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Last year, following Rosh Hashana services, my wife Cindy and I headed over to the family service. With our kids being teenagers, we hadn’t been to the family service in several years. So it was really so nice to see the smiling young families saunter into the sanctuary. And Rabbi Shira began with a story. A story about a young shepherd boy who wandered into a synagogue where everyone was praying. The boy didn’t know any of the prayers or even how to read. So he started to just say the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph, Bet, Gimmel and so on. Over and over again – louder and louder. When the boy’s father got embarrassed and others wanted to throw the boy out, the Rabbi interjected and exclaimed: “Stop! That boy’s shouting the Aleph Bet was more precious than any other prayers said here today! His prayer went straight up to Heaven!”
That is one of my favorite stories for a couple of reasons. The first is that I can’t carry a tune at all; I’m nearly tone deaf and don’t have many of the prayers memorized. So I have a confession to make. I often – especially when sitting up here on the Bima – lip sync so not to throw everyone else off. So there you have it – another lip syncing scandal. You have here at Kol Ami the Milli Vanilli of temple presidents.
But the main reason I love that story is that it shows that our connection to G-d, to Judaism and especially to Kol Ami is not about what prayers we have memorized or how well we sing (at least I hope). This story about the shepherd boy aptly describes the openness we are so proud of here at Kol Ami. There are so many ways to connect with Kol Ami and to have a Kol Ami experience. Certainly worship is one, and we’re all here today for that reason. But there is so much more.
People often ask me what I’ve learned over the past year as being co-president. Well, in addition to learning that apparently our sanctuary thermostat only has two settings – too hot and too cold – I also learned how much is always going on here at Kol Ami each month, each week and every day: For example, it could be innovative Synaplex programming that ranged last year from studying the Jews of Spain to a mock trial of Joseph – our latest of biblical heroes to be tried at Kol Ami; or the opportunity to study James Baldwin or to hear from the youngest person who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, when a posse of State Police attacked the Civil Rights demonstrators on their march from Selma to Montgomery – or perhaps going on the Kol Ami civil rights trip or going on one of the upcoming trips to Israel or India – or helping those less fortunate than us, such as with the work we do with the Coachman Center – or celebrating Israel’s 70th birthday or standing up for egalitarian prayer at the Wall – or taking a bus to Washington DC with multi-generational Kol Ami members to stand with those students from Parkland in seeking to stop gun violence – or attending our Confirmation service where amongst the beautifully written student prayers and songs, one of our courageous students spoke personally about his camp friend being a victim of that senseless shooting – or perhaps something lighter like going to a Broadway show or even playing in the weekly MahJong games here at Kol Ami.
That’s what Kol Ami is about and so much more. You may ask what makes some of these experiences Jewish and what makes them Kol Ami? After all, you can do some of these things on your own. But doing it here at Kol Ami is about a connection to community; to our history, our culture, and our values of being modern Jews. It’s our unique ability here at Kol Ami to combine tradition with contemporary ways to form a welcoming and open community that continues in our 95th year to provide a link from generation to generation. It’s about being part of this community – it’s about being part of something bigger than the individual.
And I have to tell you, with everything going on in today’s world, it feels good, really good to be part of something bigger than yourself. You may not be hearing that from Washington DC or from the headlines, but being here today — or any day — is a testament to the fact that the ties that bind us together are stronger than the forces outside trying to separate people. We here at Kol Ami stand as a bulwark against the waves of divisiveness, the waves of individualism over community, the waves of assimilation, and the waves of apathy. So whether you are here two days a year or two days a week or more, as we celebrate our 95th anniversary throughout this upcoming year, I encourage you – I implore you — to wade a little deeper into all that Kol Ami has to offer: Be that a lecture, a Friday night service, a Saturday morning study with at the LIFT service, one of our many social justice/Bethelight initiatives, a trip led by the clergy, attending the Retreat, the Gala or a Broadway show or celebrating or memorializing some lifecycle event; I urge you to find a way – whether small or large – to join us this upcoming 95th year, as we honor our past, celebrate the present and imagine our future.
L’shana tova. Wishing you, your families and our country a sweet, joyous and peaceful new year.
I have a confession to make. And given that it is Yom Kippur, what better day to share it than today . . . here, with you. Several years ago, I was part of a leadership program at Kol Ami. In one of the sessions of that program, each of the participants was asked to list the 3 purposes of a synagogue we found most meaningful. I drafted my list quickly and confidently: Education, commemoration of life cycle events, and fostering friendship and community.
We each shared our responses, and as I listened to every other person describe the importance of services, prayer and worship, I was unsettled — mortified, actually. Worship hadn’t crossed my mind . . . yet there we were . . . sitting in a synagogue, just steps away from this sanctuary. How could I forget worship — Is it not our way of worship that defines us a synagogue community?” Further unsettling was the fact that I had always considered ritual and prayer to be a great part of my Jewish identity and journey.
How then could worship or services or prayer not enter my mind? It is not that these are without importance to me. In fact, as I mentioned in my remarks last year, Kol Ami’s beautiful, meaningful services factored heavily into my decision to join the congregation. So why weren’t they on my list?
Those of you who know me will not be surprised that this question led to some serious introspection. What I came to realize is that at that moment in my life — in that sliver of time — when I was a parent of 3 young children, still relatively new to Westchester, with no family nearby, the three purposes I listed were exactly what I needed most from my synagogue. And I was grateful that my synagogue was there to fulfill these much-needed purposes. I also came to realize that my list would not necessarily remain the same — to the contrary, it most likely would change over time. And with these realizations came the true understanding that a synagogue must find a way to meet the extensive and diverse needs of its entire community, not an easy feat.
So why do I bring this up today? Well, now that I am a Co-President, not a day goes by that I fail to think about Kol Ami’s responsibility of meeting the needs of our entire community. I am proud of our work.
In the past year — Scott’s and my first in our positions — we have witnessed firsthand as our tireless Clergy taught, inspired, celebrated with and provided comfort and support to our community. Our schools educated hundreds of our children and, along the way, instilled confidence, made connections to Judaism, and provided love and joy. Our communications were streamlined and upgraded, and we launched a beautifully revamped website.
I have seen the unique beauty of our b’nai mitzvah services — and especially that magical moment when the bar or bat mitzvah child steps onto this Bimah . . . the child becomes a leader in the blink of an eye.
I had the privilege of being in this sanctuary as our confirmation class led a most beautiful Shavuot service with confidence and camaraderie; musicality and maturity, humor and humility.
Our programming was unparalleled. From our thought-provoking Synaplex speakers, to our brilliant and most enjoyable summer concerts, to our engaging work toward social justice, our community learned, laughed, and made an impact on each other and on our world, together.
But along with the successes, I see that there is more work to be done. One of the things that has captured my attention this year has been the concept of membership. As only a synagogue president would do, I asked myself, “What exactly does membership mean here?” Is our commitment to our congregation best described as “membership,” or is it something else, something more?
You see, membership is transactional. A person provides whatever membership requires — perhaps dues, perhaps information, perhaps some level of service or residency requirement — and he or she becomes a member.
I see our relationship with Kol Ami as deeper than that. And as I thought about what concept better captured the relationship we have with Kol Ami, the word that stuck in my mind was “community.”
While membership is transactional, community is living and breathing. It is defined by continuous interaction. We have responsibilities to our communities, and our communities have responsibilities for us. We look out for each other, we share in each other’s successes and joy, and we comfort each other in times of loss and sorrow. We listen; we respond. We educate; we learn. We celebrate; we support. We pray.
And, yes, there are financial responsibilities as well. I know the word budget brings, at best, a yawn, and at worst, a feeling of disdain, but allow me a few minutes to offer you my perspective. For the past several years, I have had the privilege of working with our Clergy, our staff, and incredibly talented and dedicated congregants to create Kol Ami’s annual budget. The budget is more than a listing of amounts . . . so much more than number crunching. We not only bring along our calculators, but also our minds and our hearts. It is our opportunity to enact our vision for our future and set our priorities for the coming year. Our budgeting work touches every aspect of synagogue life.
We know our dues do not cover our expenses. It is a purposeful decision. While dues are necessary, we do not want to burden our congregants with an even higher financial requirement for joining or remaining in our community. And so, to ensure the continuation, indeed survival, of our offerings and programming, we rely on voluntary contributions to our Annual Fund.
Yes, we rely on generosity, your generosity. Generosity that supports our Yad b’Yad program, the only program in Westchester for Jewish teenagers with developmental challenges that focuses on critical life skills, social skills, and Jewish education — a true blessing to those whose lives it touches; generosity that ensures that our sanctuary is filled with music each week and every holiday, just as it is today; generosity that allows us to brilliantly stage our Purim Spiel, which is one of the most memorable and joyful events of the year; generosity that provides our youth with a welcoming place to connect with one another, free from the distractions and pressures of their everyday lives; generosity that enables us to stream our services so that you can be with us even if you are unable to physically be present here.
So it is with a full, grateful heart that I ask of you to: Give. Give Meaningfully. Give Proudly.
- Give. As a community, each of us has a responsibility for one other, and each one of us makes a difference. This year, we are counting on total donations of $195,000. Yes, our budget line for this year’s Annual Fund is $195,000, slightly more than last year. If every congregant or family unit contributed, we would meet our need handily. Unfortunately, last year we saw a participation rate of only about 30%. That is less than a third — fewer than 1 in 3. Every contribution matters. Please Give.
- Give meaningfully. Dues amounts are set. Annual Fund amounts are not. We ask that you give in a meaningful, generous way. We all have different circumstances, and I do not presume to know what is possible for or meaningful to you. What I do know is that every gift — whether $18 or $18,000 — will be met with deep and sincere appreciation.
- Give proudly. Know that your generosity enables Kol Ami to serve the needs of our entire community and to make an impact on all of our lives.
In a community, we give and we take, and it’s often the giving that provides us with the greatest satisfaction and joy. I hope you will find the joy in giving to Kol Ami, especially knowing that our Kol Ami community is always at the ready to give of itself to you . . . whatever may be the top 3 on your list.Annual Fund Donation