Columns - 2004

    Thankless tasks

    By Doug Brook
    Deep South Jewish Voice Columnist

    We are here this week to honor The Other Guys. These are the unordained, the unpaid, the unrespected who tirelessly fill all the positions that most normal people would accept only while under the influence of one of several legally questionable substances.

    These are the lay leaders, people whose designation has for far too long begged for a deluge of jokes. But there's not enough space in this column to even start.

    Lay leaders exist in every Jewish organization: synagogues, temples, day schools, day camps, sleep away camps, sleep away conventions, JCCs, federations, and Klingon empires.

    They are committee members and volunteer staffers. Boards of directors, and bored of directors. These are the movers and shapers, and people who sometimes give each other vapors.

    But merrily they roll along, doing the necessary tasks that nobody else wants to, thinks to, thinks about, or (often) knows to appreciate.

    This column is dedicated to them. And in their honor, we now revisit some of the greatest thankless tasks that they encounter in their travels.

    • The synagogue president who has to keep a pleasant, straight face while congratulating and praising the effort of the bar mitzvah boy who just made the haftarah sound like a Schoenberg recital.
    • The synagogue officer who has to sit next to the rabbi, in view of the entire congregation, for the entire service. This is often okay, especially if the rabbi never remembers to not sit on his tzitzit before the Shema. But the officer must look awake at all times during the sermon, for the benefit of the four congregants who are as well.
    • The JCC board member who votes his conscience, against letting the pool be open on Saturday, but on the first weekend when the temperature tops 100 cannot let himself or his family be seen taking a swim because of what everyone would say.
    • The synagogue officer who has to answer to the parents of that week's bar mitzvah parent, calling in an outrage that the kiddush luncheon cannot include cheeseburgers for the kids.
    • The Federation volunteer who has to phone many people like, well... you and me, on Super Sunday in an effort to divert hard-earned DVD money into something a bit more tax-deductible.
    • The Sisterhood president who, in presenting the requisite gift to a bar mitzvah child and, no matter how well she doesn't know the kid, has to share personal camaraderie with him as if he was her own.
    • The Sisterhood president who, in presenting the requisite gift to their own child at their bar mitzvah, has to try to show only the camaraderie with him as if he were anyone else's child.
    • The member of the board of any Jewish organization who sits in meeting after meeting to determine how to better appeal to the unaffiliated and unactive in the greater Jewish community; a noble yet impossible task. Especially considering these meetings seldom include anyone from the target demographic.
    • The synagogue official who goes to a congregants' bris, stands in right there with the moyel, and sets an example for everyone else by not fainting. Or making any jokes about cold cuts to be served at the reception.
    • The gabbai who, standing on either side of the Torah during services, selflessly throws his life on the line during an auf-ruf to deflect any candy from striking the Torah itself, while otherwise evading any candy aimed at the impending bride and groom.
    • The youth group advisor who must somehow entertain today's youth, without them entertaining each other too egregiously or illegally, while somehow providing them with an experience that somehow has better than a snowball's chance in the Sinai of fostering the future of the Jewish people.
    • The Hillel advisor who must somehow provide today's collegiates with a fun environment, while providing them an experience to foster our future, and ensuring that their events are something less than simply a kosher meat market. (Good luck with that one.)
    • The synagogue facilities chair who every five minutes during services receives a life-fearing complaint about the temperature in the sanctuary having five minutes earlier suddenly turned arctic or Saharan.
    • The synagogue board member who has to go to one of our non-Jewish guests at a service and somehow nondisruptively encourage them to wear a beanie during their stay with us.
    • The synagogue board member who, when addressing a visiting church group after a Friday night service, has to exhibit grace and poise when fielding questions such as "where do you make your matzah," or "where do you do your sacrifices?"
    • The board members and volunteers of any of these organizations who, out of sheer will to serve (regardless of other possible motivations), often take on responsibilities in areas for which they are not trained, aware, or experienced. And sometimes it shows. But they try anyway.

    In short, this column is for all of them, because no matter what they do, someone has a problem with it. And whether they do it right or wrong, at least they come to bat. And they so often wade through adversity to come back for another swing.

    Doug Brook is a technical publications program manager in Silicon Valley who, after stopping some fellow twelve year olds from playing with the sanctuary microphones during a kiddush luncheon, was taught that "the thankless tasks are the hardest, and the most important." For more information, past columns, other writing, and other current events, visit his website at

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.