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.