Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Collapse of Kol Am: An Unfortunate One-Off, or An Early Warning?

This story was just sent out by STL Jewish Federation Exec Barry Rosenberg and I thought it was pretty relevant to a lot of the issues being faced in the Jewish community, but also in the larger community in St. Louis (and I'm sure in a few other places as well).

The Jewish Light reported last week that congregation Kol Am, a Reform congregation of 70 families in Chesterfield, was closing after 37 years. This just four years after relocating to a brand new, beautiful, 22,000 sq. ft. building. Due to fiscal issues, Rabbi Severine Haziza-Sokol was placed on unpaid leave toward the end of last year.

Why? Burdened by debt and challenged by the economic crisis, the congregation wasn't able to attract enough new families - even though it had an angel funder and very strong supplementary revenue stream from bingo - to meet loan obligations. The congregation had only grown from 50 to 70 families after the move.

It is not my purpose or place to evaluate past decisions, and certainly not to be critical. I was present for the groundbreaking and toured the new facility. I worked with Rabbi Haziza-Sokol. The new building represented a compelling vision. Generous donors made the vision seem attainable. Congregants held deep affection and worked hard for its success. They even explored the difficult option of merger - thinking a brand new building would be an attraction; but could not find a partner. No, my purpose is to sound a warning.

Numerous St. Louis Jewish institutions - congregations, day schools, organizations - face similar severe challenges. Simply put, in a shrinking Jewish community, when traditional institutions hold less attraction for young Jews, we have too much very expensive infrastructure - capital and administrative. Even if the population held steady, there are compelling reasons to explore collaboration, consolidation and shared administration and purchasing. That is why the Federation is assisting other organizations considering merger and taking the lead to bring Jewish organizations together to buy insurance more cheaply, invest funds more productively and fundraise more effectively.

The desire to carry on despite clear trend lines is understandable. No one wants to give up an institution that he or she (or one's parents) sacrificed. They are filled with powerful memories and friends. We have come to find meaning, to feel at home and at peace. They reflect our particular approach to Jewish life. These are deeply personal feelings. As Norman Berkowitz, President of Kol Am, was quoted, "Even if there are warning signs that a few years down the road they are going to be in more serious trouble, they'll take the gamble."

But what of the aftermath? A Rabbi out of a job. Sadness, loss for sure; but also likely are feelings of anger, frustration, and depression. Strained friendships? Will some families now just walk away from Jewish life? Does it have to be so painful?

The marketplace is unfeeling. Left to market forces, unfortunately other St. Louis Jewish organizations will fail - and the same outpouring of grief and anger can ensue. Faced with overwhelming odds, wouldn't it be wiser to be proactive? To seek a solution in an orderly way? There will still be loss... but maybe tragedy can be averted. Last week, Nishmah, the St. Louis Jewish Women's Project - announced that it will become a program department of the JCC and move to the new Arts & Education Department. Synergy will sustain the unique role that Nishmah fills in our community.

Beyond survival, it really is a matter of impact. An organization that is facing financial collapse, lurching from financial crisis to financial crisis, cannot muster the energy, focus or human resources to provide services of excellence. In fact, cutbacks, shortcuts, and desperate moves made to avert collapse result in a vicious cycle of declining users, financial and mission vitality.

The desire to sustain our Jewish traditions and institutions is noble. But our commitment to Dor l'Dor (generation to generation) means we must look forward as much as we honor the past. The challenge to the current generation of Jewish leaders is to make the wise and often tough decisions that will sustain a vibrant, inviting Jewish community for those who follow us. This is as much a moral responsibility as it is a practical one. May we learn from the loss of Kol Am... and wish its congregants, former Rabbi, and employees only good for the future. Read More......

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How Much is Too Much? Is Facebook Killing Friendship?

Whether or not you know with all of your facebook friends, the site has made it far easier to stay in touch with friends from different stages of life. But how many of these people can you actually stay friends with?

Imagine a stereotypical Jewish kids, who goes through youth group and camp in addition to K-12 and college, where they might have joined a sorority or fraternity and 5 student groups. Each phase, group, and activity has contributed to the immense social network the hold once they leave university. Where as this might have lead to a build up of an email address book or AIM buddy list, now, without trying, we can stay up to date on all of our friends. Quite literally, the hardest part of maintaining the 'relationship', namely the active attention it took to reach out and check in, has been removed as a barrier to knowing what is going on in a person's life. This shift from active to passive allows us to 'keep in touch' with a much larger number of people, and ensures that falling out of touch isn't something that happens accidentally.

It is often said that we cannot have more than 150 friends. The average number of confirmed friends on Facebook is 120. But if you grew up with Facebook in high school, used it in college, and are comfortable with the fact that Facebook 'friends' stretch even the meaning of acquaintance, you likely have several hundred. At minimum.

One of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that attachment is a source of suffering. As our social networks continue to expand at alarming rates (effectively tracking every person we meet and when), it seems natural that we would begin to be weighed down by our attachments, as casual as they may be. Because we often add friends without categorizing them on Facebook, we are often combing through status updates of people we don't know well, might not care much about, of have little interest in. Sure, Facebook's algorithms will reduce that noise over time to those with whom we interact with most, but the sheer number of birthday reminders and messages we get continues to blur the line between 'real' friend and Facebook friend.

If we are simultaneously able to have more attachment, while the quality of that attachment is lowered (by the lower threshold needed to count as a friend), then we are indeed likely to become crushed under the weight of too many acquaintances.

So what to do? Some people are swearing off Facebook altogether, or opt for 'Personal Network' sites like Path, I think it is still possible to effectively use Facebook for both personal and larger social networking gains.

First, stop accepting people as regular friends. Default them into limited profile, or create a list with limited permissions. Second, start categorizing your current friends, maybe by how you know them, or how close you are. You can set what you share with which group so take advantage of it. Finally, instead of the regular news stream, click 'Most Recent' next to 'Top News' and filter by one of your new friend lists to only see the posts you want.

There is no denying the impact of our technology on the way we interact and the relationships we build, but we still have some choice left in how we use it.
Read More......

Friday, March 4, 2011

Missed Out on Birthright? Rubin Trip Gets You There

Birthright has become more ubiquitous than Bar Mitzvahs, but what about those young adults for whom that 27th birthday rolled around, and Birthright eligibility disappeared?

Not to worry, the Rubin Israel Experience is a free 10-day trip for 27-40-year-olds who've never been to Israel. Funded by Pam and Ron Rubin, the primary supporters of St. Louis' Moishe House (and the people behind the Republic of Tea), this trip promises many of the same great experiences associated with Birthright, to a more mature audience. See below for the full press release and details about how to register.

Learn All About the No Cost 10-Day 2011 Rubin Israel Experience
If you’re aged 27-40 and have never been to Israel, Jewish Federation is offering you the trip of a lifetime this Oct. Information meeting on March 30.

(St. Louis – Thursday, March 3, 2011) Jewish Federation of St. Louis is offering 10 young Jewish adults, who are ages 27-40, the opportunity of a lifetime. If you’ve never been to Israel, Ron and Pam Rubin will send you at no cost. It’s the Fourth Annual Rubin Israel Experience from Sunday, Oct. 30, to Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011. And for the first time this year, there will be a Rubin Israel Experience Information Session on Wednesday, March 30, at 6:30 p.m. in the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building, 12 Millstone Campus Drive.

This is your chance to get details about the trip, hear from past travelers and staff, look at pictures and ask questions. In the meantime, check out previous years’ photos and activities on Facebook: Again, the trip is cost free which means it includes flights, hotels, transportation, security, guide, meals and programming.

You are eligible if you:

· Have never traveled to Israel

· Are between the ages of 27-40 – at the time you fill out the application

· Have time and availability to participate for 10 days – Oct. 30 – Nov. 9, 2011

· Are willing and able to share your Israel experience with others in the community and prepared to explore ways to get involved in the community after you return

To apply, download the application which will be available online in late March at Applications are due by Friday, May 6. Please follow all instructions and return all materials to

If you have questions, contact Margo Newman at 314-442-3865 or The trip is organized and staffed through Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

Read More......

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Israeli Pin Ups?

Sure, Israelis are a bit of a fetish, particularly amongst American Jews (just start a a Google Image Search for Israeli Soldier, and it helpfully suggests Hot Israeli soldier, and Israeli soldier girl.) Maxim magazine went so far as to dedicate a whole photo-shoot to them. Still, I was a bit surprised to get an email from Gal Bondarevski, one of the members of the Bondarevsky creative family promoting Pin Up TLV.

Pin Up TLV, according to Bondarevski, combines the 'everyday art' and mass impact medium of Pin Up art, with patriotic feelings of Israelis and Jewish worldwide. He explains that the idea is not to take things seriously, but to filter the images through a lens of irony and humor.

Looking through the gallery of images, located at, the pictures are effectively split into two groups. The first are based a (potentially unintentionally) ironic Catholic School Girl outfit, embossed with some pithy tag line like 'Kiss me, I'm making Aliyah'. The second fall into the following category:

Girls in combat uniforms, brandishing Barettas, sexualizing the Israeli military apparatus.

It is an interesting tactic. When the rest of the Jewish establishment has moved from fetishizing Israeli military power and the tough Sabra mentality, to focus more on Israel's economic and technological achievements, Pin Up TLV goes in the opposite direction.

Aside from choosing specifically to portray an aggressive military pride, with captions like, 'Don't Fuck with the Israeli Navy', something feels intentionally awry in these images.

Interestingly, neither of the two models used fits the 'stereotypical Israeli' look; olive skin, dark features, extremely long, usually curly, hair. Instead, if I was forced to place the girls as representative of a 'geographic look', I would say Russian or Slavic. The outfits more closely resemble Halloween costumes, potentially adding to the irony of the fact that the light gray brand notes '100% made in Israel'.

As American Jews looked to Israelis as representations of everything we wished we were; tough, tanned, assertive, there is something to be said for taking these images and forcing us to confront them, particularly as some of those same traits are being increasingly criticized in anti-Israel circles.

If the Maxim shoot was our proof-read love letter to Israeli women of the IDF, maybe Pin Up TLV represents more of the wild and unpolished ideas, sometimes making us proud, sometimes scaring us with their implications.

Read More......