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Rabbi Larry Pinsker

Rabbi Pinsker: The Business of Jewish Life: Reflections on New Hours for the Rady Jewish Community Centre- Read Pinsker's Recommendations

Rabbi Larry Pinsker, The New Shul of Winnipeg, Jan 17, 2013


[Editor's note: Rabbi Pinsker's recommendations  re: Shabbat and the Campus are near the end of this article]

If you could pray for only one thing, let it be for an idea.
 —Pierre M. Sutton, CEO and President, Inner City Broadcasting

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." — Philo of Alexandria

A popular teaching widely attributed to Albert Einstein says: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Current research suggests, however, that this comment was made not by Albert Einstein, but rather by author Rita Mae Brown in her book Sudden Death. You can see on page 68 of the 1983 edition from Bantam Books. (It is also cited in The Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous.)

The recent announcement of changes in the operating hours of the Rady Jewish Community Centre elicited a letter of disappointment and sad warning from the Winnipeg Council of Rabbis. Interestingly, when the Rady announced it would be open on Shabbat afternoons and on Jewish holy days back in 2005, a similar letter from the Council of Rabbis was distributed in June of that year. A draft of the June, 2009, Council of Rabbis’ response states:

The leaders of the community, without any prior consultation have informed the Winnipeg Council of Rabbis, that the Rady Centre and the Asper Campus will henceforth consider Shabbat and the Festivals to be ordinary work days for the purpose of business.  
It is with more sorrow than anger that we received their decision.  At least they informed their spiritual leaders that they are so lost that they no longer understand the first principles of Jewish life. They informed us in the week before Shavuot that they intend to ignore one of the Ten Commandments.

They told us that this is necessary for the future of the Jewish community.  What they did not seem to consider is what the future of the community might be without Shabbat.  Do they think that the Jewish people has survived for close to 4000 years because of our unique ability to balance the books of our institutions by having non-Jews pay dues to our community centre?

We are told that the campus is the “centre of it all.”  Do they think that there is something strange about a community that claims a swimming pool as its spiritual centre?  Do they think that the renewal of our community and its survival can rest on the violation of our most sacred days?

We believe that the Jewish community of Winnipeg needs to step back and think about what it is all about, and what will ensure its future.  We would like to discuss with the members of our community what gives the Jewish people its spiritual strength and its cohesion.  There are many who claim to be “cultural” Jews and not religious Jews.  Do they think one can have a Jewish culture without Shabbat?

Before this decision is implemented, we urge the community to consider the implications of making the violation of Shabbat the official policy of the Jewish community.

Eight years later, how shall we discuss the rabbis’ complaint in light of changing congregational and community demographics? I don’t mean statistics about the overall population willing to identify as Jews, but rather the evidence of how Jews choose to express their identity. For example: At a post-high holy day review in 2012 conducted by Jewish Federation and representatives of the most of the city‘s synagogues, it was noted that the synagogues that reported attendance figures had overall suffered a drop from roughly 33% to 25% over the last four years. Whether the numbers are off by a few percentage points is not critical:  it remains the case that synagogue attendance in Winnipeg is in decline.

Changes in the value of ethnicity, social devaluation of religion, cultural origins, and community all contribute to this decline. Family histories explain some of it.  But the change in Rady hours in 2005 is an unlikely reason for the dismissal or loss of Shabbat as a value in a majority of the Jewish community. (Of course, for all we know, some of them light Shabbat candles, chant Kiddush, and proclaim Hamotzi over two loaves of challah. Do we know?)

I want to remind us of a policy that has infused Federation, Rady Centre, and synagogue activities for at least as long as I have been in Winnipeg: it is that all the existing institutions of the Winnipeg Jewish community have roles to play in sustaining Jewish life in Winnipeg and that the overall decline of synagogues is reason for everyone to worry. Motivating synagogues to reclaim their primary role in Jewish life – to create Jews who will actively engage in Jewish life – is an essential Jewish community goal.

We need to note that the decision of Rady Centre leaders was not motivated by concern over losing the growing non-Jewish population using its facilities. On the contrary, I have been reliably told that the reason was not an outcry from the 50% of Rady membership who are not Jews, but rather from Jewish members who wanted to use the facilities on their Saturday mornings.

Jewish communities have made an earnest effort to support the emergence of future Jews by supporting Jewish summer camping, Jewish day schools, teen programming, Birthright and March of the Living, Jewish education for adults (especially for parents of children). All of these are helpful strategies for encouraging lifelong learning and engagement in Jewish social, political, and communal organizations.

We have strongly emphasized our solidarity, and our vision of ethic pride, and the leaders of our community over the decades have every reason to celebrate their many achievements. The problem is that it is not enough. Dr. Sylvia Barack Fishman, Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life at Brandeis University, has warned that it is a mistake for Jews to believe that they will endure as an ethnic group divorced from a Jewish spiritual and religious heritage. She has said:

Ethnic capital is a term sociologists use to describe how distinctive an ethnic group is. Ethnic groups that are not distinctive do not survive in an open society, so ethnic capital is really the key to cultural survival. Among all religious groups – not only Jews – identity is far more stable when there only one religion in a household. It is not only the non-Jew who affects ethnic capital, of course: Statistically, as a group Jews who marry across cultural lines are frequently not as attached to Jewishness as Jews who marry Jews, and they bring little ethnic capital to the household.

Not the individual alone, but the cultural environment establishes the "worthwhileness" of particular activities and particular personal decisions. Personal behavior is deeply influenced by perceptions of what other people are doing and thinking, as Malcom Gladwell has convincingly argued. Individuals are often unaware of the influence of their social networks, and believe themselves to have embraced these values independently.

Gladwell shows that societal expectations go over a "tipping point," and from that time forward, the once-transgressive behavior is viewed as normative and persons will be pulled toward the changed standards, all other things being equal. Indee

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