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JewishJournal.com

January 4, 2007

Take a walk on the Weil side

http://www.jewishjournal.com/david_suissa/article/take_a_walk_on_the_weil_side_20070105

It's sexy and titillating to read about people getting kicked out of synagogues, which was the subject of a cover story in this paper a few weeks ago.

I don't know about you, but I got this frisson of excitement while reading the story, like when you can't take your eyes off a nasty car wreck.

It didn't matter that a handful of "kick outs" over several decades hardly qualified as a big deal. The point is that some of the episodes themselves were so ugly it was hard to focus on anything else.

So now that you have all feasted on that spicy, sexy stew, how am I supposed to get you excited about a story that reminds me more of a lukewarm knish? In fact, this story is so dull and tedious that I had to change the subject several times while I was taking notes, just to stay awake. And I brought a double espresso to the meeting.

This is not a story about kicking people out of shuls, but rather about bringing people in and bringing out the best in them (I told you it was boring). In particular, it's a story of how a synagogue took a simple idea seriously enough to make it work.

The idea I'm referring to is when people pledge to do a mitzvah. This is not new. For years, I've seen rabbis encourage their flock to resolve to do good deeds, or Chabad rabbis, at Simchat Torah time, asking individuals to commit to a specific mitzvah for the coming year, just before they carry the Torah around the bimah ("Put on tefillin once a week"; "Visit the sick once a month," and so on).

The problem, however, is that there's never any follow up. Have you noticed how shuls are so diligent when following up on a financial pledge? (If they want to stay in business, they better be.) But how often have you seen a shul follow up on your pledge to do a mitzvah, like, say, study Torah once a week? Well, here in the hood, there's a synagogue that is doing just that. It took Rabbi Steven Weil and his team at Beth Jacob Congregation more than a year to put the Mitzvah Pledge program together. But by the time he announced it on the first morning of this past Rosh Hashanah, it was fully perfected, complete with a strategy, a management flowchart, a follow-up and evaluation plan and, for the day of the announcement, user-friendly pledge cards.

The strategy was to balance personal choice with community and individual needs. For the community, you could choose to cook meals for families in need or visit people who are alone -- usually the sick or the elderly -- to keep them company. For the individual, you could pledge to pray at one of the morning minyans or learn Torah in one of the many study groups.

Weil put people in charge of each mitzvah category to follow up on the pledges and administer the program. He keeps close track of their progress.

The community mitzvahs were up significantly in 2006 over 2005. Individually, Torah learning is way up, but he wants to do a better job of collecting on the pledges for the morning minyan. Through word of mouth, Weil sees this program as helping to attract new members.

As I watch the rabbi delve into the smallest details of shul programs, I don't know whether I should be surprised or not. After all, the rabbi certainly doesn't look the part of the fastidious manager or even of chief rabbi of the largest Orthodox synagogue on the West Coast.

You wouldn't expect, for example, an Orthodox chief rabbi to wear a silk, mustard yellow T-shirt under a black Armani suit and head off to a cigar club two or three times a week to ponder the future of his congregation. But that's Weil.

The thing I've noticed, though, is that there are many Weils. There's certainly the cosmopolitan Armani Weil, but there's also the Weil who grew up on a farm in upstate New York doing what his German ancestors did for generations: raise cows.

And then there's the Weil who fell in love with Judaism in Rabbi Shlomo Riskin's high school in New Jersey -- where his parents sent him from the farm to get his Jewish education -- and then learning with the great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, while getting his rabbinate degree at Yeshiva University.

And then again, there's the Weil who decided to get his MBA at New York University -- while he was still doing his rabbinic studies -- and then went on to become a successful money manager during the high-flying '80s.

In short, all the Weils in Rabbi Weil seem to have come together to help revitalize this old, venerable congregation and bring to life ideas like the Mitzvah Pledge program.

The Armani Weil made the passionate sermon announcing the program ("Today I want your heart and your kishkes, not your money"). The farmer Weil understood that the program needed to be seeded for the long term, and that it should be real and nourishing, not abstract and superficial. The Soloveitchik/Yeshiva University Weil understood how knowledge can change your life, so he made Torah learning a central part of the program.

And finally, the MBA Weil made sure the whole thing was meticulously planned and professionally executed.

A farmer, a rabbi, a businessman and a cigar hipster put together a simple program to bring out the best in people.

Like I said, not a very sexy, titillating story.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

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