Thursday, October 23, 2003

The Schmooze Factor

It took years of planning, fundraising and construction, but last month, Kehillat Yedidya, our religious community here in Jerusalem, moved into its new building. A formal dedication ceremony was held this week in the presence of the major donors, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, and even Deputy Prime Minister and ex-Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert.

A major milestone such as this was bound to invoke many feelings. And while I suspect much of the congregation was concerned with matters of halacha, the quality of davening or the new building’s aesthetics, I had a much more prosaic concern.

How would this move affect the schmooze factor?

You know what schmoozing is, right? It goes by many different names, depending on the context.

At a cocktail party, it’s called mingling.

At a business event or conference, you know it as networking.

When two or more Jews get together, though, there’s no other word to use than to schmooze. It’s undoubtedly as old as the Jewish people itself and was probably a major factor in our survival these past thousands of years.

Over the years, schmoozing has taken on a greater and more dominant role in my personal synagogue participation. There was a time when I would spend most of my time in shul focusing on the prayer, listening to the Torah being read.

Occasionally I’d turn to the fellow in the seat next to me and make some pithy comment about how God was really the first venture capitalist and Israel the very first startup.

As time went on, though, the comments became pithier – and more frequent.

Now, there is a time and a place for proper schmoozing. Kibitzing in the back row is not schmoozing. It’s being rude. So for the past several years, I have been a regular member of what a friend once coined as the “courtyard minyan.” Outdoors, in the courtyard, schmoozing reigns supreme.

Truth be told, I honed the fine art of schmoozing not in synagogue but during long days attending countless hi-tech conferences where the seminars themselves were only semi-involving. What was important was who you met, and you never knew when that shy stranger might be an angel investor looking for a hot deal...like yours.

Good schmoozing can be done anywhere.

Pounding the exhibit hall floor: “Your product is amazing. It could revolutionize the industry. I totally believe in what you're doing. By the way, here’s my card.”

Or in the lunch line: “Excuse me, but do you think the brownies or the blueberry muffins look better today…and say, aren’t you Bill Gates?”

The same principles apply to the synagogue, and the old Kehillat Yedidya building was a most schmooze-friendly place. Better than a convention center any day.

Not the shul itself which was hosted for years in the drabbest elementary school basement imaginable, with peeling paint and poor ventilation.

But outside…we had the school playground. With so many places for the "courtyard minyan" to hang out – along the side of the building, next to the basketball courts, on the ramps. Different groups would set up camp in their own regular areas, each hosting a unique discussion thread.

Near the concrete benches were the parsha heads working through the weekly Torah portion. The political pundits hung out next to the kiddush tables. And back by the glass doors was the lair of the sci-fi and fantasy wonks.

If anyone ever asked us what we were doing out there in the courtyard instead of inside, prayerbook in hand, we had such a great excuse.

“My kid needs some fresh air. He’s making too much noise to stay indoors. I’ll be right back.”

Of course we would. After we schmoozed for the next 45 minutes. And oh, did shul just end? I missed the announcements? Bummer

So when the time drew near to moving to the new building, my greatest worry was what would become of my shul schmoozing. After all, there were no basketball courts or school playground in our new space. All the open real estate seemed to be indoors, close to the sanctuary, where a stray voice or a baby’s cry would be instantly amplified to chalk-screeching levels.

Did this move portend the end of schmoozing at Yedidya as I knew it, I wondered?

Well, it turns out that my fears were unjustified. The front steps into the new building are prime schmoozing territory. And there’s a lovely park just around the corner where I’ve noticed more than a few of my fellow congregationalists hanging. And you can’t take away the kiddush itself which is still long and schmoozerful - even if it is indoors now.

It seems that you may be able to take the community out of the building, but you can’t take the schmooze out of the community.

And as if to prove the point, I’ve now discovered that schmoozing may be as much nature as nurture.

The other night, our twelve-year-old Amir was late coming back from his karate class. A few minutes wasn’t too surprising, but as it stretched on to 10 minutes, 20, half an hour, we started to worry. When he finally traipsed in he had a big grin on his face.

“What have you been doing?” I demanded. “Your mother and I have been worried.”

“Abba,” Amir responded. “Guess what I was doing? I was schmoozing!”

He should be ready for the courtyard minyan just in time for his bar mitzvah next year.

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