed by his own mind!–we trusted, we trusted, can you ever forgive us for trusting…a real diagnosis six months too late, on kidney meds, on sub-Q fluids cause Ryan was a phlebotomist once and it’s second nature even though it scared him, he didn’t want to hurt you he loved you so much it scared him…

And Hozomeen kept getting closer and closer, your little limbs failing, not even strong enough to take the food from the plastic syringes and we tried to believe otherwise and we did we did, but it was false belief and you knew better, one so brave and smart, you knew…and then it was hospice and cleaning your accidents and I never thought in my entire life my greatest act of love would be kneeling on the rug over and over and over again, wrist-deep in cat pee and cleaning it up and cleaning you up and telling you everything would be all right…

You reaching up to me with a trembling paw, one of the last parts of you not going stiff, using all your might to lift your head and look into my eyes, and I took your paw and we stared into each other for five minutes while Ryan sobbed in the armchair behind me…a paw demanding my hand you came into my life the same way you left…and I found you the next morning still lying there, no longer there, no longer here…

I’ve known human beings who didn’t merit shiva, and fuck anyone who tells us the shiva we sat for you was any less than holy, my friend, my best friend, my baby…knew me better than anyone ever has and vice versa…and the empty house, and the TV still on at night when it doesn’t have to be…the litter box we filled in your memory for one more week so your spirit could enjoy what at the very end you couldn’t control anymore…and the tears of grief cried while holding myself up by the wall for support like I haven’t cried since mom died, primal, unstoppable…

And I’m not 30 anymore, and my youth is over, and no one remembers who I used to be, only you and that memory’s gone without you, and my emotional safety blanket is gone without you, and the part of me that loved you for so many many years is dead with you as it always is because the love has no where to go anymore but back inside…

In my midnight sleep in place of McAllister and Thunder creeks suddenly there you were one night and muted the pain and I know you’re okay and we will get there to okay too but we’re not there yet…you deserved to see the birds in Los Angeles…but you didn’t make it to the road…I hope you’re with Ryza now, see her in my mind spurning your inept attempts at intimacy in favor of her feline whisky and smokes…you loved her like we loved you, like I love you…you spent months looking around corners after she died hoping to see here coming around, how many months of that do I have in me now? Does Ryan?

And life goes on and we go on, learn to live with the empty house, you’d think I was nuts that I’ve cried because I can’t change your litterbox for you anymore…doddering fool I am and getting older too and without you feeling it…I love you, I love you, I love you, can you know that anymore? I want to know you can know that I want to know you love and miss me as much as I love and miss you…

Had you from two months old and you treated me like your mother and in the end all I could do was keep my promise that you would die in your sleep at home. Motherfuck. Motherfuck. Motherfuck.

My baby’s on Hozomeen forever, and I can never go home again.

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Jewing It Wrong


lets go somewhere and judge people

In the lead-up to Passover last month, as always, I ended up in unexpected conversations with fellow Jews based around their assumptions about me because I wear a full-time kippah. I sometimes think that in 2014 people don’t need to be reminded that we all–Jew and non-Jew–come in a variety of varieties. We’re are such a mashed-up society these days, it’s hard for me to understand why anyone still persists in assuming that just because someone does or doesn’t dress a certain way, it’s a shortcut to knowing their belief system.

Of course, that isn’t the case. We all need reminding all the time to stop making assumptions about the people with whom we share the shechina-infused world around us. So forgive me, but after the beginning paragraph in this blog post, I’m a hypocrite in my sentiments.

I have a friendly, open-minded charedi penpal in Jerusalem. The warmest personal welcomes I ever receive from fellow Jews often from Orthodox acquaintances who don’t miss a beat in discussing our differing levels of observance–sometimes admitting that in some things, I’m more strident than they are. And I know Jews whose dress and last names would never suggest their Yiddishkeit who are more observant than I am.

Yet even I see a woman dressed modestly or a man with a black kippah and payes and have a momentary urge of wondering if we would measure up as “valid” Jews in each others’ eyes.

Shortly before Passover, I ran into a high-powered attorney in an elevator with whom I’ve shared a passing acquaintance. She was amazed I was cooking for Passover, and told me with a sense of shame in her voice, “I know you probably won’t approve, but I’m going to my daughter’s later that week and we’re roasting a pig.”

At that moment, I realized why our verbal exchanges had always been so brief. I had thought it was me. I had always felt a bit intimidated by her short tales of famous (and crazy) clients. In reality, all along, she had felt intimated by me. With my yarmulke on my head and her married head so clearly bare of a head covering, she thought I was judging her Jewishness. “I don’t keep kosher,” I told her. “But you’re wearing a hat,” she said. “I roll my own Jew, ” I responded.

Things went south from there. Rare, seemingly, is the fellow Jew content to feel a sense of equality with a Jew with a different worldview. As she exited the elevator, she said with an air of superiority, “Oh well, then. I guess as long as it works for you it’s still good.” Meaning: I don’t think I’m Jewish enough to make the kind of decision you’ve made regarding your level of observance, but that fact that you made it makes me think you’re not as Jewish as I am, so neener-neener.

Remember what Felix Unger said happens when we assume things? Two people trading assness in an elevator is the nut of the above vignette.

Much nicer was the thing that happened at a midday reception at work on Monday. I was wearing my kippah as always. As lunch was served, A very high-level, Jewish leader of a national real estate firm launched himself at my seat, put his hand on my shoulder, and whispered earnestly in my ear, “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay with the food. Do you need a kosher option? We can have them bring you something else. I know sometimes needs like that get ignored at events like this. Is everything alright?”

I thanked him, told him I don’t keep kosher, and immediately let him know how touched I felt my his honest sense of concern. Then I told everybody else I ran into for the rest of the day. His thoughtfulness and open-mindedness at my answer was a great entree into discussing the work at hand, our mutual New York City origins, and the many ways there are to be validly Jewish in this world.

Or validly human, for that matter. Next time you see a stranger in our out of a head covering, wearing or bereft of religious garb of all flavors, it might be worth asking yourself if they would be able to tell your life story down to the way you get down (or not) with God. Because your answer about them would be exactly the same. Sure, you can take the easy way out and judge anyway.

Or you can open your mind, connect with them in all their similar and differing ways, and help heal the world. A lesson from Marty Stern, my hero this week. May we all move further and further away from the assumptions in our heads that divide us, and closer to each other in our hearts.

And if that’s not the reason we’re here, I’ll eat my kippah, I will.

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On and Off the Table at the Chicago Community Trust



On Sunday, April 20, I was the daily featured Chicagoan in the Chicago Community Trust’s On the Table centennial campaign to engage locals in conversations about the city’s future. It’s a remarkably granular campaign with high-minded goals to “generate new ideas, spark partnerships and shape a public agenda to build and sustain strong, safe and dynamic communities.”

If you click through, you’ll learn that I’m interested in issues that affect Jews-by-choice, and that I think Chicago needs to move from a rigid, role-based work environment to one that truly supports talent and creativity. (If you’re a regular reader you know that already, since I’ve been blogging about these issues for a long time.) What you won’t find represented in my On the Table profile, though, is the second half of my comments to the Trust. I don’t blame their PR firm for not including them–the campaign is obviously being spun towards optimistic views on the city.

But the truth is, I did not share an optimistic view about Chicago during my On the Table interview in January. As I blogged in the above-linked post, I told the Trust that after 11 years in Chicago, I did not have much faith in the city, anymore. Among the ideas they heard when they interviewed me:

“In Chicago, we live under an anachronistic and statewide political machine, long gone in most of our peer cities for many decades, that has an entrenched interest to keep itself going. Not to better people’s lives, or improve social justice, or even to abide by the law, but simply to keep those in power in power.

“In this nasty framework, asking real questions about the way things work and, especially, giving real answers, is never the point. Creativity and innovation become the enemy. Acknowledging real talent becomes dangerous. Because all of that can potentially rock the boat, and if there’s one thing you don’t do here in Chicago, it’s that.”

I told them I had trouble not believing that Rachel Shteir was right in her controversial, pessimistic comments shared last year about Chicago’s lack of a reliable economic engine and Chicagoans’ insular, defensive response to constructive criticism. I told them these were the reasons talent leaves Chicago–and never returns. And I told them that after watching so many other people leave in my years here, I was considering leaving Chicago, myself.

I think that’s a powerful perspective on a very real and longstanding civic issue. But this city and its institutions do what they will do, and any real change that may happen will take decades to emerge and take hold. So my being only partially quoted is meaningless in the grand scheme of Second City things.

For anyone arriving here because of the On the Table campaign though, please know the two key things that have happened since my interview:

  • I was unexpectedly hired by a pair of innovative, independent planning and economic development organizations and given the opportunity to work closely on the local and regional levels on the very issues I complained about to the Trust; and
  • My partner and I decided to leave Chicago behind and move to Los Angeles.

And that’s how it goes–so often goes–in Chicago. My current, awesome, dual gig is based substantially on a time-limited federal grant. We’re doing wonderful work together, and I’m thrilled to be part of a growing team working to heal this region’s economic future. And when that time limit is up, I’ll watch and see and if any fundamental change takes hold here from a warmer climate–in an urban region 1,700 miles west of here that is unafraid to do major regional planning, support widespread public input, or fairly reward talent and creativity.

Chicago deserves to be that way too. What the Chicago Community Trust’s On the Table campaign edits out is that some Chicagoans fear this city may never get there. And that some Chicagoans decide to get there on their own–by finding the things Chicago so willfully lacks in new lives in other cities. And that just makes it harder for anything to change for the better here.

What the Trust hasn’t put on the table is how high the stakes for Chicago’s future really are. The problem with Chicago is that–over and over again–we refuse to admit there’s a problem. Like so many others before me, that won’t be my fondest memory of the place I thought I’d never leave.

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Out of Apathy



It’s interesting to approach Pesach from the position of being in the desert a week early. Having already rejected my longstanding assumptions about congregational life and where I intend to spend the future, there has been a funny sense of self-confidence combined with a relative lack of comfort. It’s a combination I’ve been enjoying making friends with.

A close convert friend and I spent some time talking this month. He’s been feeling disconnected from his Judaism and his Jewish community, because his internal assumptions about what Judaism and Jewish community should be haven’t been matching up with his experience. That sounds a lot like what I felt myself going through the first few months of this year.

Almost. The more you cede your definitions of Judaism and Jewish community to others, the less confidence and control you feel over your own Yiddishkeit. We Jews do not exist in a vacuum, from each other or from the wider world of fellow human beings. But unless you want to go down a stringently Orthodox road that narrowly defines what is and isn’t acceptably Jewish–and no matter how stringently observant you are, there’s always someone more stringent waiting in the wings to edit you out of the story of the Jewish people–letting others define your identity is a dangerous game.

The problem is, being honest–fully honest–about who you are is not going to please everyone. It sure didn’t please the Egyptians when the Jews stood up for themselves after the ten plagues and hoofed it out of Mitzrayim. How could it be any different today?

I told my friend what I told myself this year–you are the owner of your own Judaism. It is not for any other Jew to tell you what is or isn’t Jewishly acceptable. Your politics? Your level and style of observance? Your opinions about tikkun olam? What you put in your mouth? What you put on your seder plate? Your internal struggles with God? All totally and completely Jewish things to wrestle with–and wrestling with your path in this world is about as normatively Jewish as it gets.

As I told my beit din several years ago, there is a prophetic aspect to joining the Jewish people. Being Jewish is not easy, but being a convert is even more difficult. We take no step on our Jewish paths for granted. We examine, and turn over and over, and sit with, and live, and test, and poke, and prod, and try, and succeed, and fail, and hope, and suffer, and wonder, and reach out for Adonai. Every moment of our lives.

This is the part that Jews-by-birth seldom understand. We are hard-core Jews. If we weren’t, why would we have left our own birth traditions in the first place? All those angry, annoyed, dissatisfied, argumentatively motivational, only very occasionally happy prophets in he Hebrew Bible? They never died out. Nice to meet you. They are who we are.

Jews-by-choice understand that I’m not speaking metaphorically here. Which is a sentence that probably freaks out born Jews. So be it. No apologies for who we are.

There is a power in realizing that you have allowed others to define for you what is acceptable and normal, what it is your right to expect out of Judaism and what you have no right to demand. It happens without realizing it, and I wonder if it is a normal part of the convert path.

What I’m more sure is a regular feature of being a Jew-by-choice is this moment. The time when your Jewish life tells you to take the wheel. Mikvah is long behind you. You aren’t the same person you were when you emerged from the waters. And it’s time, maybe the first time, to find your spiritual self-confidence, stop looking to others, and make your own Jewish choices. (Like the one I made last year to observe a seven-day Diaspora Passover.)

Sometimes, hard Jewish choices. But if you’re not living your own Jewish life, why be Jewish at all? I told my friend I was kvelling for him. His life isn’t east right now. But it’s certainly Jewish. And he’s certainly a self-aware Jew. Not a happy Jew. But a Jew who knows, more and more, who he is. Really is.

That describes me and my life right now, too. There are two ways forward when you realize that. You can roll your own Jew in edgy confidence. Or you can go back to your comfort zone, wrap yourself in apathy, and live as the Jew everyone else thinks you should be. I’m sure our forebears felt pretty comfy in Egypt, living the limited lives that others pre-determined for them. But look how that turned out. See #diedinthedesert.

This Passover, I’m all out of apathy. My personal Egypt is my Jewish comfort zone, and it can stay behind with the leaven. My matzah of hope this year is all about my future. The last thing I intend to carry through the desert while I move forward is the burden of trying to make others happy about a journey that doesn’t belong to them.

The Jewish tent is wide. It shelters many types of Jewish journey. Those journeys are not Jewish because others say so. They are Jewish because individual Jews embark on them. They’re not always comfortable. They’re not meant to be. But you can’t reach the promised land unless you pick one.

So pick one and get moving. Your comfort zone be damned. Embrace your Jewish self-confidence and let your kishkes be your guide. Because you’ve probably been sitting on your ass too long. I know I have.

Chag Sameach.

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B’nei Los Angeles



So, we’re moving to Los Angeles. Not tomorrow, not necessarily before we have to live through another Chicago winter. But Ryan and I have made and committed to the decision that I’ve talked about for the past several months on my blog. And that decision is to transition by this time next year from the Third Coast to the West Coast.

The reasons why are the same ones I wrote about in December: Chicago’s rigidly hierarchical political and economic structures enforce careers led and life lived in pre-defined boxes that are too often detrimental to the happiness and potential success of people who define themselves outside other people’s boxes. Point blank: Chicago loses creative and talented people because creativity and talent are detrimental to keeping outdated political empires in place.

It can take a long time to see that about Chicago. (It took me 11 years.) But once you do, there’s no un-seeing it. When Ryan first raised the idea of moving to Los Angeles, six months before I wrote about it publicly here, I did the emotional math and realized my main tie to Chicago was my synagogue. After last month, though, that’s really not true anymore. So why not follow our dreams?

Or more literally, why not engage with, align, and aim our lives so that, working in gratitude, trust, and consonance with God who enables all things, we will together make our dreams happen? (No really, I mean it literally. This is exactly how I roll spiritually in my everyday life.)

Months from now as we start to pack boxes, I’ll review my years in Chicago and feel duly sad. For now, though, I have no regrets. Chicago got me where I needed to be. I would never have stopped emotionally sleepwalking through my life in New York to grow in the ways that Chicago allowed me to grow–professionally, emotionally, spiritually. But I know at this point, it’s time to take the show on the road again to see what the person I am now can accomplish in another compelling place but with a different set of challenges.

I never believe non-native canards and prejudices about places, and I’ve spent more than enough time in Southern California in my life to understand that real urbanity, personal depth, a work ethic, and useful public transit are not mutually exclusive with the region. (If you add in good weather, these are the same things New Yorkers often say Chicago lacks.)

Until our current employment opportunities, had we been able to accomplish it financially, the truth is we would probably have left Chicago over the winter. My wonderful and unexpected dual-staff position at two of the Chicago region’s most dynamic economic development organizations will keep me here through the end of a yearlong federal grant, but the combined gig was never meant to be long-term. And Ryan’s new gig with an interstate medical lab has the potential for him to transfer directly to Los Angeles to develop business there.

So if ever there were an obvious pivot point, I think the two of us are living it right now. Besides, I always said I would move across the country for Disneyland eventually. Well hey there, eventually! Long time no see! How are the wife and kids?

They’re at Disneyland.

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No Talent Like Chicago Talent



Last week, the board chair of WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, Steve Baird, noted in Robert Feder’s widely read media blog that, essentially, Chicagoans have no talent in digital or media. When asked by Feder why the station hired its new CEO, Goli Sheikholeslami, from the east coast, Baird replied:

“The problem with Chicago is that if you’re looking for media skills, digital skills and so forth in Chicago, that’s a very limited subset. Actually, of all the criteria, [being from] Chicago was the least important to the board. We have people here who know Chicago. That’s a learnable skill. Being digital savvy or having media experience is not necessarily a learnable skill.”

Myopic homegrown attitudes like this about equally homegrown talent are exactly what I meant in December when I blogged about how Chicago eats its young and forces native talent to leave town. Well, more than myopic. Stupid and self-destructive, really. Because obviously the global city that is America’s third largest metropolis, one of it’s largest media markets, and the Midwest’s main digital incubator has media and digital skills if you bother to look for them.

So why didn’t WBEZ? Of all organizations to reject out of hand native talent, for a troubled public broadcaster whose entire reason for being is the local citzenry and which aims to return to a position of relevancy and authority among locals is the height of irony. WBEZ’s message, if you go by Baird’s comments in Feder’s column, is essentially, “We know what’s good for you better than you do, and you’re not smart enough to know better, either.”

Irrespective of Sheikholeslami’s talent, the bottom line is Chicago’s own public radio station not only didn’t bother to hire its leadership locally, but didn’t think locals were skilled enough to consider for the job. And if you’re a Chicago local, especially one who listens to WBEZ, that should really give you pause.

I don’t have anything more to say about this repetitive local proclivity for cutting off Chicago’s talented nose to spite the future economic competitiveness of its face except this: one day Sheikholeslami will leave Chicago, following whatever homegrown talent is now in the process of leaving because of WBEZ’s actions and so many other boneheaded workforce decisions that happened before and will happen after. And that will only leave Chicago more and more bereft of the talent that WBEZ so obviously thinks Chicago doesn’t have anymore already.

Baird is right about one thing. Chicago is a learned skill. One thing I’ve learned after my 11 years here is that in this town, we never want nobody that nobody brought. It’s something I’m sure Sheikholeslami will learn, too.

Probably after her first set of meetings with WBEZ’s major donors.

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Over the wekend, an African-American friend on Facebook complained that once again a white person had told him that he understood the black experience, with no further explanation needed. I commiserated with my friend. Jews-by-choice receive the same kind of identity-silencing assumptions from Jews-by-birth all the time.

A major issue that divides we Jews somewhat acrimoniously into our denominational silos is how to define a Jew. Depending on the denom in which you daven, for the purposes of peoplehood, you’re always Jewish if you have a Jewish mother, you may be Jewish if you have a Jewish father, and you may be Jewish depending on the rabbi who converted you and the rituals which you performed. We argue over all of that.

And then of course there’s the religious definition of a Jew. Some denominations don’t count women towards the minimum number required for a kosher prayer service (10 Jews), while some do. And some ignore the need for a minyan entirely. So when you’re talking about identity in Judaism, from the beginning you’re on shifting ground.

I think that may be why majority members of a Jewish congregation can be so myopic in terms of how individual Jews define themselves within the community they all share. Once inside a community that shares more or less common religious norms, it’s easy to assume that significant differences don’t exist.

Of course, that isn’t the case. Regular readers know that at my shul last year, speaking from the bimah on Yom Kippur our rabbi emeritus left converts out of the definition of who is a Jew, and later told me he did it on purpose because “a Jew is a Jew” so converts shouldn’t think of themselves as converts.

I’ve also had discussions with Jews-by-birth who feel insulted when converts talk about their unique identity, asking, “Aren’t we all Jews-by-choice these days?” Growing up in strict Jewish homes–or completely non-religious ones–some Jews reject Judaism until later in life, at which time they adopt religious practice and join a shul. That happens across all denominations and is a wonderful thing.

But choosing to come back to the faith community into which you were born–no matter how tenuously you were born into it–does not make you a Jew-by-choice. The assumptions, prejudices, and cultural and religious understandings of a Jewish family no matter how far removed from Judaism are not in any way the same as those carried around by a non-Jewish family. Choosing Judaism from a starting point of no Judaism whatsoever is a unique and precious thing. So, no, we definitely are not all Jews-by-choice these days.

So why so often do liberal Jews still assume that everyone will–or will even want to–fall in line with the congregational status quo, and become so defensive when they learn that when it comes to JBCs, that’s a pretty baseless assumption? Of course, it’s not just a JBC problem. The main reason I distanced myself from my synagogue this year was more than three years of watching it be lukewarm not just on JBC identity but on the needs and desires of Jews of all stripes without children.

Why the leadership of any shul would assume that single and childless Jews would be attracted by worship and holiday events based primarily around neutered religious themes aimed solely at children–and wouldn’t seek to change that kind of status quo–is beyond my ken. (As a childless Jew-by-choice, these things have carried no meaning for me in my own synagogue, but no one ever listens to me when I say this.)

But that’s what happens. Maybe as a people we’ve become so used to surviving instead of actually living that we think the best we can–or should bother–to do once we end up in a common community is to shut up, suck up our differences, and muddle on, happy that at least no one is trying to kill us at the present moment.

I would actually bet money that’s why Jewish identity politics are the way they are.

Anyone who reads other Jew-by-choice blogs already knows that we JBCs tend to move from congregation to congregation, looking for the open-minded welcome and actively listening ear about our needs and religious and personal self-definitions that should be the mark of anyone’s long-term spiritual home. For a long time, I wondered why so many fellow JBC bloggers had such a hard time finding a synagogue. And then, of course, this year I took my blinders off about my own shul and realized how badly misunderstood–or perhaps more properly, ignored and willfully redefined–the needs and desires of non-status quo members are there.

I still believe in the welcoming, diverse, open-minded platform of Reform Judaism. But I sure wish the denomination more reliably lived up to its own press. It’s not enough to ask diverse Jews to tell you who they are.

You also have to listen to them when they do.