There it was, that same sarcastic tone. He would have to make sure he didn’t sound that way tonight
The meeting was long overdue in Reuven Stagler’s opinion. None of the men in Alameda Gardens were new to this sort of thing. They had all run businesses or sat on boards or participated in meetings over the years, and they were past the age when they needed to hear their own voices simply to feel productive.
For 23 years, Reuven had sat at the side of a table at corporate meetings, while people younger than him, who sold less exercise equipment and were nearly clueless about the product, sat at the head. Now, he would do this his way.
Real conversations. Not just a pretend “what do you have to say,” and “anyone have anything to add?” but actual listening to anyone who had what to add.
Reuven thought he had prepared well, but Nechama was worried that the “real conversation” he planned would get out of hand. Reuven disagreed, feeling confident that if you ran a meeting properly, people would respect your rules too, keeping their comments brief.
“So just like that, you’re just going to launch into it with no introduction, no devar Torah?”
He had been standing there with a folder filled with action items, wearing his Shabbos suit, reading glasses tucked in his pocket because he thought it would look leaderly, like some kind of veteran senator, to wear them when reading from his notes. Now she had to start with her little questions, when he had one foot out the door?
“Who should say a devar Torah, Nechama? Should we bring in Rabbi Krohn to give a three-minute opening vort?” His voice came out more derisive than he would have liked, so he smiled to compensate.
She didn’t seem to notice any of it. “True, if you had a rav, this would be easier, I know.”
“Yes, Nechama, that is one of the main reasons for the meeting tonight,” he said. There it was, that same sarcastic tone. He would have to make sure he didn’t sound that way tonight.
He looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes away from the first ever Alameda Gardens general meeting, or at least the first on his watch (the words “during his administration” floated around his mind, but he didn’t articulate them). He had been under pressure to hold the meeting for both men and women, and under equal pressure to have it for just men. It was part of being a leader. He listened to both opinions in shul, nodding politely as both sides passionately made their arguments, and then (rather wisely, in his opinion) decided to indicate that the vacant rabbinic position was the main reason for the gathering, and this way, it made sense to have it for men only.
Nechama’s words had given him pause, however, and he briefly thought about who would be able to open up the meeting with a quick vort. He didn’t know any of the Lakewood rabbanim, and didn’t even know who to call for a recommendation. Maybe Heshy Brucker would know one of the younger, up-and-coming stars — he seemed to have opinions on everything and Reuven found him intriguing.
Reuven didn’t know his number, but when he walked to the living room window and craned his neck, he could see into Brucker’s backyard and sure enough, Heshy was there, pacing back and forth, Airpods firmly in place.
Reuven stepped out of his own backyard and headed over to the fence, waving to Heshy. The little Yerushalmi wife was there too, pushing the baby in some contraption that looked like it had been invented in a Meah Shearim apartment, and Reuven felt bad, like he was invading their personal time.
Heshy hung up on whoever he was talking to and came over to the fence, his smile letting Reuven know that it was okay, that they were friends. Reuven, a person unused to being affected by others, was aware that this was probably what charisma meant, the way he felt sort of expanded and even happy when he was speaking to this person who was not much older than his grandchildren.
“We have this big general meeting tonight,” Reuven launched right into it, because Heshy was that sort of guy, you didn’t need niceties and empty words with him, “and, even though I’m not sure if anyone will show up,” he laughed self-consciously, “I still think we need some sort of devar Torah. It’s not some condo association somewhere in middle America, you know? It’s Lakewood, after all.”
Heshy nodded. “Yes, for sure, Jews in a room is a holy thing, it does make sense to have someone say something smart before you deal with all that other necessary stuff.”
“Right,” Reuven nodded, “so what I wanted to ask you was if—”
Heshy smiled. “Yes, sure, you can count on me. No big deal. How long do you want me to speak for?”
It took Reuven a moment to realize that Heshy had misunderstood him, but now it looked like the decision had been made.
“Five, seven minutes? Thanks so much for being so accommodating. We’re starting in just a bit, I’d love to get it rolling on time if possible.”
He turned to go, ready for the big meeting, but first he made sure to smile at the Yerushalmi wife and compliment the little baby.
The tables in the Alameda Gardens simchah hall had been set up like a square, so that everyone would be equal, but there was a table-top microphone placed by Reuven’s seat, so that he could keep things moving smoothly. He had paid out of pocket for the refreshments, just a few plates of rugelach, some sushi, and a case of seltzer laid out on the side table.
At eight fifteen, the scheduled start time, the room was largely empty, but ten minutes later, it was half full. Reuven saw the opportunity to make a point and he cleared his throat, ready to begin. He saw Korn and Wasselberg outside schmoozing, but they would learn the hard way that he meant business. He wasn’t about to extend a special invitation. Let them come find their seats once the meeting was underway. Next time, they wouldn’t come late.
He noted that Akiva Putterman, chinuch mastermind, was respectfully seated and waiting patiently. His other neighbor, Chaim Brucker, had politely apologized and explained that he couldn’t make it, he didn’t want to miss night seder and he was sure that Reuven would do a great job without his input.
“I trust you, Reb Reuven,” he said with a big smile, and Reuven had been touched.
Now, he looked around one final time and then stood up, choosing not to use the microphone.
“I thank all of you for arriving punctually, and very much look forward to having an orderly, helpful conversation. I think the key is to keep it focused, and not let it slip away from us. I will be chairing this meeting and I do hope everyone will take advantage of the opportunity to weigh in, but at the same time, please only address the topics at hand.”
Three men came in, speaking loudly, and Reuven frowned and said nothing, waiting with patience and dignity for them to stop. It worked, and some of the others turned around to shush them, Reuven giving a little grimace as they finally sat down.
The people seemed to notice, and the room was even quieter as he continued speaking.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 899)
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