What will the Reform Movement remember former URJ board member Dan Schechter for? In the category of “What have you done for me lately?” I suppose it will be for his role in the generation of Mishkan T’filah, the siddur he facilitated from its early idea stage, including securing the research grant from the Lilly Foundation and the Cummings Foundations to fund a three-year research study on Lay Involvement in Liturgical Change that guided the development of the trail-blazing prayer book. I never had the opportunity to discuss Mishkan T’filah with Dan at any length, but I feel sure that he was guided in great measure by the conviction that siddurim are much too important to be left totally in the hands of clergy. The Lilly-Schechter research was instrumental in the commitment that Mishkan T’filah be characterized by faithful translations; apparently their study unearthed a strong undercurrent of dismay over what always struck me as the patronizing “dumbing down” of the thought behind the liturgy in Gates of Prayer.
If Mishkan T’filah is Dan’s primary yerusha, legacy, to the Movement, it stands at the pinnacle of a list of achievements, including a lengthy tenure as co-chair of the URJ’s Commission on Religious Living, and his authorship of Trusteeship in a Great Tradition and Improving Synagogue Board Performance, which were, for many years, the Movement’s primary handbooks on leadership development and board development. Nor can we forget his contribution as a role model, bringing knowledge, intellectual and personal integrity, and total menschlichkeit to everything he touched.
Although Dan and I were concurrently active in the Reform movement for close to 40 years, it was only really in the last 20 that we became acquainted and friends. We actually first met in print: I had published an article in the Journal of the National Association of Temple Administrators, for which Dan at the time was a regular columnist.
In the following edition of the Journal, Dan cited something I had said and memorialized it in a footnote. Shortly thereafter, we happened to be together at a Union event, and I went over to him, introduced myself, and thanked him for doing more for my ego than perhaps any one else ever had, simply by naming me in an academic footnote!
Shortly thereafter, Dan and I found ourselves both representing the Movement on the Synagogue Federation Commission of Metropolitan Chicago, and I commented that I had just heard he had changed his congregational affiliation, leaving a temple where he had been president. His next words turned out to be highly influential, perhaps 10 years later, when I, also a past president elsewhere, followed him to the same congregation. “When I joined, I told the rabbi,” he said, “that I would do anything he asked of me, except serve on the temple board.” When I later joined the congregation, my first words to the rabbi were, “Do you remember what Dan Schechter told you?”
So for the last five years, Dan and I have been davening together, on erev Shabbat and on Festival mornings, studying Talmud together in the rabbi’s Talmud and Bagels class, and comparing notes on the changes in the URJ from the Schindler era to the Yoffie generation to the incipient Jacobs years – but we have not attended committee meetings together, each having reinforced for the other the idea that eventually, one has paid his dues. I will attest that while I consider my dues “paid up” for the balance of my life, I respectfully attest that Dan’s are paid up in perpetuity!