Alternative Status Systems
The New Rabbi by Stephen Fried is a book describing the effort by Har Zion Synagogue, located in a wealthy Philadelphia suburb, to find a senior rabbi after the retirement of Gerald Wolpe.
The book has a message which exceeds the search for a rabbi. The overall message is that Har Zion, like so many of our congregations, serves as an alternative status system, having long abandoned the meaning of a Beth El, a House of God, or a Beth Hamidrash, a House of Learning, as our synagogues were once called. It is significant that the rabbi search committee at Har Zion did not include one poor or at least middle income member. This omission may well be attributed to the fact that Har Zion, like so many of our “major” congregations, have no poor members. Located in wealthy suburbs, most of our synagogues are inaccessible to those not in the “Cadillac” class. Furthermore, the wealthy board members would not want to soil their reputations by associating with the “lower” class. This was made clear to those of us who had the good fortune to survive the Nazi horrors. Once in this country, the Jewish community let us know that we were not welcome here and that we were “on our own”. This does not mean that we, the survivors, are not grateful that we were admitted to this country and given the opportunity to improve our lives. It does mean, however, that then and now, American born Jews did nothing to help the Jews then trapped in Hitler’s Germany, nor to help those who luckily survived. On the contrary. Philadelphia Jews, not “goyim”, said to me, “Hitler should have gotten all of you arrogant German Jews,” or “you have no right to come here,” and other such comments, such as (in Yiddish), “all they want to do is take but never give,” meaning those of us who did not even have an overcoat in the winter. We were ridiculed for our inability to speak English. It may be that failure to know English is cause for ridicule. Now that I have published 19 books, all in English, I wonder why it is that many of my American born students and their relatives cannot spell and know nothing about English grammar.
Philadelphia may be Greek for “brotherly love”, but that has surely been forgotten a long time ago. On hearing that name, Philadelphia, I am reminded of the Hillel foundation. I walked there one day and asked to eat. The rabbi presided over a “kosher” dining facility for wealthy students. I had nothing to eat but that made no difference to Theodore Herzl Gordon. He told me to get out. He wasn’t going to feed a shnorrer.
Not knowing that a “ticket’ is required to enter a synagogue on the High Holidays, I tried to enter a Philadelphia synagogue shortly after arriving from Europe. A fat lady sat behind a table at the door. She asked me for a ticket. I did not understand the demand as I did not know enough English nor had I ever known of a “shul” in Europe which demanded a ticket. Said she: “If you want to go to a theater you need a ticket and you need one here - get out.” I spent Yom Kippur on a Philadelphia park bench.
It is interesting that now that we, by our own efforts, have succeeded, we are constantly asked for money by the same organizations which erstwhile spat on us.
Americans base social status mainly on occupation. This is well demonstrated by the National Opinion Research Council, who have at intervals asked Americans to rate various occupations on a prestige scale from physician to shoe shiner. Accordingly, physicians have consistently been ranked as first on the prestige scale and professors and lawyers have tied for second place over many years.
Professions needing a college degree are all given a higher ranking than those who do not. In addition, dispensation is very important in ranking occupations. Because physicians are believed to dispense good health and save us from pain and death they rank first, particularly because their income is far above average. Professors dispense a college education, which is believed very important, and lawyers arrange for divorce, also deemed very important. Furthermore it is known that it takes eight years to earn an M.D. or Ph.D. degree and seven years to earn a J.D. These long preparations also influence the prestige ranking of occupations in America.
Because social standing is very much connected to having a prestigious occupation, there are those who feel relatively deprived because they cannot compete with the college educated high earners. This may lead some to join a voluntary organization like our synagogues or other organizations which have a hierarchy of members. This allows large contributors and some others to “climb the ladder” of achievement within the subculture of the Jewish world.
Relative deprivation need not occur only among those who earn less than the professionals they encounter. Relative deprivation can also occur within a group of professionals. If, for example, a doctor earning $200,000 a year discovers that some of his colleagues earn much more, he, too, may feel a sense of relative deprivation as the doctor’s reference group are other doctors. Here is someone earning $200,000 a year and then finds that his former college friend is earning double that amount. He feels relatively deprived and therefore a.) takes no action b.) steals or sells drugs or c.) joins a synagogue with a view of becoming a member of the board, or an officer or even president of the “shul”.
One may ask why someone regarded as “a high powered lawyer” would want to compete with others with similar resumes for ascendancy in a “shul”. Evidently, the answer was given long ago by the author John Emerich, Lord Acton, who famously wrote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Power in a synagogue means the power to “lord it over” the rabbi and other employees of the congregation. Power in a synagogue means the right to be publicly praised by the rabbi who knows “which side his bread is buttered on”. I recently attended a “Bar Mitzvah” at a major conservative synagogue in Ohio. The rabbi spent over ten minutes reciting the virtues of the wealthiest Jew in town in connection with the “macher's” 60th birthday. No such accolades are available to poor members, if any, on their birthdays.
Because our religion has abandoned the principles of Judaism regarding the poor and those in need and opted for synagogues which are mere status symbols, our rabbis are no longer “called” to the rabbinate. Instead, rabbis now expect a career leading to salaries upward of $200,000 . Not all conservative or reform rabbis earn that much but $150,000 is quite common. That is not to say that it is a pleasure to be a rabbi. The proverb “it is good to be a rabbi but not among the Jews” makes sense.
Rabbis are of course the first targets of the “major contributors” in our palatial synagogues. Their livelihood depends on pleasing the wealthy bosses, so that scholarship, once highly prized in the Jewish community, is looked upon as irrelevant. Now the rabbi must be a social director who organizes sports oriented programs and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs including a football theme. Rabbis must be dramatic speakers and must make a significant impression on the non-Jewish community. Rabbis must not be “too Jewish” nor have intellectual interests. Instead they must be good golfers and know some good jokes.
Some years ago I published a book entitled American Judaism in Transition: The Secularization of a Religious Community. This book showed how this transition came about. Today, its consequences are starkly visible.
Most disconcerting is the evidence that a good number of Jews no longer support the survival of Israel. Instead these Jews ally themselves with the so-called “liberals” in this country who hate Israel and, of course, Jews. Seeking to placate the haters, these so-called “liberal” Jews vote for our enemies in the idiotic hope they will not be targeted by the haters as they are “the good Jews” who also curse Israel. Well, I can tell them from personal experience that the “kapos”, as we called such Jews years ago were also murdered by the Nazi haters. “Liberal” Jews are as much hated by the Arabs and their supporters as those who stand by our beleaguered brethren in Israel. I know. I have seen it before. After all, the Arabs and their friends want to kill all Jews, as they are firmly convinced that no child of a Jewish mother has a right to be on this globe.
Another consequence of converting our synagogues into alternative status systems is that at least one half of Jews are not members of any synagogue, and that a recent opinion poll showed that 52% of American Jews consider themselves atheists and therefore would of course never join a synagogue. This trend towards atheism is explainable because the synagogues have long ago become nothing more than status conscious social clubs and must therefore compete with all kinds of country clubs, professional organizations, political parties, and groups interested in the preservation of wildlife or the local symphony. In short, why join a synagogue when these other organizations are much better at providing entertainment than the local “shul”?
All this leaves us with the observation that there are still a few Jewish houses of prayer and study. These are generally small congregations, often lacking a rabbi for want of money. They carry on the tradition despite the showcase temples and empty caverns displaying exciting architecture. These people also support Israel and vote for political candidates willing to prevent another holocaust as planned by the Arab haters and their supporters.
Here too the usual social stratification known in our large congregations is absent. Even holocaust survivors are here welcome, with or without a foreign accent.