Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hail To The Chef

Since 2006, I've been involved with the men's organization at my synagogue. Just about every Reform Jewish congregation has a men's auxiliary, called Brotherhood, and women's auxiliary, called - you guessed it - Sisterhood. Next month, Temple Israel Brotherhood here in Columbus will elect me president, and I could not be more excited about this great opportunity to serve. This doesn't come as a surprise; in fact, it's pretty much been the plan for a number of years. Still, you never know how these plans are going to work out, until they do.

Before I was approached to join Brotherhood , I had only the vaguest knowledge that the organization even existed at Temple Israel. Other than my normal Sunday morning routine at the Brotherhood Bistro (a topic for another post), I'd heard almost nothing about what our auxiliary was doing for the congregation, much less the community; it just didn't seem very active. In fairness, politics and finances at our temple had drastically affected the membership numbers and, as anyone who works with volunteer organizations can tell you, this is a real problem. But this was exactly why some of the younger men in the congregation (read: below the age of 65) were becoming active - to breathe new life into our Brotherhood. I was asked to make a two-year commitment to be Secretary. I agreed, unsure of exactly what I was getting myself into. This was my first foray into an organized group such as this. The journey, for me, has been a wonderful challenge.

I'll never forget the first meeting I attended. I'm not sure what I expected, but do you know what I DIDN'T expect from the Brotherhood of a congregation of well over 500 families? Six guys (including me) gathered around a small table. The minutes from the previous meeting were also not what I expected; literally a few sentences, written in cursive on a sheet of paper from a legal pad. A copy - almost certainly mimeographed - was passed out to each of us. The agenda was similar, almost non-existent. While this seemed uninspired to me at the time, it went without notice to those who regularly attended meetings; the president's agenda and the secretary's minutes met all of the attendees' expectations. Nothing more was needed, after all.

After that initial meeting, a few of us began to get really excited about the possibilities that existed for our little organization. We set up a meeting with our rabbi to talk about ways that we could be more active in the temple. We began to seek out other young (well...youngER) board members, and tried to get them excited, as well. It seemed to us that we had found an honest-to-goodness diamond in the rough, and that we had an enormous opportunity to make an impact.

In fact, what we'd really done was to take the helm of a very large ship, which was determined to maintain the present course. Turning this bad boy around was not going to be easy.

Fast forward to the next meeting that summer. This one was more well-attended, because (a) we served food and (b) it was at some one's very nice home. This time, there were three or four of us "young guns" in attendance, and about eight of the more....experienced members. "We" began to tell "them" about our grand plans. We went on and on about organizing events, creating committees, using the (substantial!) moneys in the Brotherhood accounts for the good of the congregation. What we brought forth was an agenda of drastic change and vision - what they heard was how we were going to stretch our little cadre waaaaay too thin, and empty its coffers. They would not be budged. We were beaten down.

My friend, David, and I had driven to that meeting together. He and I were, arguably, the most forward-thinking co-conspirators at the time, and as we got into the car to head home afterward, he said, "Well, Chef," using my nickname, "How do you think the meeting went?" Replying with his nickname, I said, "Well, Cosby, I think we just had our asses handed to us." We were both frustrated and battered, but we laughed out loud at ourselves nonetheless. What in the world had we expected? We walked into that meeting, both guns blazing, and tried to change the color of the sky in their world. These men were respected doctors and lawyers, fathers and grandfathers, retired business men who had all been with the Brotherhood since its heyday. In their time, they had seen this organization, currently with less than a hundred members and fewer that 20 engaged, when it bustled with activity. Many of them had served as board members and presidents time and again, long before "we younglings" came along. Who were we to change things so drastically now, especially all at once?

And, you know what else we learned that day? Those men LOVE this organization. When they looked at our Brotherhood, they did not see some dying, gasping, bloated old thing, atrophied from inactivity; they simply saw a grand old ship sailing calmer seas. Like many of them, it's busier days were behind it, maybe for good, but they loved it and respected it for what it was, and what it had been: stable, respectable, and good.

Never have I learned a better lesson about how to deliver a message than I did that very day.

The years since have been a great ride. I have learned so very much about dealing with difficult people, and how people deal with me when I'm being difficult. I've learned that perspective and delivery are often more important than reality and reason. And I've learned that a screaming genius will never be received as well as a respectful seeker of knowledge.

I still have a lot to learn, and I'm lucky to have some amazing people with whom to continue my journey. My board of directors contains some of the sharpest minds I've known. Many of the past presidents, some in their 80's, still attend meetings regularly, providing a wealth of historical reference. We're also working more closely with Temple Israel Sisterhood, an organization that has managed to stay much more viable than we, and I can only hope they someday find us as helpful as they've been.

On a personal level, my job as president will be a lot of work, and a labor of love. I'll organize and run meetings, appoint and work with committees and their chairs, and serve as liaison between Brotherhood and the temple's staff, which is also full of amazing people. And I'll learn and grow, and feel even more at home in my Brotherhood, in my temple.

Am I honored? Well, of course, but this is not an award, or a reward. This is my commitment to continuing the hard work of the presidents before me. I hope to make them proud, and to earn the same kind of respect I have for them.

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