President's Rosh HaShanah Address 5777, by Barri Waltcher

5777 – A Year of Renewal

October 3, 2016


Shanah Tovah.

Since there are so many of you here today who I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting, I want to start by introducing myself. I’m Barri Waltcher, and I want to thank you for the privilege of helping to lead Shaaray Tefila. It is a real honor.

As I reflect on the three months since my term began, one of the great surprises about being President of this synagogue is how much time I spend thinking about chairs. Yes, I said chairs.

It started at a conference for new Presidents last spring. Synagogue leadership, I learned, is a three-legged stool. The Rabbi, the President and the Executive Director need to collaborate to keep the synagogue balanced.

On that front I am very fortunate to partner with Rabbi Mosbacher and our Executive Director Amy Schwach. Both of them bring experience and energy, and warmth and wisdom to our partnership and to this synagogue. I want to extend a special welcome to them both, and their families, on their first Rosh Hashanah with us. In our first few months together, I can confidently say our three-legged stool is on very sure footing.

Today, Rabbi Mosbacher and I are not only new to this three-legged team; we also are new faces in the chairs on the bimah. As you all know, we spent a long time searching for the right Rabbi. Two years and much community discussion later, it is gratifying to see Rabbi Mosbacher fit so comfortably into his new role and new chair. As we approach the 100-day mark of his   time here, I wish for us a long and meaningful partnership.

Though I also occupy a new chair on the bimah, my husband Dan and I have been members  here since 2001. We both grew up with strong Jewish identities, though like many young couples we weren’t members of any synagogue when our children were very young. But then, when our daughter, Sarah, was six, she asked if we could celebrate both Chanukahand Christmas. We told Sarah, “Jews don’t celebrate Christmas,” but she pointed out we weren’t really doing anything Jewish. Needless to say, we hightailed it over to Shaaray Tefila, two grinches with checkbook in hand, determined to nip Christmas in the bud. I started out like so many others here, a parent looking to pass on some combination of religion, tradition and heritage to my child, but have found so much more for myself.

So I told you about the three-legged stool that I learned about last spring. The second lesson I learned about chairs took place on the very first day of my term.

It’s Friday, July 1st and we have a perfect storm – Rabbi Mosbacher’s first day on the job, the start of the July 4th weekend and it is also Shabbat. I’ll admit to you that I am half-convinced  that because of the holiday weekend, attendance at services will be at an all-time low. I am worried that we will disappoint our new Rabbi. But by 6:00 that evening, like manna from heaven, I am worry-free as more than 200 congregants appear in an outpouring of enthusiasm and optimism for Rabbi Mosbacher. Of course, the crisis quickly pivots from “Oh no, will anyone show up?” to – you guessed it, “We need more chairs for the Oneg.”

Since that night, we have had 13 welcoming events for Rabbi Mosbacher. And even though I continued to fret deep down about attendance during the normally quiet summer, time and again you not only showed up, you turned these events into standing room only. We have had morning learning sessions that overflowed. A pizza shortage at our Pizza and Popsicles get together on the roof in the sizzling heat. An evening dessert reception packed to capacity.  When we had the first of our newly minted speaker series with Ruth Calderon, a former Knesset member, a few weeks ago, our maintenance team was quickly putting more chairs out even as our guest started speaking.

These chair shortages are, of course, a good problem, the kind of problem you want to have. So what does all of this turnout and excitement, this chair challenge represent?

Elie Wiesel once said that God gave human beings a secret, and the secret was not how to begin, but how to begin again. To me, our chair shortage is a sign that we are at a new beginning: a new season, a new year, a new rabbi, a time of renewal. And if you’ll indulge me further, when you drop the “R” from the word “chair,” it becomes chai, a sign of vibrant life. And that’s exactly what our chair problem has been – a sign of vibrant life.

New beginnings can be exciting. They are filled with not only new people, but also new energy, new ideas, and new possibilities. And yet, as Rabbi Mosbacher so wisely told us on July 1st, change can also create anxiety. Who hasn’t had a sleepless night worrying about a new job, a new school, or delivering a first High Holy Day address?

And beginning again, of course, does not mean discarding important traditions. After all, that’s what brought me here 15 years ago and what I’m sure brings many of you here today.

Speaking of tradition, Shaaray Tefila has a long history of renewal. In 170 years we evolved from an Orthodox community on Wooster Street to a Reform community on the Upper East Side. Along the way we had our home in midtown and the Upper West Side. So we know from change.

We moved into this building in 1958. That’s a little older than I am, so I can relate to the fact that the building is showing its age. This summer, I shared with you that talks about developing a new building on this site are continuing and I believe we are close to coming to terms that make sense for this community.

We heard from many of you at the summer welcoming events how much you want our building to match our potential. That it is disappointing when your friends choose to join other synagogues and their school programs because they offer newer, more appealing facilities. And every day we see a different chair challenge – the challenge of fitting all of our activities into this space, while knowing that we want to grow, innovate and continue to attract new members. Therefore, the prospect of designing a new building to accommodate all of our needs is an incredible opportunity.

Sitting in the sanctuary today it may be hard to feel that imperative. For many of us, this space has been our spiritual home for years, even decades, and it holds many special memories. But I know two things for sure. One is that we need to invest in this building, whether by renovating or rebuilding. The other is that we will need your help to do it. I am confident that, whichever path we take, this community will remain committed and strong because that is part of our tradition.

I also can assure you that the decision to rebuild will not be made without your participation. If and when the Board determines that the proposed terms are in the best interest of the congregation, then all of our members will vote on whether or not to move forward. And  before any congregational vote, we will plan forums to review and discuss the proposal in depth. If these discussions come to pass, believe me, I have learned my lesson – I know we will need many, many chairs.

I talked earlier about synagogue leadership as a 3-legged stool. I would like to suggest a different chair metaphor. To me, a successful synagogue is a solid, 4-legged chair. One leg is our leadership. The second leg is our history, everything that came before today, our tradition, our foundation. The third leg is our future, which is unknown but connected to our past. And the fourth leg, essential to keeping the chair upright, is you.

Your partnership is essential to the balance of this community, and its success is driven by your desire to participate with your time, your presence and your financial support. Whether it’s our prayer, our traditions, our programs, our social action or our social interaction, I hope what we do here and your connection to this community feels important and relevant in your life.

As many of you know, it is our tradition this time of year to conduct our Annual Appeal solicitation. This process of renewal requires resources as we invest in the most important work that we do: filling our chairs, making this a place where everyone can belong, be known, and find meaning. Shaaray Tefila has long been committed to building innovative programs for congregants of all ages. This requires outstanding staff and talented clergy. As a non-profit organization, we rely heavily on your contributions including and beyond your membership support, and I ask that you continue to make Shaaray Tefila a priority in your lives and in your philanthropic decisions.

Your tickets contain the opportunity to make a pledge to our Annual Appeal. As our ushers come around the sanctuary to collect pledges, please give generously.

Thank you in advance for your support. As we renew our partnership, I am filled with excitement and anticipation.

May we be blessed with your forgiveness when change feels uncomfortable, and when we run short on chairs. May we also be blessed with your commitment and investment in our community as we use God’s secret and begin again.

On behalf of the Board of Trustees, I wish you and your families a sweet and healthy new year. Shanah Tovah.