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Sunday, December 05, 2004

Suffering a fool gladly

There is a person in every synagogue whose job it is to make sure everything runs smoothly. He isn’t the Rabbi, although he is expected to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish Law. He isn’t the President, although he wields arguably more power than the president or any of the officers.

He opens the synagogue in the morning and is the last to turn out the lights at night. If you have a problem with your seat.… if you have a guest for Shabbat and want to arrange the proper honors… if you want to lead the service because it’s your mother’s yartziet (anniversary of death)… he’s the guy you need to call.

He’s the Gabbai.

If you are lucky enough to have a good gabbai in your synagogue, you probably don’t even realize the extent of your good fortune, because everything runs smoothly and people are basically happy (or as happy as any group of Jews can ever be).

But if you have an inept or inexperienced gabbai, your synagogue is likely an unhappy place, full of chaotic ritual and insulted people.

My synagogue is fortunate to have a truly wonderful gabbai. He is familiar with even the most obscure nuances of Jewish ritual and protocol. He knows virtually everybody by both his or her common and Hebrew names (including parents names). He remembers birthdays, Yartzeits and seating preference and can recall every honor that has been given to every member of the congregation.

Basically, if there is a problem… one needs only to talk with our gabbai and the problem will be solved.

Our Gabbai’s name is Motti.

It just so happens that my insurance agent is also named Motti. I mention this only because, as will soon be made clear, these two names are located next to one another in my cell phone’s memory.

You may remember that not too long ago I had the misfortune of hitting a dog on my way home from work. Actually it was probably more the dog’s misfortune, but I ended up with a fair amount of damage to my car in the process. Insurance covered everything, including replacing the punctured radiator, and all was right with the world (except, of course, for the dog).

This past week I noticed an indicator light on my dashboard telling me that my radiator needed fluid. I stopped at a gas station and checked it… nope, plenty of fluid. The sensor must have been damaged or reinstalled incorrectly, so when I got back on the road I called the garage that had worked on the car.

Needless to say, they insisted that everything had been installed properly and they didn’t want to talk to me about new problems. They suggested I talk with my insurance company about opening up another claim if something was wrong with the car.

Sooooo… I called Motti... my insurance agent.

Motti answered the phone and I quickly began telling him about the indicator light… the fluid level… the sensor… the phone call to the mechanic… their suggestion that I open a new inurance claim.

Motti replied with some sensible questions: Did I speak with the owner of the garage or just a clerk? Was I sure the fluid level wasn’t a little bit low?  Had I hit anything else since the car had been fixed?  Did the car have any other problems that could be related to the accident/repair?

As he was asking the last couple of questions, something about his voice over the cell phone didn’t sound right. I couldn’t figure out what was amiss, but alarm bells were starting to ring in the back of my head… something was definitely out of place.

Then it hit me… I’d dialed the wrong Motti! I’d called Motti the Gabbai!!!

When I interrupted him and called him by his full name, he calmly said, “Yes?”

I asked him why he hadn’t just told me I’d gotten the wrong number and said good night?

He replied that people called him at all hours with far stranger problems, fully expecting him to make everything right. He went on to say that even if it wasn’t necessarily in his exact area of responsibility, it was usually easier to try and help the person solve their problem.

Now that's a gabbai!

The lesson we learn from this, boys and girls, is that the true role of a gabbai (a good one anyway) is to suffer fools gladly... and this time the fool was I.


Posted by David Bogner on December 5, 2004 | Permalink


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well, good to know that you don't need an insurance agent, huh?!!! The Motti you called sounds amazing - - does he have his own life? (wife, kids, etc...) If so, even more amazing!

Posted by: val | Dec 5, 2004 3:11:59 AM

Hmmm. Sounds like a very sweet man.

Bear with me. Not having grown up religious, I still have large fields of ignorance. The Gabbai in our shul is the guy who leads the Torah service (doesn't actually read the Torah but calls the different people up and moves the whole thing along). The guy who does what Motti does is the executive director. Ours is Amram and is as kind and hard working a man as Motti sounds. Amram would without hesitation go out of his way to help you with your car. Does this mean that Motti also leads the Torah service, or is the term Gabbai being used differently by the two shuls?

I have a cute story about Amram helping me elevate my adherance to the Commandments in my early years in our shul, but this is your blog....
Thanks for the great reading. Have a good week.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Dec 5, 2004 4:36:09 AM

Val... Yes Motti has quite a full life outside of the synagogue. He works in publishing, has a wonderful wife and equally wonderful daughter (I guess the wonderfulness runs in the family).

Doctor Bean... Yes, Motti leads the Torah service (and is how most people define a gabbai's job), but that just scratches the surfce of his role.

Posted by: David | Dec 5, 2004 6:39:12 AM

I was a gabbai for five years, and never once got an insurance inquiry. I must daven in a boring shul

Posted by: jordan | Dec 5, 2004 7:13:59 AM

Jordan... Ah yes, but if memory serves, you learned the gabbai 'craft' under the tutalage of some extremely resourceful individuals. I'm sure that had you recieved such a question, you would have risen to the occasion.

Posted by: David | Dec 5, 2004 8:34:00 AM

"He knows everybody by name" ?? Uh, sure, if you're a man. If you're not, I can guarantee you that he has absolutely no idea who you are. As for the honors that have been given to "every" member of the congregation -- women aren't given honors, so there wouldn't be much to remember.

Things are very different on the other side of the mechitza, please believe me.

Posted by: Tanya | Dec 5, 2004 8:34:38 AM

Tanya... First of all, welcome... I'm glad you stopped by today. Hopefully you will take these two points in the spirit that they are offered:

1. In my experience, Motti knows virtually EVERYBODY in the synagogue, including all relevant dates, anniversaries, and even when you moved into the community. He is a father of a daughter, and the husband of a wife who is at least his equal in Jewish knowledge. He concerns himself deeply with the comfort and welfare of people on BOTH sides of the Mechitza. [for those readers who are not Jewish, a mechitza is the divider between the men's and women's section of an orthodox synagogue] By saying, "If you're not [a man], I can guarantee you that he has absolutely no idea who you are" you are maligning a good and hardworking member of the community, and making a statement that you and I know to be untrue. To say that gabbais in general, and Motti in particular are blind to all female members of their congregations is a statment you might want to rethink.

2. If you are taking exception to the very existence of separate seating in orthodox synagogues, and women's roles within this part of the Jewish world (without any reference to the wide spectrum of tradition and observance within orthodoxy), I would suggest that you have not chosen a very good way to go about gathering new information.

I hope to post a journal entry within the next day or two about this very subject (women's roles in Judaism). I have the rough draft already finished, but because the topic is such a sensitive one, I wanted to give it a more careful treatment than my usual 5:30AM dashed-off entries. The woman who inspired me to write the entry to which I'm referring is a fellow blogger who lives in Jerusalem. She is far more knowledgeable about Jewish law and tradition than I will ever be, and she exists on the cutting edge of (and is a driving force behind) Jewish law's admittedly glacial movement towards broader roles for women. Hopefully you will stop back later in the week and read what I have to say about this timely topic.

Posted by: David | Dec 5, 2004 9:05:39 AM

What a great guy....I need a Gabbai!

Posted by: jason | Dec 5, 2004 11:05:51 AM

LOL! Must be quite a guy.. Also interesting that he knew exactly how to react in the situation.

Posted by: Hatshepsut | Dec 5, 2004 3:28:01 PM

I think he sounds wonderful. We can all use someone so genuine in our lives. And I can totally see his wife going "...indicator light?"

Posted by: the other Tanya | Dec 5, 2004 3:38:25 PM

Jason... I'll ask around and see if any of those I know would be willing to take a 'vacation' in scenic Iraq! Don't hold your breath, though. :-)

Hatshepsut... My guess is that being a Gabbai calls for 9 parts listening and 1 part talking. With that kind of ratio one is bound to pick up a lot of useful information about a wide range of subjects. :-)

Tanya... Now, now... With due repect to any and all Tanyas that may grace these pages... you are the original Tanya.

And funny you should mention his wife, because when Motti and I were having a laugh about it after services this past Saturday, his wife mentioned that she was sitting next to him wondering what the heck he was carrying on about. Good instincts!

Posted by: David | Dec 5, 2004 4:06:48 PM

Great Story! Both my husband and my father are gabboim of their respective minyanim and I can appreciate that more than most. I forwarded this link to both of them and hope they appreciate it as much as I have. Thanks!

Posted by: peninah | Dec 5, 2004 4:22:48 PM

A man walks into a foreign shul and asks the first person that he greets... " Are you the gabbai?" Angrily, the regular spits on the ground and proclaims... " better rats eat me alive than to be that guy.. he is a despicable man!".. This turns into a pattern as the newcomer makes his way to the bimah as one after another verbally assault the " Gabbai" for being this or that and basically assails his character.... Finally, the man sees an old bearded Jew and timidly asks.. "a re u the Gabbai?" " Yes", he responds. With just an ounce of energy left the newcomer asks.." why would u want this job?".. to which the Gabbai smiles and retorts... " For the Kavod!"

Posted by: shabtai | Dec 5, 2004 5:50:20 PM

I'm glad that the gabbi at your shul is a gabbi for the whole shul, but it isn't like that everywhere and I think Tanya's criticism is fair. In my (limited) experience, the people who tend to really get left out are single childless adult women. There's really no place for us at most shuls, and I'm not only talking about orthodox ones.

I am curious to see what you will write about mechitza.

Posted by: Tara | Dec 5, 2004 6:38:09 PM

kavod [Hebrew] noun. honor, esteem

Ahaaha! funny!

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Dec 5, 2004 6:39:30 PM

Have you heard the Shlock Rock "Almost on Broadway" album yet? There is a song on there, that is very appropos of what you are saying.
kol tuv,

Posted by: Faye | Dec 5, 2004 6:56:06 PM

Penina... Thanks, I'd love to hear a couple more gabbai's reaction to the story.

Shabtai... Cute story... thanks for sharing it.

Tara... I think that there are many groups that tend to fall through the cracks in every community. Singles often complain about not being 'engaged' by the community in which they live. However, many communities complain that the singles keep mostly to themselves and are too transient to have any interest in building the community. Young couples without children often complain that they are invisible to the communities in which they live because they don't have the necessary ingredient for life cycle events (i.e. shalom zachor, simchat bat, brit) that tend to serve as entrees into communal life... meaning a child. Families with children often say that they were not aware of the oversight, but also say that the young couples without children tend to stick together and not mingle with the 'older folks'.

I could go on, but you get my point. Yes, single women are often neglected... but Tanya's complaint drew a strong reaction from me because it stated that ALL women are 2nd class citizens and that this Gabbai did not know any woman's name!

Each neglected / slighted group has a legitimate complaint... but there is also an issue of perception that shifts some of the responsibility to the very people that took offense.

I don't want to build unreasonable expectations about the post I will be publishing later in the week. I am not a religious scholar by any stretch of the imagination, and most of what I will be sharing are my own views and an honest assessment of how I came to them. Mechitzah is only one of many topics that will be covered.

Doctor Bean... thanks for the translation services.

Faye... Lenny and I are close friends and I just went to his daughter's Bat Mitzvah a couple of weeks ago. However, I have to admit that being a horn player... I almost never pay attention to the words. :-0

Posted by: David | Dec 5, 2004 10:04:38 PM

hmm... just googled in via your topic title.

A fool is generally defined by their actions. And if your wasting your time going to synagogue and deluding yourself that there is a God.. well.. a Fool you sure are Sir.

And i am out...........

Posted by: darrylTJ | Apr 21, 2009 8:42:42 AM

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