Monday, October 30, 2017

A little experiment

Here’s my current daydream of how to make it easier for young Jewish adults to stay engaged or remain engaged when membership at a specific synagogue is not a good fit.

Are you a young Jewish adult between the ages of 18 and 30? Looking for activities and connections? Join the new URJ young adults group. It’s a regional membership that is mobile, social, and flexible.

Temple membership is great for kids, families, and older adults who need the stability and strength of a locally centered Jewish community to draw on. But young adults are more mobile and need a Jewish community that goes beyond neighborhood boundaries. That’s exactly why the new regional membership is perfect for young adults. Fun in-person activities around your region just for young adults give you new experiences and new friends. Online chat groups provide new connections and contacts. Our tikkun olam (repair the world) calendar gives you chances to give of your time and skills and energy to help out around our region in different ways, and our education meetups let you go to local talks and classes with other young adults.

Want religious services? We organize two options, and you’re always welcome to either or both. There’s a monthly Friday night dinner and services just for young adults. On a different weekend, our touring minyan picks a different synagogue each month for either Friday night or Saturday morning.

For High Holiday services, you can choose any local participating synagogue, and we will get you tickets and the schedule of services.

Life can throw us curve balls, and you may want to seek a rabbi’s counsel. We can set you up with a time to meet with someone convenient to you.

This new young adults group is run by a regional leadership team with the full support of synagogues in the region. A portion of the membership fees are distributed to the synagogues, and the rest supports our regional staff and programming. The annual membership fee is a sliding scale based on your income MINUS your loan payments. And when you find yourself settling down more locally and want to transition to a membership at a specific synagogue, know that our programs are open to young adult synagogue members as well.

Whether or not you went to religious school or Jewish camps, whether or not you participated in a NFTY or Hillel group, no matter how you identify or who you date, we want to meet you where you are and help you connect to other young Jewish adults in your area. Welcome!

Friday, July 28, 2017

Is Hervé Lemaire a con artist and a liar, or just incredibly sloppy?

A friend who publishes a magazine just had to deal with a couple of bogus DMCA takedown notices from Hervé Lemaire, who appears to run a content protection company called LeakID that has a very bad reputation. Maybe it’s someone else pretending to be Hervé Lemaire, so we may just be using Hervé Lemaire as a placeholder name rather than referring to a real person. Whoever it was, he was apparently perfectly willing to certify that my friend’s magazine was infringing on the content of some client of his, even though there was no content that seemed similar. He clearly didn’t bother to look at the content, and must have just relied on search bot results to send out hundreds or thousands of takedown notices. Hervé Lemaire has been known to do that according to some Google searching.

Which leads to my question: Is Hervé Lemaire a con artist and a liar, or just incredibly sloppy?

I’m bothered by Hervé Lemaire’s bogus takedown notices for so many reasons, other than just not liking people who lie for a living. He caused unwarranted trouble for my friend who has worked very hard on her magazine. He made her worry and consult a lawyer, he damaged her reputation, and he interfered with her business relationships. I’ve received bogus takedown notices myself, and I know how they feel. It’s a lousy feeling. But I also send legitimate takedown notices when necessary to protect some of my content, and the swamp of fraudulent takedown notices makes it harder for people to deal with real takedown notices.

I’ve known people who have advocated for small payments for every email you send as a way to fight spam, since a lot of spam would go away if there were some cost to sending it. Perhaps the idea could be adapted to DMCA takedown notices. Suppose person A wants to file a DMCA takedown notice against person B. A pays $50. If B doesn’t argue, then the content comes down and A gets their $50 back. If B does argue, they also pay $50, and a third party decides who is right (in which case that person gets the full $100) or if it’s too close to call (in which case both people get their $50 back). Just like today, the content still goes back up when B argues, and a tiny fraction of those cases progress to lawyers and maybe even lawsuits. But it would persuade more people like Hervé Lemaire to take a little more care with their takedown notices, since sloppiness would start to cost real money.

I’m not worried about a fraction of the decisions being wrong, as long as that fraction is well under half, since honest people will still come out ahead.

Until that time, it seems right to point out that people like Hervé Lemaire, who may or may not be Hervé Lemaire, are making the world a less pleasant place, and they’re doing it under false pretenses.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Someone else’s need

The Atlantic has published a lengthy article about the current debate in the Conservative Jewish movement over interfaith marriages. While this is clearly an important debate to many people in the Conservative movement, there aren’t very many people left in the Conservative movement. Perhaps it’s because the Conservative movement has spent decades driving away enormous segments of its membership.

Rabbi David Wolpe is quoted in the article as saying “I don’t necessarily feel that someone else’s need is my obligation. Someone else may need a rabbi to bless that union, or may want a rabbi to bless that union. It doesn’t mean that I have to do it.”

That is the exact attitude that rabbis and synagogue leaders decry in the unaffiliated and the underaffiliated. People do not join synagogues or do not provide enough money or time to keep synagogues afloat, saying “I don’t necessarily feel that someone else’s need is my obligation. Someone else may need or want a synagogue to feel connected to a Jewish community, to provide Jewish education for children or adults, to offer worship services or social services, or to help with major life events and transitions. It doesn’t mean that I have to support a synagogue.”

I certainly cannot persuade someone who has no need for a synagogue that they should personally support a synagogue. I feel I can make a reasonable case to someone who does sometimes need or want a synagogue, as long as rabbis and synagogue leaders are not actively dismissing them. The quote from Rabbi Wolpe, on the other hand, makes that case much harder to make. I am sure he would be able to explain why I should not expect him to extend his logic to refusing to lead a funeral or refusing to counsel a congregant, though I do not see that distinction in his quote.

Someone else’s need is not my obligation.

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Onwards

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” —Deuteronomy 30:19

Prioritizing people’s lives over convenience should not be a difficult or controversial position for a synagogue to take. Yet our synagogue has refused to stop serving nuts and mango at events connected to the Hebrew School, despite knowing that doing so endangers our child’s life. After over two years of discussions, endless meetings, and broken promises, it is clear that the synagogue has other priorities.

The synagogue watched a child in their Hebrew School have to leave family programs in tears on two separate occasions because they decided to serve nuts or mango in the middle of the program. The Chanukah party was also directly connected to the Hebrew School, but our request to make that party nut-free was met with overt hostility rather than any shred of concern for ensuring the safety of our child.

In the minds of many people in the synagogue leadership, it is fine to continue to exclude a child with life-threatening food allergies from active participation in synagogue life. It is more important that they be able to serve foods with nuts at every Tot Shabbat than to allow that child to be welcome and included at onegs and kiddushes. It is more important that they be able to serve mango sorbet than to allow that child to play with other children afterwards. It is more important to avoid any additional thought or possible inconvenience than to care about a vulnerable member of the community. Instead they are willing to tell a child that his life is unimportant and does not have inherent worth.

That does not reflect any values that I recognize as Jewish, human, or decent.

The synagogue leadership has spoken repeatedly about how the rabbi has a responsibility to make the synagogue into a community of chesed, of caring. But the rabbi is not the Wizard of Oz who will make this tin man synagogue discover that it had a heart all along. He can talk about the value of welcoming and including others all he wants, but he will never truly reach people who focus on Otherness and do not start out with a true interest in being welcoming or inclusive, people who do not have a core of caring to start with.

The synagogue leadership is not monolithic. But sadly, it has now transitioning from non-functional to non-existent. I've come to lectures and classes and services and family events for 5 years, I've donated hundreds of hours of my own time to the synagogue over the past 2 years of being on the board, and there are many people I will miss seeing. But David is now old enough to start seeing the world as it could be in addition to seeing the world as it is, and to understand that individual people are responsible for making decisions that hurt him, that exclude him, or that risk his life. It is vital for his sake that he know that I am not one of those people.

When we formally converted our child to Judaism, we promised to raise him in a Jewish community. Calling this synagogue a Jewish community makes a mockery of Jewish values and of the term “community.” The Jewish values I was raised with, the values I still hold, insist that I leave.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Choice in health care

Choice is such an important term in health care. People want to choose their doctors, their treatment options, their hospitals, and their insurance plans. Every informed consent form spells out the alternative to make it clear that you made a choice to consent.

Choice is a proxy for agency, the notion that we control our destinies. We believe that if we get to make choices, we will make the right choices. We will find better doctors, more effective treatment options, kinder hospitals that will soothe us and salve us. Placebo effects suggest that this belief can actually be important.

We extend this preference for choice into insurance plans to our own detriment. Insurance plans are deliberately complex, designed to limit care and limit payments for care. It can be very difficult to understand all the details of the insurance plan you have, let alone all the plans you might choose among. Choosing an insurance plan also requires you to guess at your future health needs, which are inherently unpredictable. You may be able to make reasonable guesses, but serious injuries and severe acute illnesses are unplanned.

Our employer-based insurance allows us to choose among four plans, all with an identical provider network and similar plan limitations. Choosing is made easier by knowing that we have chronic illnesses in our family which require expensive care, and by knowing that shifting thousands of dollars from premiums to out-of-pocket expenses allows us to seek third-party reimbursement for some expected medical expenses. (Would you rather pay $10,000 in premiums and $4000 for specific care, or $4000 in premiums and $10,000 for specific care? That’s an easy choice if you know that half of your specific care might get reimbursed.) Despite that, there are two plans out of the four that could make sense for our family, and no way to be certain which was the right choice until after the year is completed.

Choosing between plans with different provider networks is far more error-prone. You may know one or more of the doctors you expect to see regularly, and should choose a plan which includes those doctors. You may be fortunate enough to have them continue practicing and stay in network for the entire year. But a new medical condition may require one or more new specialists, and even in a doctor-rich area like Boston there may only be one specialist who is the right one to see. How can you possibly know ahead of time which specialist you will need for a condition you don’t yet have, and confirm that they will be in your insurance network?

There are also many medical specialties and situations where you have no choice in provider. The canoncial four specialties where providers often refuse to join networks because they are reimbursed far more being out-of-network are radiology, anesthesia, pathology, and emergency room care. Those happen to also be specialties where the patient typically has no choice in who is providing the care. Being in a hospital is also a vulnerable time when you have no control over who is providing the care. You may never even meet the person who will be billing your insurance, and then you.

The flip side of telling people that they have choices in health care is assigning them blame when those “choices” don’t turn out optimally. Lousy doctor? You should have chosen a different one. Side effects from medication? You should have read the pages of boilerplate warnings.

And that blame gets worse with insurance catastrophes. We can tell ourselves and each other that we would not have ended up seeing a provider who is not in our network, or that we would have chosen a different insurance plan that had the right network, or the right limits on the right services, or the right assortment of deductibles and coinsurance and copays. When we tell that tale in a year when we ourselves had few serious or unexpected medical issues, it has the ring of truth. That just makes the falseness of it all the more pernicious.

It doesn’t have to work this badly, but the plans being floated -- plans to allow more choices in insurance plans with smaller networks, plans to allow balance billing even in network (a long-time favorite idea from Tom Price), plans to shatter the core of Medicare into a voucher system paying into a fractured assortment of privatized plans -- those plans make the situation worse. We end up with more risk, more expenses, more medical bankruptcies, and more blame assigned to people who “made the wrong choice” when they discovered their plan didn’t adequately cover the newly discovered cancer, or the birth defect, or the premature baby, or the medicine they suddenly need that costs $100,000 per year.

Don’t fall for these sorts of changes. Work for health insurance for everyone, with no annual limits, no lifetime limits, no balance billing, no narrow networks, and no constantly shifting exclusions. Work for a public option, for single payer, for transparent and reasonable pricing, for affordable cost-sharing, for sane financial policies, and for choices that provide benefits rather than blame. Work for an end to medical bankruptcies, so if you like your house, you can keep it.