Sunday, March 20, 2011

To Change or not to Change: the Lesson from Verizon

By nature, we humans are not very adaptable. I was recently reminded of this reality of our general character last Shabbat when The Baltimore Sun announced, brace yourself, Verizon’s plan to discontinue their weather and time hotlines. Big news. These must have been national services provided under the grand ma-Bell system, for these services were a mainstay of daily life in Philadelphia, too, where I grew up. “Mom,” I remember shouting, “How cold is it outside?” “Pick up the phone and call the weather,” she’d respond with an irritation I didn’t fully understand until I myself was a parent. She was a mom, not a local meteorologist. And, the time hotline – how else would we know to what time to set our clocks after a power outage? How many of us called over and over again to make sure we had it just right? Well my detail oriented bordering on OCD Dad did; though, to his defense these were pre-digital age clocks. The very act of winding them to the proper time could shave seconds, maybe even a minute, off its exactitude. Having a the TI-4 hotline kept our clocks in line.

Like I’m sure many other kids of at least my generation, and perhaps beyond in both directions, my friends and I would pass time dialing these services. Was it really true that any four digits when coupled with “We-6“ or “Ti-4“ would bring up the weather or time? A silly occupation for sure, but recall dialing the phone – yes, the experience of dialing short versus long digits on the rotary wheel – and then waiting for the connection from that anonymous place on the other end was actually compelling. And the prospect of debunking this known truth? We may never have succeeded, but that wasn’t the point. The prospect of it held our attention.

Though I frankly had no idea these free services still existed (and apparently they haven’t in my hometown since 2008), my first reaction was of reminiscent disbelief. How could they disconnect these basic – even fundamental - community services? How comforting it was to know that the weather and time were just a phone call away! Common sense quickly replaced my nostalgia. The very fact that I still know these numbers by their archaic call letters, WE & TI, points to the last time I dialed them with any regularity. By High School, my home phone number, Wilson-7 – 5916, was so well replaced by 947-5916 that I barely thought about its regional predecessor. It took a few more years before I stopped having to think “Hi-6” in order to find the numerical equivalents for my cousins’ less often dialed numbers, but it happened eventually. I vaguely recalling having to learn the numerical equivalents of WE and TI, I must have had a phone without letters for a time, but beats me what they are. Those phones numbers are firmly and perhaps perpetually engraved in my memory with their historic alphabetical exchanges.

We no longer need these services anymore – that’s clear. When my daughter needs the weather, she pulls up an app. If she asks me, I pull up an app (sometimes more than one - don't ask me why, but I have three weather apps on my phone). We haven’t needed these services in decades. There are a myriad of ways in which to find out the time when our power goes out, from our battery operated digital alarm clocks to our highly sophisticated smart phones. There are, and have been for a long time, far more convenient, and at least as accurate, sources for this information. So what has taken the phone company so long?

We don’t like change. Our Torah holds out an extraordinary example. Truth be told, the sacrificial cult most likely lost meaning for most long before the destruction of the Temple, but it took the Roman conquest to substantiate change in the primary and preferred, methods of worship. One can imagine that without the events of 70 CE, the Temple and its rites may just have gradually fallen away, losing significance in people’s lives. Without something clearly formulated to replace it, Judaism may have disappeared. The brilliance of Rabbinic Judaism is that it innovatively packaged and delivered a compelling replacement for the Temple at just the right time. Certainly, crisis forced change – change that lead to renewed vibrancy in part because there was no choice. But, that change would not have happened or succeeded without an openness to new ideas and constructs that had to have long preceeded the fall of the Temple.

Are our synagogues any different today? I’d argue that (as I have often in our various working committees) one of our failures is that, in large measure, we function as we did in the middle decades of last century. Despite parents’ changing work patterns, we hold religious school at virtually the same hours, though fewer of them due to the competition with other activities. We make cosmetic changes to worship, moving the time, creating a kid friendly environment, trying new melodies and band arrangements, bringing in speakers; yet despite mediocre interest, as reflected in attendance, in these changes, we remain wedded to the Friday night worship model of the Reform movement. On the other hand, attendance on Shabbat morning, once an embarrassment to the Reform movement, at least at Temple Emanuel is remarkably healthy. Our auxillaries too struggle with lack of participation in activities that were extremely popular decades ago and with finding activities that will be compelling to today’s busy families.

We must be open to change. At the same time, the fact that we read about the sacrificial cult year after year in our Torah cycle even though we have no intention of recreating this system of worship should remind us that we must always remain cognizant of our history as we remain open to new ideas and visions. Indeed, many of our members and committees are doing just that. TESCA, for example, our Temple Emanuel Studio of Cooperative Artists is not only innovative but it creates excitement, interest, and energy while remaining fully grounded in Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim, the three tenets of Rabbinic Judaism. A few members of our board are beginning to look forward to the aging of the Jewish community (a phenomenon parallel to the aging of America thanks to the baby boomers) and how we as a synagogue must respond. This conversation is vital to our future.

Change need not, should not in most cases, be revolutionary, but let’s be sure that we don’t take as long as the phone company does to respond to change. Let’s be more like our ancient ancestors, the early rabbinic factions, in particular, who were willing to make change. That willingness – the ability to respond to modernity - ultimately served to preserve Jewish life through tremendous crisis. And it serves as a worthy model of emulation as we strive to make our congregation and Jewish institutions generally responsive to the 21st century.