By RABBI BOB ALPER
A new congregant might have been confused.
Erev Rosh Hashanah, just prior to the beginning of services, and a fully-packed van pulled up to the synagogue’s main entrance. Its passengers alighted, coifed and costumed much like the other worshippers. Only, on the side of the van there was a sign reading “Bethlehem Baptist Church. Rev. Robert Scott Jones, Pastor.”
A visiting Christian group on Rosh Hashanah? Hardly. The van was on loan, an annual tradition in which our neighboring church helped us ferry our members from an overflow parking lot half a mile away.
Rev. Jones and I were friends, meeting for lunch once a month or so, often discussing issues in our profession. Some would call our conversations “interreligious exchanges.” We referred to them as “small group therapy.”
One winter afternoon I nearly choked on my tuna hoagie as he matter-of-factly related how, in his black Baptist church, he had the power to appoint and dismiss all the members of the board of trustees. I looked skeptical. He gave a confirming nod, and then, with a smile, abused me further. “Sure. I even run the meetings. Why not sit in on one of them?”
Which I did.
Actually, there are many fundamental similarities between a black Baptist and a liberal Jewish governing body. Both groups are comprised of generally earnest, dedicated people, willing to offer precious time doing mundane, sometimes difficult tasks, for a much higher purpose.
And I discovered a fascinating “surface” resemblance between the two: In the black Baptist church, when a person makes a point with which people agree, heads bob up and down, and soft voices can be heard saying, “Amen, sister.” At a synagogue board meeting, when a person makes a point with which people agree, heads also bob up and down, but the soft voices murmur something like, “You know, I think Bernice is right.”
Inspired by my friend Robert’s system, I occasionally tried to influence the composition of our board by recommending my “allies” to the nominating committee. Included in that lofty list was one woman who had been deeply appreciative of my attentiveness during a serious crisis. A supporter for certain, I figured. And she was. Until she caught the rhythm of the meetings, and by her third month in office, developed a frequently-repeated habit of offering statements beginning, “Now, with all due respect to the rabbi…” That’s when my dentist noticed I seemed to be grinding my teeth.
Once, I really did take control. A critical, emotional issue was coming up for a vote, and the board members were tense and divided. How to keep a lid on things, how to maintain an atmosphere of calm, with feelings running so high?
Here’s what I did: I was then teaching a course in Judaism at a nearby Catholic college. The dean of our department was friendly and curious about the workings of a synagogue, so I invited her to see us “up close and personal,” at a meeting of our leadership. She was delighted to accept my invitation, and attended on that perilous night.
In full nun’s habit.
It was the most polite meeting in our congregation’s history.
(Rabbi Bob Alper is a stand-up comic and author. Visit him at www.bobalper.com.)