Friday, May 10, 2013

A Uniquely "American" Torah Program: Tikkun Leil Shavuot, American Style

People often ask me about the difference between the rabbinate in Israel and in America.
My friend and colleague Rabbi Dovid Cohen recently released on his Facebook page the lineup for Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Here's the flyer.


I want to be clear: I am not questioning or criticizing Rabbi Cohen or the program in any way. If I had thought of it, I would probably be doing the very same program, although the meat thing is new to me. Sea Bass maybe. Cheesecake? Definitely. Ice Cream? Of course. But we never considered meat. Intriguing. Also, as I commented to Rabbi Cohen, he forgot to add on the bottom of the flyer the 7:30am visit to the local emergency room for the chest pains. A minor oversight.
What's fascinating to me is the overt way in which the flyer and the event focuses on the melding of the spiritual and the physical. If we take such things for granted, let's ask ourselves: when did rabbis become caterers? Why is there literally a full, descriptive menu on a Shavuot night flyer?
The answer, of course, is all about attendance.
Imagine the very same program with no food at all, or minimal food - some cola, maybe a plate of cake. How many people would attend? Let's assume that significantly more people will participate because of the food than would have otherwise. In addition, let's not discount the element of competition. I imagine that there are numerous other programs on the Upper West Side on the night of Shavuot. Why come to this one? Well, you can either draw them in with content or with food. The content seems good - interesting, motivating, and not too heavy. But is it that much better than one can get at another location?
So, to supplement the spiritual side, we turn to the physical.
I remember when we first started the Beit Midrash program at YIOP in Oak Park, I insisted that the program have fresh pastries and fresh coffee - not instant (Chas V'shalom!) I myself went to Costco every so often to ensure that we had not only the coffee, but the good cups as well. I believed (and still believe) that no one was coming for the coffee, but if you were wavering about going out on a cold Monday night in the winter in Suburban Detroit, a good cup of coffee wouldn't hurt. I still serve fresh ground coffee at my Parshat Hashavua shiur every week here in Yad Binyamin.
A good friend and colleague in Israel recently asked me what motivates American shul rabbis. I told him that rabbis feel a constant pressure to bring value to their current members and draw in new members. This makes intuitive sense. Fewer members = less dues = lower salary --> no job. So, while our primary focus is of course attending to the spiritual needs of our members (and potential members), rabbis always have one eye on the "trimmings" that will bring people through the doors to participate in the spiritually uplifting programming they offer.
That pressure comes to a head on the night of Shavuot. Does every shul really need to have its own program? After all, only a percentage of the membership actually shows up. Most people like to sleep at night, even on Shavuot. So they're essentially competing for the same participants. (Some people will always go to their shul. Others will go to the most attractive program). But how would it look for a shul to go dark on the night of Shavuot? And how would it look for a shul to have a program and then struggle to get a minyan at 5am? Not good.
So, what has emerged is an arms race between shuls not in the realm of the spirutual, but in the physical. You've got Ben and Jerry's? We've got Haagen Daaz. You've got franks and blankets? We've got Pastrami Stuffed Rolatinis (I've never even heard of a "rolatini". What is that? I assume it's made from meat.) I also like the way the courses are spaced. You want food? Then don't go shul-hopping -- because you might miss the duck with hoisin sauce.
This pressure made me dread the night of Shavuot. Literally, I would go into a funk during the week leading up to the event, knowing that no matter how great the shiurim and the spread, many of my members would gravitate to the local kollel, and someone would invariably ask the hated question: "How many people were there at YIOP?" I hated that question. Still do - especially because there was always great learning during the program, and the members who did come and stay up all night found the program uplifting and motivating.

Israeli rabbis view this phenomenon in the American rabbinate with horror. I cannot imagine an Israeli rabbi that I know producing such a flyer, or even participating in such a program. They're happy to give the shiur, and don't mind refreshments afterwards, but would recoil at such a blatant effort to suck people into a supposedly spiritual event. After all, they're rabbis and teachers. Not caterers.
Then again, they don't face the constant membership pressure. Even the ones who actually take a salary are at best part time, and don't often compete for members the way American rabbis do.  And, I daresay that many would say that they'd rather not be a rabbi if the job required them to cater parties in order to do the job. (Easy to say when your job isn't on the line.)
Who's right? Neither is right; it's not a question of right or wrong, but more a question of circumstances and needs. I repeat: were I in Rabbi Cohen's shoes, I would probably create exactly the same program, or one very similar, and I'm sure that across the New York region, many stomachs will be filled with gourmet food of one type or another over the five hour period between 12am and 5am on the eve of Shavuot.
And, of course, much Torah will also be learned. That, after all, is the purpose of Tikkun Leil Shavuot.