Good morning/afternoon. Happy New Year.
When I sat down to think about this year’s High Holy Day appeal – the corners of my mouth curled up slightly into a smile. I remembered how daunting it was to do this the first time – and how kind and generous you were- with your comments, responses and your gifts to the appeal. So I thought – since it went pretty well last time, perhaps I could simply say – please remember what I said last year and then sit down. I passed this idea by a few folks and they did not approve – so, here we are again.
A year is significant in the life of a congregation – even for a stable, prudent and committed community like TSTI. If you attended the annual meeting last May or read my annual address on line, you know how many amazing events, experiences and changes took place in our congregation this past year – and it was not by happenstance.
Our fiscal stability, successful projects, innovative schools, programs, worship, and outreach are the result of a fabulous team of dedicated professionals and volunteers who keep our congregation vibrant, proactive, welcoming, interesting and inclusive.
Last year at the holy days, Rabbi Cohen donned a white hard hat and we greeted one another amidst an open sky next to the Gellis Plaza, under steel beams and girders, outlining our new entranceway. Now, we wish one another a sweet new year in the midst of magnificent stone and marble, beautiful stained glass and a light, modern and inviting lobby and hallways. And it was not happenstance.
While this is the most noticeable change – there are so many other examples. Among them, we have written 30,800 letters of our own Torah, mitzvoth undertaken by an incredibly broad and diverse cross-section of our membership. On September 26th, as a congregation, together we will write the final five letters to complete our Torah, and put it into use. So many members from every age group, religious upbringing, marital status– and families from every geographic corner of our congregation united in this endeavor. It was about education, it is about community and yes, it was also about fundraising. Like it or not, raising funds to support, enhance, strengthen and sustain Temple is a necessary and practical reality. And for this we make no apologies. What we build here, what we create in this space and all that we connect to it, what we do and teach our children to do in the world is imperative – meaningful – part of our ongoing history and that of an entire people. Our success in these endeavors does not depend upon happenstance. Our congregation is a small but integral part of a much larger picture – and we are compelled to ensure the breadth, depth and substance of our acts, experiences and piece of history.
In 1995, Istvan Banyai published a children’s picture book called ZOOM. You can find it on the web, on You-Tube, or in the bookstore. It’s worth a look. The book begins with a small red wavy image. You turn the page and you see it is the comb on the top of the head of a rooster. Then, you see the whole rooster and realize that you are looking through the eyes of someone peering out of a window at the rooster in the distance. As you continue, the rooster becomes less visible, as the buildings on a farm come into view. The farm becomes insignificant on the next page, when we see that it’s not real, but merely a model on a tabletop being arranged by a young girl. Then, the model farm and girl change, as we recognize that the entire scene is nothing more than the cover of a book in the hands of a boy sitting on a chair. Even he fades away as we see the deck and enormous ship on which his chair is placed. Turn the page, and all of the details of the ship slip away from view, into an enormous ocean. Turn again, and the ocean is no longer recognizable, other than by its shape on a globe of the world. And finally, even the enormity of the earth is nothing more than a small white dot on a black background –a tiny speck in comparison to the vastness of the entire universe.
The book’s message is infinitely more powerful in the viewing than in the telling – but I bring it to you oratorally, because it is such a perfect lesson on perspective – and the way things work here – and everywhere.
Each one of us is a small but important cog on a giant wheel. We see things from one or two or perhaps three vantage points. And yet, in a congregation like ours, one finds a myriad of views, so many lenses, such diverse thought, needs and actions. The gift is that there are always threads that bind us together – and that the whole of our community is so much more than the sum of its parts.
There is a beautiful passage on page 218 of our Shabbat prayer book. It says in part:
We sit in community:
Elbow to elbow, eye to eye.
So close, perhaps, we brush against each other as we move in prayer.
Ears filled with the voices of friends, teachers, fellow travelers – who pray with us from the next seat, from across the room.
We come to silence. Rhythm of words, shared melody, hushed.
Connected first one to one to all, we now let go. To be alone to speak in mind and heart and soul – but not with lips.
The prayers we weave together….
This congregation is a constant for us all – a pillar in the foundation of our community and our lives. Yet sometimes, its health, wellbeing and continued progress are taken for granted.
Let me explain. I was having lunch with Ann, one of my closest friends a few weeks ago. We had been discussing some business ideas and exploring some unusual opportunities together. She is a practicing and proud Irish catholic – the fifth of seven children.
Ann noted that many churches are closing throughout the country and was wondering aloud what was going to happen to all that land, all of those buildings – thinking perhaps that there might be a business prospect there for us. She explained that from her viewpoint, the church, for many in her generation and contrary to her parents’ generation, was no longer the center of community life. There are fewer regular Sunday worshipers, and people do not turn to the church for their social life, political interaction, or even for social action and philanthropy as they used to. She and her friends don’t feel the same connection as did/do their parents, or as they did when they were kids. Interestingly, she observed, the church is not really doing much to try to pull them back in.
She assumed that synagogues are not having this problem at the same level as the Catholic Church. I hope that her assumption is correct and we must ensure that it is. We cannot rely upon happenstance.
TSTI is very much at the center of our communities- a gathering place at which we meld multiple towns and demographics, various interests and activities. Our congregation is still a center of education- at all levels – beginning in preschool, continuing through our school years and offering a full slate of life long learning. Our congregation is still challenging, warm, engaging and inviting – despite significant economic changes here, throughout the country and throughout the world over the past few years. We did not arrive at this point by happenstance.
We rely upon Temple as a constant, sometimes in the background, often in the foreground – always a part of the continuum. We reach out for the synagogue especially when we are in need. And this congregation, its clergy, senior staff and members are always- right where and how we expect to find them. This too, is not happenstance.
My challenge to you this year is to see, feel and support the synagogue I just described – – your congregation. To bring the synagogue into the foreground of your lives, not just when you need it, or when it fills a void or offers a service. My challenge to you is to continue to integrate Temple into your life consistently, regularly and at all different levels. Find the interest, spirituality, comfort, warmth, friendship and learning that exist here day in and day out. Finally, irrespective of whether or not you take my challenge, remember that there are always others who will and do; who are on the continuum with us, whether they be our own generation, or that of our parents or children. My challenge to you this year – and my request today – is to support our congregation’s place on the continuum, at whatever level you can. Please, respond to the High Holy Day appeal as though Temple’s very existence depends upon you – because it does. We cannot rely upon happenstance.