Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:
I am in a very uncomfortable position. I am a member of the Religious
Affairs Committee at my synagogue. The chairperson is also a lay
leader in the community. She has a gorgeous voice and virtually
everyone, even the people I am about to describe, appreciates her
contributions to the audible portion of our services. But at least once a
month, for years, I am approached by people who say, “You’re on the
Religious Affairs Committee. Can you please do something about Mrs.
X. I love her voice but the way she sways/acts/dances and generally
acts ecstatic (and worse) is inappropriate for the synagogue. How
people act in private is their own business, but I feel like I am
watching her do things I don’t want to see. I close my eyes but my
eyeballs feel burned.” Clearly I cannot say it that way in the meeting.
But I have sat on these comments for too long. Other committee
people and I have had similar discussions because they also get
approached, but no one feels they can speak up, even though we have
been told that people are starting to avoid services because of this
person. How can I communicate the collective community discomfort
to the head of the committee?
Really Awkward Message
Dear Really Awkward Message:
Anyone and everyone will feel the same awkwardness about this
subject. That’s not just because you will be speaking truth to power
(even in a mild form) but also because what you are describing is very
personal behavior. It is hard to say to someone, people don’t like how
you pray, especially if it is a someone who clearly devotes a lot of time
and energy as a volunteer. But if the problem is causing lowered
attendance or membership, folks in positions of authority should be
willing to listen. Though I will note, if the Rabbi has encouraged her to
participate in services, she may feel she has free rein.
The big issue is whether you discuss the issue at the next meeting or
privately. I think I would vote for the latter. Say you want to meet her
for tea and then tell her you have community feedback.
Start by saying: It is very difficult to bring negative feedback to such an
earnest and hard working lay leader. Over the past year I have held
my silence, but what I am about to describe has happened so often I
can’t any more and didn’t want to do this in committee. People from a
wide array of community segments regularly approach me to talk
about services. They said they had been concerned for some time by
what they called “theatrical” and “overly demonstrative” lay leaders.
They asked me to bring this to the committee for discussion. I thought
I would talk to you in person instead. Then shut up. If she asks your
views, say you are very sorry to have to be in the middle, but the
number and volume of people approaching you pushed you past the
tipping point of silence. Say you enjoy her voice but understand their
point of view. Then say you know it is hard and that no one will be
liked by everyone. Maybe she will get the message and sing from her
seat for a while. Or maybe the complainers will become more tolerant
and compassionate listeners.