Sunday, November 20, 2005

Temple politics

Our temple minion in action:
L-R Boris, Lieberman, Chaim, Marat and Misha
We had our first tentative snowfall today. It may not be right to call it a snowfall, I doubt if you could even count it in inches, maybe millimeters. But it stayed on the ground all day in the zero degree weather and lay prettily on top of benches and on the shoulders of statues and things like that. Winter is coming and it gets dark here in the four o’clock neighborhood. We have a long winter here, maybe not as bad as Sweden or other high latitudes, but it is bad enough and long enough to complain about.

But along with this first snowfall I guess came along our first seasonal illnesses. We felt this today at the temple when we found ourselves a man or two short after two of our minion went home ill during the morning prayers. These absences along with what is turning out to be a nightmare as far as my friend Simon Shapiro is concerned had everybody’s tongue wagging. And it is an obvious argument: Our attendance is really poor. Certainly when the boy’s school also came regularly to the temple, it was not so obvious that this was a problem; the temple was full and noisy and had all of the energy that comes along with jamming forty or fifty teenaged boys into the synagogue thrice weekly. But the boy’s school has moved out to a local village and rather than make the drive, they simply have services for them out there. And consequently, we immediately lost 85% of our attendance.

So this was the conversation at the table today amongst our minion of pensioners: What to do about this? I remember bringing up the conversation with Moishe Fhima, our energetic and quixotic head Rabbi a couple of months ago. I asked him how many Jews reside these days in Pinsk and he said that there were probably perhaps seven or eight hundred. Then why don’t we draw more people? The question did not garner a very solid answer nor did the question seem to bother the rabbi much either, so I let it rest. But as I say, we now have the issue staring us in the face and with basically the entirety of our congregation (but for myself) well into their seventies and eighties the specter of catastrophe looms large.

Anatoli is one of our workers. He is Jewish but has never attended a service even during the high holy days. “I don’t want to.” Is how he usually describes his lack of attendance,” I work here, this is enough for me.” Do you think that this is the common attitude amongst all of the Jews of Pinsk? “I cannot say for sure. A lot of them work on Saturdays and so they cannot make it. But mostly they just don’t want to come. They do not feel the need; they do not want to make the effort.”

Yasha, an 80 plus year-old chimed in that people don’t come because they don’t understand. This drew a few murmurs of agreement.

“But it doesn’t take much learn.” I said “I have only been back at it for a short while, but I am pretty much tuned in to the service.”

“But this is for you.” Yasha countered, “You know English really well, Russian really well…”

“Probably know….” There were a few laughs

“… and you know Hebrew really well…”

“No, I do not know Hebrew well, but I am learning. I take some time every day to practice. I am getting better, but I am not good at it.”

“No, but you can do this.”

“Anybody can do this if they want to.”

“You are American” reminded Valodi “You have no problem with this. It is Ok for you to be Jewish. It was never so for us.”

“You were free to do anything you wanted, not only to be Jewish.”

“This is the truth.”

“It was very hard to be Jewish in the Soviet Union. Once people knew you were Jewish, that was it, everything changed. And it always mattered in your job.”

“We were not free to be Jewish or to learn and study. And so we just lived. We were here and we did as we had to do and this was all.”

“But surly this is not the case now. Lukashenka does not make things hard on Jews.”

“But he does nothing to support it either.”

“This is the truth.”

“Moishe told me that many rabbis here get hit hard for taxes every year, that they are targets even for the KGB.”

“This is possible.”

“That’s a different subject.”

“In the end it is just that we never had this in our lives as being important. In fact it was just the opposite.”

“Well, what are we supposed to do about this?” and at this point we fragmented into two different groups. The group at the head of the table started speaking of specific Jewish Pinskers whom they knew and the group I was in started in on how to get through to folks that maybe they should come and participate. I was a bit animated and again got called an American for it. I guess I can’t help that but when this happened, I started thinking about that conversation with Moishe Fhima about temple attendance several months ago. At that moment I realized that Fhima’s dismissing of the point, that is to say that he specifically dismissed a point without discussion was very un-Belarusian. This thought then got reinforced when later, while Rabbi Altman was speaking about Abraham and Sarah and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In one moment, Reb David repeated a phrase in English that he wanted me to be particularly aware of. Now, I study with Reb David on Sundays and we are maybe 75-25 in English these days, so between us, this was no big deal. But to several of those at the table, this language switch drew some grimaces and frowns. They didn’t like the attention given me and they didn’t like having “their” talk taken away from them. And what I took from this moment, aside from recognizing the existence of pro-anti factions which are as old Moses and the Golden Calf in Synagogue politics, was that the attendance probably has a lot to do with this dismissive “European” attitude as well.

I got to talking about this later with Simon Shapiro as he and Egor were engaged in a chess match last night at his apartment. Shapiro by the way is on his way to Minsk this week for an operation; these things come on so quickly don’t they. Shapiro’s opinion about the reasons why temple attendance is so low has a lot more to do with the attitudes of the USSR than anti-western sentiment. “Of the six or seven hundred Jews in Pinsk right now, probably 70% are intermarried. And of course, if this is the case, obviously religion is not all that important to them.”

Do you think that the attitude of the Hasidim is against Jews who have intermarried?

“The Hasidim like everybody. This is not the problem. More likely it is an issue of adherence and severity amongst our people. If you have already maid the choice to marry outside of the faith, you are just making an argument in your family by starting in again.”

But what about the others who have not intermarried, why are they not coming?

“A lot of them have to work on Saturdays. And others simply can’t be bothered anymore. They would need a private invitation or a car them up. And then they would just prefer to watch the TV and stay home anyway.”

But what about the idea that the synagogue may be being rejected because it is perceived as an outside element, a rich man’s place and not a place for “one of ours”?

“There might be something to that.” He said with a smile. He also agreed that there might be some connection between Lukashenka’s separatist attitude and the countries still shying away from outsiders. “I suppose it is different in Ukraine or Poland. There they want the Europeans. Here is different. Here it is like the old days. Belarus doesn’t go so quickly to others for help. We do things for ourselves.”

What do you think of Lukashenka’s attitude toward Judaism?

“I won’t say anything bad about Lukashenka on this subject. He has no such attitude as was when Stalin was in charge or after. There has been no stigmas attached to being Jewish under his regime, and in fact, he agreed to finance my book about the Jews of Pinsk. This included four years of writing and work and 5000 editions published. And the temple has been granted almost everything they have asked for from him. As far as I am concerned, Lukashenka is a good man”

On the way home Egor and I got some hard looks from a couple of groups of young men. It was not as bad as the rabbi got several times as we walked through town together on Friday nights on the way to Shabbos dinner, but it was there. When I asked him about this he quipped smilingly the “the stronger the opposition, the more I like it. I get worried when things go too easily.” I myself have often got stares from people as being the “American” and have tried to deal with this as easily possible, but and this is strictly my opinion mind you, it does seem to have changed and intensified in terms of hardness since I have been going to the temple. It is like I went from being a friendly though freak occurrence to being of the opposition because of my attending synagogue. This could be second hand paranoia rubbing off on me or it could be an intensified awareness of these sorts of things, but to me it is a tangible thing. Yea, the anti-Semitism is still out there, maybe now it is coming from a new generation of “church goers” rather than the government, but it is out there.

The mitzvah Mobile: Locked, loaded and ready for action.
But in any case, the point about the low temple attendance is out there and something needs to be done. I guess now it is just a matter of seeing what there is to do about it, talkig to people and getting the job done. Or maybe it is time to call in the “Mitzvah Wagon” after all.