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In an earlier essay, I described how the practice of Musar has become for me a gesher (bridge) between what had been, for most of my life and in most ways, two separate worlds: one Jewish, the other not.
Upon further reflection, I now see how the concept of “dualism” – two contrasted, sometimes cooperative and sometimes opposed, things or persons – is pervasive in Judaism generally and in my personal experience. Until leaving home for college, I lived in a house with one set of dishes for milchig (Yiddish for “dairy”) and another for fleishig (Yiddish for “meat”). I spent half my life at the synagogue or another local kehillah (a congregation or community of Jews) and the other half in a decidedly non-Jewish world. (Think “bacon and eggs” or “Sonny and Cher.”) The most moving dualisms, including those with contrasting themes (slavery and freedom) and co-existing characters (rabbi and temple president), were found in my Jewish world.
Growing up, one or both of my parents daily attended at least one meeting of one of the many organizations to which our family belonged. In a family of dedicated volunteers, but bereft of Jewish professionals, I naturally viewed lay leadership and other volunteer posts as the key “pillar” of each kehillah’s support. After all, volunteer leaders managed such critical functions as finances and human resources, and were there for the long haul.
The clergy and other Jewish professionals were the other “pillar” supporting the synagogue, the Jewish Community Center, and the local Jewish Federation. They were necessary, but they served spiritual needs, which I viewed as “lesser” functions. I liked, and even respected, our clergy, Jewish educators, and social workers. However, my true heroes – my mom, dad, and other lay leaders – were the principles of the two “pillars” of each kehillah.
Not surprisingly, I attended law school, not rabbinical school. And then, for many years, as I worked with numerous Jewish professionals as a volunteer and lay leader, I often regretted that I had not chosen to become a social worker or maybe even a rabbi. However, over time, and punctuated by thanks for my many years of support and partnership from the retiring rabbi of our former synagogue in Walnut Creek, CA, I came to understand that every successful kehillah is supported jointly (if not always equally) by one “pillar” of Jewish professional leaders and another “pillar” of lay leaders. Though they perform many functions separately and sometimes serve different purposes, ideally, they should act in a coordinated fashion toward a common goal: serving the members of the kehillah.
Volunteer work is often self-rewarding. However, I have learned that community service and other acts of tikkun olam (healing the world) should never be about me or my “career” as a lay leader (in contrast to clergy and other Jewish professionals, typically more the “face” of an organization and for whom there must always, justifiably, be job and career considerations). Musar teaches that the most important aspect of loving kindness (service to any kehillah without pay certainly qualifies!) is not what one feels, but rather what one does. Fortunately, we usually do get the personal benefit of feeling good, even honored, when we support our kehillah. More importantly, I have learned that the relationships forged with the rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and other professionals who serve each kehillah, as well as the underlying common goals to which we all work and aspire – that of serving its members’ religious, ethical, spiritual, educational, social and/or cultural needs – are kadosh (sacred and holy). I have learned, too, that concepts such as “maximum profit,” “immediacy over delicacy,” and “it’s a tough business” have no real application to these relationships and goals, and that honesty, kindness, patience, and openness (within the bounds of applicable principles of confidentiality) are always best, even when facing the reality that – whether due to changing circumstances or differences in vision – it is necessary to replace one of the “pillars.”
It has taken me a number of years, but – proudly, albeit slowly – I have come to accept that I am one type of “pillar” and not the other. I have learned that my serving in such capacity helps provide half the necessary “dual foundation” that supports every successful kehillah.