Monday, December 04, 2006

Calling Elderly People by First Names - Respect v. Obligation

Mt. Sinai, a shul in Washington Heights, is a rarity. Members comprise two main demographics, post college and young adults and people who have been in the shul for 50 years. There are a few people, but not many, in between.

What about the Board of Directors? The same. There are people on the board who are in their 70s and 80s, others in their 20s and 30s. The older board members have been members of the shul longer than the younger board members have been alive.

How to address the older members? The simplest case is a formal board, where everyone is addressed by titles (Mr., Ms., Dr., etc). But what if the older members call the younger ones by their first names. Is it proper for the younger members to do likewise?

The thought of calling someone 50 years older than me by their first name is scary. As it is, I call anyone older than me sir or ma'am when I'm on the street. Nonetheless, the younger shul members should call the older ones by their first name, indeed, they may have an obligation to.

Why? A name is a powerful thing. We're more embarrased by forgetting a name than we are of a birthday or school attended. If I can't refer to you on the same level you refer to me, if you're in my personal space but I'm not in yours, you have an advantage. An important one. You also have power over me. You refer to your shul rabbi as Rabbi not just because of kavod haTorah, but because it helps the Rabbi maintain his authority, it keeps a wall between the two of you. One which the Rabbi can breach at times, but you can not.

A board member's responsibility rests not towards the other board members, but to the shul and its members. Each board member has the obligation to bring their full faculties, opinions, and views to the table. To push for what they think is right for the shul. If other board members put a wall up, if they're in your personal space but you're not in theirs, you can't do your job fully or correctly. You violate your obligation to the shul.

Pragmatic concerns enter the equation as well. Rocking the boat your first day is a bad idea, and calling an elderly board member by his first name might lead you to your being sidelined. But the default should be using the first name, unless there's a very good reason not to. And then, let him or her refer to you by your last name too.

(And yes, this was a discussion I had, last shabbos. Of the 12 people at the table only one agreed with me. Let the onslaught begin.)