President's Address (Rosh Hashanah 5779)

Barri Waltcher | September 10, 2018


Shanah tovah.

Sometimes, when people find out I’m the president of a synagogue, they can’t contain their surprise. The first thing they ask me is, “Why? What made you want to do that?”

I’ve gotten used to that reaction. It’s the same feeling I had when I found out this summer that there’s now a mayonnaise flavor of ice cream, or that Pretty Woman is now a Broadway musical.

Exotic ice cream flavors and a Broadway version of Pretty Woman are not for everyone, just as being a synagogue president isn’t. We don’t all want the same things, but experimenting, and the discovery that takes place when we find the things that we love, that’s a big part of what inspires me about Shaaray Tefila, and why I continue to invest in it.

That sense of discovery has been my reality here over the past 18 years. As some of you know, my Shaaray Tefila experience started in 2001 when my then 7-year-old daughter Sarah insisted that she should be able to celebrate Christmas if we weren’t going to do anything Jewish. In an instant, Dan and I hightailed it over here and enrolled our kids in religious school. Back then, I was here for Sarah’s experience, not my own. My connection was limited, and for our first few years here Dan and I didn’t even have a regular spot in the sanctuary where we liked to sit. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

Over time, I discovered my own place in this community - first, on the Religious School Committee, and then in our worship - not only spiritually, but also literally, on the left side of the sanctuary, right where the Francos and the Galletts sit. That’s when I really started to feel at home here. And eventually, I found a place on the Board of Trustees.

Even now, as I begin the final year of my term as President, I am still discovering new places for myself. I wanted to try something different this year, so I went to the Rabbi’s shofar class last month. I asked a few friends to join me but most of them were “busy.” Apparently I missed the memo about how difficult it is to blow a shofar. But I am trying to follow our wise Rabbi’s advice about failure, so I decided this morning to ignore my fear and just do my best along with my fellow shofar novices Carol, Peni, Sandra, and Lissie.

Whether it’s learning shofar or traveling to Israel on a congregational trip with Rabbi Mosbacher next month, Shaaray Tefila has so many different pathways for engagement for all of us.  As President, I have the privilege of watching you discover new possibilities here that bring meaning, purpose and connection to your lives: maybe not mayonnaise ice cream, exactly, but whatever choice is right for you.

Today and throughout the High Holy Days, we worship together as one large community. Throughout the rest of the year, the synagogue is filled with many smaller micro-communities that allow hundreds of our members to explore Judaism, discover new interests, and connect to tradition and to each other. In these groups we sing, we pray, we learn, we help, we socialize, and we comfort, to name just a few.

Those are the stories that energize me, and that I talk about whenever I’m asked the “why” question.

Today, I want to share a few of them and hope that they inspire in you both the sense of possibility that exists at Shaaray Tefila and an understanding of why your investment in this community is so valuable.

This spring Jane spoke movingly at a Shabbat service about being part of one of our small communities, the Saturday morning minyan. Jane started coming to minyan eight years ago to say kaddish for her mother. She planned to go for the traditional 11-month mourning period, but halfway through she had surgery that kept her away for five weeks.

During that time away, Jane realized that she had become part of a community that was now reaching out to her with calls and visits. She still remembers the feeling she had on that first Saturday morning when she returned to minyan; she told us that the welcome she received fed her soul in ways that have stayed with her to this day. It’s now eight years later, and Jane is still a minyan regular. As she says, she began going to minyan to say kaddish, but her decision to stay was all about community.

These small communities also provide opportunities for our children to connect to Judaism and one another in meaningful ways. I witnessed this last fall at the Bat Mitzvah of Ellie, one of our 7th graders. Ellie’s service begins with a tallit ceremony, a beautiful ritual Rabbi Mosbacher introduced in which our students put their tallit on for the first time.

Typically, the students select a special adult in their lives to help with this ceremony - usually a grandparent or an aunt or uncle.

But Ellie’s choice was her 13-year-old best friend, Polly. Ellie and Polly met at the synagogue at the ripe age of 8 when they each joined our junior choir, and they have been singing together once a week ever since. When Polly was called up to the bimah that morning, she stood directly behind Ellie. Then, as Ellie recited the blessing over the tallit, Polly reached forward and placed the prayer shawl over Ellie’s shoulders. With the ceremony complete, the two girls hugged, and I noticed that I wasn’t the only person choked up watching these two young women share this profound moment.

Minyan and junior choir are just two of the small communities that create connections here. Other members are building community while also finding ways to address concerns about the world around us. As the Rabbi mentioned during the Torah service, one of this year’s social action initiatives involves over 200 members supporting a year-long project to help resettle an Iraqi refugee family in New York. After escaping from Iraq 10 years ago, the family’s visas finally came through this spring, and they arrived at JFK right after Passover with barely a week’s notice.

So many of us connected with this project in significant ways - donating the money needed to support the family until they can be self-sufficient; reaching out to our networks to provide housing, and other goods and services. Robin’s company donated two weeks of furnished temporary housing so the family had a place to stay when they first arrived; Pat’s real estate broker son helped us find long-term housing in Brooklyn; Sumie and Amy arranged furnishings; Charlie secured supermarket gift cards; Michele found doctors; and so on and so on.

Literally hundreds of us contributed in small and large ways and it was nice to see this generous community recognized with an aliyah this morning. The true gift we were able to give this family was summed up so succinctly when the father, through a translator, said, “Because of you, we do not feel like strangers. We feel so welcome.”

Our members are continually discovering new ways to connect to Judaism. There is Hal, a member since 1989. Like me, Hal has found many different places in Shaaray Tefila - on the Board, as head of our Kesher food program, and as a volunteer leader of shivah minyans. Last year, Hal wanted to create a community for men so he started a monthly group that he is calling ROMEO, which stands for Retired Old Men Eating Out. If you think the name ROMEO is catchy, just wait. Hal is looking forward to having this group branch out into other areas - and one of his ideas, while not quite as Shakespearean as ROMEO, is Chillin’ with Tefillin. If I have piqued your interest in this group, you can join Hal and the other ROMEOs for breakfast this Wednesday morning at 8:30 at the Pain Quotidien on 77th and 2nd.

There are also newer members like Ellen, Peni and Sandra who, along with nine other women, are strengthening their Jewish identities and forging bonds through their two-year adult B’nai Mitzvah class. This group meets once a week to study Hebrew and learn the prayers, and soon they are going to start working on their Torah portions. It may seem hard to imagine for those of us who don’t have the fondest memories of our own b’nai mitzvah preparation, but the energy, enthusiasm and attendance rate of this group is truly inspiring. Their communal Bat Mitzvah will take place on March 30th and we are all invited to the service.

A final story I want to share is about Leslie, who for many years has been part of a close-knit community that engages in meaningful work on the Youth Committee. Now that her three sons are grown, Leslie is looking for a new adult community at Shaaray Tefila, and she is collaborating with a great group of members (myself included) who want that, also. This fall Leslie and her partners are launching The Shaaray Tefila Social Club - Living the Chai Life, a group that will bring social and educational engagement to our adult community. We like to think of this group not so much for “empty nesters” as for what we are calling “free birds.” That means it’s for all adults in our community - regardless of marital status or family structure - who are at a stage in life where they are looking for communal engagement. I hope the “free birds” among you will give this group a try by joining us for a Sukkot dinner and 80s music trivia on Tuesday evening, September 25th.

I began with the “Why do you do it?” question that I’m asked most often when people find out I’m the president of a synagogue. The stories I’ve told - and the countless other ones I could have told - speak to my answer: because of the many different opportunities and possibilities for people to connect to each other and to Jewish rituals, heritage and values. Whether you’ve been a member here for 2 years or 20, you can discover something new and meaningful at any time.

Whenever I give this answer, there is frequently a second question that follows, and it’s usually some version of: “You... get paid for that, right?” These conversations are like a vicious circle because once I explain that not only am I not paid, I actually contribute money to the synagogue, we go right back to square one - “Why?”

This holiday period is a time of reflection, when we think about the places we’re in, and the values-based choices we make in our lives. For many years, Dan and I have made Shaaray Tefila our top philanthropic priority because we believe in investing in and giving back to this community that helped bring Jewish life into our family, that has continued to meet us where we are over the past 18 years, and that sustains so many Jewish journeys, not just our own.

When it comes to supporting organizations other than this synagogue, we are always inspired by friends and family who demonstrate their commitment to charity by running, walking, or cycling to fundraise for the causes that are important to them. There’s something powerful about that concept - that the causes are so important to people that they are worth working for the donation. The exertion speaks to their passion; it’s something to be rewarded.

Well, you won’t find a lot of bicycles in the halls of Shaaray Tefila or people climbing the stairs for donations, but I can assure you that our clergy, staff, lay leaders and the members I’ve told you about today, are stretching themselves 24/7 to make this community a meaningful place for us all. We are pushing ourselves not just today, but year round - enabling each of us to explore Jewish values through worship, learning, social action, community building, and actively engaging in Jewish ritual and tradition.

That’s why I do what I do here, that’s why I volunteer and that’s why we support this community financially. And I hope that each of you will participate in the Annual Appeal as an expression of these shared values, too.

I hope that I have motivated your giving to this community by reframing your gifts not as passive donations, but as an opportunity to sustain the ways people are actively stretching themselves and that are worthy of your support. And I also want to mention a special opportunity to double your philanthropic impact by participating in a unique Board fundraising challenge. This year, due to the generosity of 11 of our Trustees, every dollar you give to the Appeal above the amount you donated last year will be matched up to a total of $110,000.

Through this challenge, we hope to increase our resources by at least $200,000, allowing us to continue to build on our successes, to expand the potential and reach of our synagogue. The Board’s challenge is the exertion that speaks to our passion and investment in this community, and we hope you are inspired to do the same.

At the same time I also urge you to find a second (and you will be happy to hear, low-cost) way to double your impact at Shaaray Tefila this year. Take a look at the fall program schedule, discover something new, and become a part of all that we offer. And then, the next time you come to a service, attend a learning session, or participate in a program, double the experience by inviting someone you know to join you. That invitation can be such a meaningful opening for discovery and connection; a chance to experience and create what Jane, Ellie and so many others have found here.

I’ll lead by example. In the spirit of Rabbi Mosbacher’s sermon, today I am doing my best with my beginner shofar skills, but I am going to keep trying to improve. So I invite you to join me next spring when I resume my shofar lessons to prepare for 5780.

In the meantime, if you haven’t done so already, or if you did but are inspired today to increase your gift, your High Holy Day tickets contain a Pledge card that you can use today to make a pledge for the Annual Appeal. Please take a moment to make your commitment and support our community. You can turn your cards in on your way out at the end of the service.

Thank you all for the opportunity to be a part of so many sacred stories here. It is truly a privilege. And thank you in advance for your extraordinary generosity and commitment, and for making this a strong and vital community with your presence. May 5779 be a good, sweet and healthy year for you and your families. Shanah tovah.