President's Rosh Hashanah Address 5778, by Barri Waltcher

5778 – Chairs, Part 2

September 21, 2017


Film critics have called the 2017 movie season “the summer of sequels” and I can certainly understand this phenomenon. Some of my all-time favorite movies have inspired sequels – like The Godfather, Ocean’s Eleven, Star Wars. These are all compelling stories that leave us wanting more. Still, I was surprised to learn recently that 8 of the top 10 grossing movies of all time were part of franchises. Clearly there’s a lot of money to be made in sequels.

When I first heard that statistic, I thought – if sequels are such a big hit at the box office, why am I not doing that? So this year my High Holy Day address is also a sequel -- one that I hope does well at our box office – the Annual Appeal. Let’s call this sequel Chairs, Part 2.

In case you missed the original Chairs, here’s a quick recap – and for you movie buffs, it’s much better to imagine this Star Wars-style, projected on a large screen in a darkened theater with a deep, dramatic voiceover: last Rosh Hashanah, in a synagogue on the Upper East Side, Barri Waltcher spoke about chairs – she revealed the truths of how there were new faces in the chairs on the bimah; and how the strong turnout for events to welcome Rabbi Mosbacher inspired so many of you to fill our chairs that we experienced a chronic chair shortage.

That was Chairs, Part 1. A year ago, as a new occupant of one of those chairs, I told you a little about what inspires me at Shaaray Tefila, and I expressed my hope that you would continue to be inspired to fill our chairs, also.

And now, I present Chairs, Part 2: The Who, Where and Why.

Chairs, Part 2 is a series of inspiring vignettes about you; the members who occupy our chairs and whose involvement so meaningfully enriches our community. I have had a front-row seat this year, which has allowed me to hear beautiful, inspiring stories of the people who quite literally fill our seats here today. These stories span generations, and life stages – from nursery school parents to B’nai Mitzvah students, from TASTY teens to SAGE adults, from young professionals just beginning their journeys with us, to those of us who remember when this sanctuary actually was a movie theater. I wish I could tell you every story, but I’ve picked a few to give you a glimpse into what I see – and, to paraphrase Rabbi Mosbacher, how we are transforming each other’s lives through meaning, connection and purpose.

First – let’s take a tour of the chairs occupied by our youth as they build community, forge their Jewish identities, and continue the traditions of their parents and grandparents. Of course, we know that Shaaray Tefila has enriching programs for our children; we know that we have wonderful nursery and religious schools, a strong b’nai mitzvah program and thriving teen engagement opportunities. It’s one thing to know that all of that exists, but it’s another thing entirely to see it play out in front of your eyes.

That’s how I felt last April when I sat in a chair on this bimah with Adam, one of the 55 teens who celebrated their B’nai Mitzvah last year. Adam’s bar mitzvah morning begins like everyone else’s – with a family gathering in the Rabbi’s study. When we make our way down to the sanctuary, Adam’s parents take their seats on the bimah, leaving one chair between them for Adam. Uh-uh, Adam shakes his head. His parents don’t understand – what’s the issue? Adam is quiet for a second, and then he says – “I want to sit next to the Rabbi.” I think to myself, this is amazing. I love that this young man wants to sit next to the Rabbi!

Sitting on the bimah, I watch Adam wear a smile from ear to ear. Then, when the Torah service begins, he stands in front of the ark, with his back to the congregation. In a moment he will be handed the Torah for the first time, and I can see that his expression has turned serious. Just as Rabbi Mosbacher reaches into the ark to take the Torah out, I catch Adam doing something that I’ve never seen before – just before the Rabbi passes him the Torah, Adam rubs his hands together – you know -- the way you or I might if we were about to indulge in something totally delicious, like a hot fudge sundae.

This picture of Adam has stayed with me. To me, it is the ideal reflection of enthusiasm for Jewish tradition that we wish for our children. The next time I hear someone worry that bar mitzvahs are all about the party, I’m going to tell that person about Adam because for him, it was all about the Torah.

Now I’ll admit that our teens may not ALL be quite as enthusiastic about the Torah as Adam – but their sense of accomplishment is part of what keeps them in our chairs. It’s one reason that a remarkable 19 of our teens will be chanting Torah and Haftorah during the High Holy Days. Mazal Tov to them and their proud parents and grandparents. It’s also why later this afternoon the Raisler Room downstairs will be packed with teens participating in our youth service.

Another way we keep our teens in these chairs is by providing different pathways to explore their Judaism. I was so moved during our Graduation ceremony last May when I heard Mason and Charlie and the rest of our high school seniors reflect on their experiences here. Though they are barely 18, their seats are all well-worn. Charlie and Mason grew up at Shaaray, and their connection to this community deepened in high school. They often spent Friday evenings playing drums and guitar with our Shabbat band. Through our Pathways program they brought their chairs into our kitchen for a multigenerational cooking class; into our classrooms as Teaching Assistants for younger students; and into the Rabbi’s study for senior seminar. They also took transformational trips to help rebuild New Orleans, meet civil rights leaders in Birmingham, lobby in Washington, and pray at the Western Wall as part of the Israeli teen exchange. Like the other seniors who spoke at graduation, Mason and Charlie thanked us for helping them discover what being Jewish means for them on a real and personal level. That doesn’t happen everywhere.

The connections our youth forge here are transformational – they thread these students into Jewish life on their campuses and beyond. Mason, Charlie and the rest of those seniors are now spread out at colleges across the country. Many of them are spending their first High Holy Days away from their families. But they’re still connected to us and to each other. I know that because they are in a group chat with Rabbi Mosbacher. As they settled into their schools over the past few weeks, these college students – the same ones who have been known to ignore texts from their own parents, which I know from experience -- have been texting the Rabbi pictures of the Hillel buildings on their campuses.

We also have chairs being filled by people in their 20s and 30s who are looking to find community and rekindle tradition. People like Rebecca who I met while making sandwiches for City Harvest last year. Rebecca co-chairs Mitzvah Sunday, our biggest social action event of the year. She also wants more of her peers to occupy chairs in the synagogue, so Rebecca formed a group that connects young people. They picked the name CHILL – which stands for the things that are important to them: Community, Heart, Identity, Laid-back and L’chaim. CHILL members picnic in the park, barbeque on the roof, and organize holiday get-togethers. Keeping up with Rebecca makes me feel young – she might be the first person to post pictures from our Temple gala on Instagram! At the same time, Rebecca reminds me that our connection to Jewish tradition transcends generations. This hit home when Rebecca’s nephew, Maxwell, was born and she marked the occasion old-school, by sponsoring a Friday night oneg at Shaaray Tefila.

Today, we also have many new members sitting among us for the first time. Welcome! We are so glad that you’re here. What I’ve seen over the past year is how quickly and deeply you find the chairs here that are most comfortable for you. One of our newest members is Barbara, who discovered Shaaray when she visited our booth at the 1st Avenue Street Fair. Intrigued, she came to services one Friday evening. Not knowing anyone, she sat alone in an empty row. But moments later, another congregant invited Barbara to sit with her. That, right there, is the essence of who we are. All synagogues say they are warm and welcoming, but I am proud we embody that culture through the small gestures of individuals who fulfill the Jewish value of welcoming a stranger.

And then I hear why that story of being welcomed here has even greater resonance for Barbara. You see, the last time Barbara was a member of a synagogue she had a very different experience. She told me that she would go to oneg receptions after services, walk over to a table and ask, “Is this chair available?” Almost always, the answer was, “No, it’s taken.” So Barbara would move to an empty table, and sit down. And then people would approach her and ask if the empty chairs at her table were taken. Barbara would smile and say “No,” expecting them to join her. But they didn’t. Instead, they would pick up the empty chairs and move them to another table, leaving Barbara alone. For Barbara, and for so many of us, finding the right chair, or a welcoming person to sit beside can be hard. This synagogue, though, is a place where we see an empty chair as an opportunity to invite someone in. Barbara told me a few weeks ago that Shaaray Tefila puts a smile on her face – and she is paying that forward through her involvement on the Caring Committee.

That leads me to a story about longtime members, like our Caring Committee chair Emily, who are sitting in new chairs – discovering new ways to find meaning, purpose and connection. Emily and her husband Dan have been members here for 15 years. Two years ago a friend asked Emily to help lead the Caring Committee. In this role, Emily’s vision and commitment is inspiring new committee members to bring their chairs to places where they are most needed: to shivah minyans; to help members in need get to services; and to provide companionship to the homebound.

One story Emily shared this summer was about Sylvia, who can only attend services if someone helps walk with her. When a committee member escorted Sylvia one Friday night this summer, Sylvia said that joining her community for services meant the world to her. With the help of the Committee, she hopes to come to services, movies and other programs here more often. Stories like Sylvia’s speak to the Caring Committee’s meaningful impact on our community.

Finally, I want to share a story of my own. Last month I went to a learning session where Rabbi Mosbacher asked us to share something we look forward to and something we dread about the High Holy Days. I answered, honestly, that I’m nervous about this moment – about speaking in front of so many people. But others shared fears that felt more raw and poignant – the sadness of yizkor, and the anxiety over being inscribed in the Book of Life. When I left the session, I couldn’t get their stories out of my mind.

A few weeks later I had lunch with Stephanie, another congregant who also attended the session. When we sit down at the Gracie Mews Diner, Stephanie tells me she has something for me. She reaches into her bag and unfolds a handwritten note.

Stephanie wants to help me feel better about speaking in front of the entire community, so she has some advice for me. Here’s what she wrote:

Relax.

Breathe.

Everyone is your friend.

They are so glad they are not up there….

We had a good laugh together and I thanked Stephanie for her generosity, for thinking about me as I had thought about her and her story.

These stories remind me what being part of a community is all about. There may be many places in New York where I could have taken a class about the High Holy Days. But there is no place else where I could have shared coffee and that meaningful connection with Stephanie.

This place is full of chairs inhabited by incredible people with inspirational stories. I also know that as we talk about our chairs, many of you wonder about the possibility of a new space for our chairs. That story is still in draft form. I had hoped to be able to share with you a definitive answer, but I can assure you of two things:  first, the Board is still assessing the best facilities solution for our future; and second, as I promised last year, you will all have a say in the outcome.

So, why have I shared all of these stories today? Because we are all the executive producers of this franchise. Our participation and support make these stories possible. I know some of you ask why synagogues are expensive – why it costs so much to be a member of a place that you may only “use” a few days a year. My answer is this. Without question, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are our busiest time – the time when all of our chairs are filled.  But we are here for you all the time, and that presence is what creates our stories, our connections, and our community. Shaaray Tefila is also here however we choose to be involved. High Holy Day services; life cycle events; youth education and engagement; learning opportunities; social action; social justice; social events, to name just a few.

Our community supports the Jewish people, it supports our values, our heritage and our culture. We teach our children and instill tradition, we see graduating seniors off to college and welcome them back with open arms, we CHILL out, we attract new members with warmth and wonderful programming, we care for the homebound, we comfort the bereaved.  And these are just the stories I shared today. There are so many others.

Today and on Yom Kippur, you occupy a chair of worship and reflection. What other chairs might you choose in 5778? Our community offers so many opportunities to find meaning, connection and purpose – and if you’re lucky, opportunities that make you rub your hands together with excitement and delight. That is what makes Shaaray Tefila so special.

And of course, all of this requires a large commitment of clergy, staff, volunteers and last, but not least, funding. These stories are only possible because of your contributions above and beyond membership dues. Our board, clergy and senior leadership team are dedicated to this vision, and already have participated 100% in the Annual Appeal. Now we turn to you for your support, and we ask that you please take out your tickets and use the detachable top portion to give generously so that these stories can continue to be told, and so that new stories, maybe even your story, can be written. At the end of the service, ushers and staff will be at every exit and they will be happy to accept your pledges (in these white bags); and if you’re not ready today, throughout the week there will be two boxes available for your donations, at the security desk in the lobby and outside the sanctuary. Let’s make this a blockbuster year for Shaaray Tefila.

On behalf of the Board of Trustees, thank you in advance for your generosity, and for making this a strong and vital community with your presence. May 5778 be a good and sweet year for you and your families. Shanah Tovah.