Thursday, July 12, 2007

State of the Shul Address

Shalom congregants. I thought that since we are all together, I might give a sketch of the state of the shul from my perspective and having worked here for two years. I am sure that I will forget much, but it is not for a lack of being appreciative—its because of how much has gone on here.

The Hebrew school is a good place to start. This year we had a wonderful year with two great teachers: Deganit Shemy and Joshua Millstein. The students, 12 kids divided into two groups, spent Shabbas mornings and Wednesday afternoons studying Hebrew and culture. Although they were hampered by the different skill levels of the kids, the teachers were able to get them to think in deep and serious ways; the younger kids learning not just the stories of Moshe and Yosef, but also of Ruth and of the creation of the state of Israel. The older kids were able to engage with Josh over complicated stories and poems. Their behavior needs to improve, but so does the structure of the school that insists upon it. I am particularly proud of the fact that they are learning about Judaism in a modern world. They do not see Judaism as something that some other people do, but understand or are beginning to understand that Judaism is a heritage that they get to experience and that is theirs. The education committee has been run this year by Felicia Geiger and it has been a pleasure working with her. She wants the best for our students and does whatever she can to try and make their educational experiences here compelling and safe and enlightening.

In the past two years we had three Bar Mitzvahs: Charles Newman, Matthew Talia, and Adam Krushkow. Each did a wonderful job and brought their own skills and personalities to the ceremonies. Our B’nai Mitzvah standards have been growing up with the children—created by the education committee, we now try to teach our children that the centerpiece of the b’nai mitzvah is not the party, or the family celebration. The centerpiece is also not the service that they perform for everyone on that day. But the centerpiece of a b’nai mitzvah is learning how to live and then living a Jewish life. This includes study, being part of a community and trying to figure out how to be part of the world in a Jewish way. By having standards for our children, we do not make Judaism something that we engage in tangentially and we give them the gift that they deserve—a training worthy of the inheritance of the torah.

We also had one adult bat mitzvah, Diane Felsen-Sokol, who modeled for us all that Judaism does not stop when one turns 13. One has to continue to live it and to study. Diane also continues to read the Torah, which if you would like to see, you can come this week on Shabbas. I would like to expand the Torah readers in the shul, there is very little that is as amazing as reading Torah to our community, so if anyone would like to learn, or re-learn, I would be happy to teach you.

The state of the shul is also enhanced by the groups of people who congegrate in the shul. Our semiweekly minyan, led by Solomon Greenberg allows for a full expression of what it means to live a daily Jewish life. Sometimes, being Jewish seems to be something that happens on Shabbat; but when we build things into our lives, like the group who regularly attends daily minyan, we live those days as Jews as well.

As long as we are talking about davenning, I think that our shabbas davenning is going strong as well. There may be a little too much talking to each other and not enough talking to God, but for the most part we draw between 60-40 people on a regular basis, and of those at least half seem to know what is going on. The system of me giving a sermon every three weeks, teaching every three weeks and having a congregant give a sermon every three weeks has not really worked due to the lack of congregational participation, but I imagine that as the years progress you may see the merit of this approach and something you may want to go back to.

Our monthly potlucks and our weekly Torah studies are well attended and they help to make our community a community that does Judaism together. Our Torah study group has been going strong for almost the whole two years, only missing on occasion when I am out of town. But even in the summer and during vacations we have met to continue to engage and ask our questions. I am proud to say that even on two occasions when I was not in town, the group met and had spirited discussions.

Our congregation has added 15 family member units in the last two years, which if I have the numbers correct, represents a growth of at least 10 percent. Adding more families to our community is crucial for the health of the shul. Financially, we are not able to do everything that we would like to do and adding members will certainly help with that. To that end, we have a pretty good rate of people paying their dues, but many still do not take seriously the need the shul has for money—to hire more teachers, to fix lights and plumbing. For anyone here who has outstanding balances, please make sure you make good on what you owe. Treat us as you would a health club, or your cable bill but know that what you give here goes beyond being able to walk on your treadmill or watch Entourage—it helps to give a little bit more holiness to our community.

I don’t know how we can get those to join the shul who don’t belong but continue to use the shul when they want. It is hard not to use guilt and let people know the real fear that exists of us not being able to sustain Jewish life here in Bay Ridge. I think, at the very least, we need to all continue to be here happily with smiles and enthusiasm and hope that people will see that belonging to the Bay Ridge Jewish Center is something valuable and good. We should not be resentful or angry but try and be positive about the good that we do by supporting the community by joining. We enable there to be baby namings and bar mitzvahs, holidays and funerals. You should know that every year we put the sukkah up and every year we blow the shofar, we are able to do so because you have contributed. It would be easy to join one of these split-off minyanim and daven with people who are more knowledgeable or more spirited, but that would close off an outpost, where those people go when they are coming through town, or where those people stop into when they are walking by and see our sign and remember that the question that they asked their rabbi when they were 11 was still unanswered.

The physical state of the shul is not very good. People who come into the school building or chapel are surprised by its Kafka-esque bleakness. It is hard to attract new members with this liability. Whereas we know that what matters is the people and not the place, in today’s marketplace, place matters and people want to know what they are going to get for their membership. Will it be a place that they will feel good about being? It is hard to ask them to judge the shul based on the friendliness of the people and not on whether the rubber mats in the hallway smell like a psychiatric institution. This is one of the very serious things that the new building, if there will be one, will address for you.

There is no one doing preventative maintenance in the shul which enables us to see what is going to break down and what needs repairing. That was not part of my training at JTS, so I would urge you to figure out a system to put that in place. We shouldn’t wait for the next emergency or disaster to make sure that all the checks have been made.

To that end, it has been hard to get some things off the ground. We have had our failures: Shabbat Sing did not exactly sing, and the Teen Club met a couple times, but fizzled like submerged pop rocks. Our family programming and singles programming could each use a volunteer to spearhead those groups—Someone energetic and who would be willing to work with me to give those groups something that they will latch onto. We need to make sure that those populations are taken care of, just as every population’s needs should be considered and attended to as best we can. Singles often feel alienated in Judaism because we are so family centered. In the world to come, a dedicated family ed programmer would be a wonderful thing to have.

Back to the happy stuff—our occasional programs are usually fondly attended. We have upcoming events the halacha of hefeweizen and a community mishna study. And both are advertised in the bulletin which will be going out with tremendous thanks to Julie Greenberg, Ruth Masyr, and Susan Altman. They worked on it for a long time and I hope that it will help people see how much goes on here at the shul. For that information, you can also go to our website calendar or the blog, both of which were created in the last two years. Other technologies that we have added to our community here are two state of the art boilers and a fantastic outgoing message machine donated in memory of one of our members Leo Kramer.

Other wonderful events that happened this year were the congregational trip to the botanical gardens, the Purim Bang! where many of us learned how to Tango while drinking a flute of champagne. The Lag b’Omer Bonfires, the wonderful plays that Herb and Ruth have produced. The Hannukah parties, complete both years with the “I’ll never eat another donut Olympics”, The study series on Angels. Lectures on each one of the Holidays. Karl Hron’s classical music series. The shul exchange with the group that we lend our Torah to. Our wonderful book club, specializing in Redemptive books and drinking beer. Our once and future challah baking club. The Russian/English exchange.

There are some halachic things that need to be addressed and changed, if possible—and we have seen that our community can undergo halachic change as we have by including women fully in our community—reading Torah and davenning as well as the previously established counting them in the minyan. We have also stopped counting the Torah in the minyan when need be, as its practice was explicitly forbidden by Halacha because these is not an emergency situation (defined by Halacha as permanent and dire). We need to figure out a way to stop using electricity on Shabbas with the security codes. I am not sure how this can be addressed. We have made inroads into not turning off the lights on shabbas and turning them on the day before.

Our Torahs have been assessed and some are in good condition and others not so good, but sellable for a very small price—Rabbi Shmuel Shchori came in and gave us an estimate that he would give us close to 2 grand for the Torahs that we don’t use, but that only figures to be about 300 per torah including the silver, and we may be able to get a better price for them. He suggested though that the rooms where we keep them are not environmentally sound and that they really should be kept somewhere where the weather does not fluctuate so much. To that end, Julie and Audrey have been working on the Torah project and I believe that the promotional materials are about to be complete. When they are we will need all of your help to spread the word that we are giving people an opportunity to perform one of the loveliest mitzvahs and that is repairing a Torah scroll. For a small donation, you will be able to sponsor a letter, a word, a sentence or a parasha, and the result of the project will be a beautiful usable sefer Torah, one that you can come and hear be read from every week knowing that without you, it would have been buried in the ground for decomposition.

I wish that we would have done better at this year that is Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbas dinners. I still do not believe that very many people in the shul eat together on Friday night and we struggle for a minyan Friday night. The tunes that we use are quite spirited but so much more so if there are many voices participating in them. I would urge you all, if you can, to try and come to a Friday (or better 2) to celebrate the end of the week with us. It is a great way to wind down and a great way to get your mind into the spirit of resting for the rest of Shabbas. The rabbis say that if every Jew celebrates two shabbases in a row, then the Mashiach would come. A great way to get inspired to do so is to light your shabbas candles at home, throw on your white shirt or at least your shabbas clothes and come to the shul to welcome the Sabbath bride.

My hope is that one day, here at the shul, there will not have to be a public yizkor appeal at Yom Kippur. I know that as it is we need it to keep going, and people like to be able and should in fact give money in honor or memory of a loved one. But there is something about dealing in money in such a public way on Yom Kippur that to me seems very wrong. So please, in order to shorten it, at the very least, send in your pledges ahead of time.

I have benefited greatly from working here these past two years. I have learned a lot of Torah and a lot about people. One of the things that I look forward to every week is to see how the Torah sustains people, the strength and smiles that Henry brings to his Haftarah. I enjoy seeing Joel greet people as they come up the stairs filling in for people who miss their turn at ushering—something else we need to work on. But he doesn’t seem to mind because it is the mix of people and holiness that he, along with Herb, has taken to be their mission in their presidencies. They have endured late night and early morning calls from me and from many others and have done the little things in the shul that have made it float. It is an honor to be the president of a shul, something that you will never forget and that others should take as an example of the level of which one can get involved in making this place special.

There are many things that go one here and in my rabbinate that are not seen. Just as there are many things that you all do for the shul that go unseen. One example is that we have a member who goes every week to play scrabble with another member that she had never met, because he needed someone to keep his mind active as it does its battle with Alzheimers. Another member quietly contributes to the cost of religious services for those he knows need a little help with their bills. Another sneaks in here late at night to try and sort out our books, another never passes a bit of garbage without bending down to get it, even though righting himself again seems like such a task; another calls the rabbi to make sure that he is okay after long meetings, another cleans the tallisim before the chagim without being asked. One member does so much, donates large sums of money, and never in his own name, often in the name of Elijah; one member drives back and forth to Jetro in order to make sure that our candy supplies are stocked. Another member picks up people to come and study Torah, another member donates books for the children, another member stitches up little girls heads when they fall on the stairs. I tell you all this because you should know that the people who sit around you today and in shul are people that care about you and this place.

These are those who ask not what this shul can do for them….

If you feel like a remnant of Judaism, being here on this outpost, this frontier, remember that it is the remnant for which you are named, Sh’erit Yisrael, and it is the remnant, a shoot, that grows into that which sustains Judaism.

So thank you, to all of you who have made these two years very special and interesting. It has not always been easy by any means, but it has been an enduring project on how to make God dwell amongst us. When we come into this place, we should try and check our egos at the door and remember that a synagogue is a place where we try and bring our holiest selves. It is not a place for grudges or resentments. It is a place of honor and respect. It is a place of kindness and compassion. It is a place of opportunity, but not for ME, but for US. The lot of the Jewish people is in our hands which can seem like too great a burden, but behold God has given us a good map—God’s Torah. Do not forsake it. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.

1 comment:

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