It’s hard to believe that it is already 5777 and time to deliver my second – and final – “President’s Message” to the Congregation. This year, I will try to be mindful of the recommendations for these presentations: you need a beginning, you need an ending, and you need as little as possible between the two. So, in thinking about what to say this year I came up with three options: 1) just give the same speech I gave last year (even I cannot remember what I said), 2) give Michelle Obamas’ 2012 Democratic Convention speech (seems like it got a good response again this year at the Republican Convention) or, 3) write something new.
I, of course, have opted for “something new” but, while waiting for inspiration to strike, I figured I’d see what other folks in my situation ended up doing. So, I have been actively procrastinating, reading and plagiarizing from the High Holiday speeches of dozens of temple presidents posted on the internet – and now, I feel rested (having dozed off while reading more than a handful of these). And, after reading some really bad ones, I feel like I have already been punished for sins I have yet to commit!
One recurring theme in these speeches centers on Temple leadership and volunteering. One president pointed out that there is a long Jewish tradition of not volunteering to be a leader, but of agreeing to serve if called. For example, Moses did not volunteer to lead the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and, when chosen (by God), made all sorts of excuses as to why he should not be the one to do so. We all know how that turned out.
But why do we seek reluctant leaders, those who only step up when asked? Maybe because many of us question whether or not we can take on the responsibility or have the skills needed to be an effective leader; but if someone else believes that we do, maybe we are willing to try? Of course, if God asks you, it is hard to say no (God being all-knowing and all). But if the Nominations Committee asks you, think twice before trying to convince them and yourself that you don’t have the time or skills to lead. If you are asked, somebody believes that you do!
When I was first asked to take on a leadership position at Temple Sinai, I was surprised and said “No, not now.” When I was asked again, I agreed to serve. Later, in my first year as Treasurer, I was asked by a friend and fellow Temple Sinai congregant “Why in the world would you agree to serve as Treasurer?”, which made me think: “They’re right – why did I agree to this?!” But then I thought about what I was learning and contributing and about the wonderfully talented and generous people I was meeting and working with, and I realized how fortunate I was to have agreed to do this. The next year, this very same person, by the way, also answered a similar call in the affirmative and stepped up to a leadership position on our Board. So, volunteer (we will not think any less of you!) or, if asked, please do agree to serve – you will not regret it!
Another theme of these speeches is to take stock of the highlights of the previous year at the synagogue. Gosh, where to start? Well, we had an amazing three-day celebration of Temple Sinai’s 50th Anniversary – we had special music, special worship, an evening of Jewish humor with Rabbi Bob Alper, and an afternoon of music, food and family fun. Most importantly, we had lots of people helping celebrate our Jubilee: current members, old friends who had moved away, and new friends from the community. A splendid time was had by all!
Also this year: with the help of Dahg, Temple Sinai’s house band, we rocked Shabbat; we sang together at our Folk Services on the first Friday of each month; and we got an early start on Shabbat with a monthly early service led by fellow congregants. We explored the absurdities of this year’s election with a home-grown hilarious Purim Spiel, we marched with Pride, we donated our blood, we donated and we delivered food, we learned about (and tasted!) chocolate, we explored Modern Israel, we gathered for a 2nd night Seder, and we ate BBQ (totally kosher!). We prayed and we learned, we laughed and we cried together.
Most exciting for me were the joint folk/youth services we had on the first Fridays in January through May this year. To see our religious school children leading and participating in these services – from the oldest about to start their Bat and Bar Mitzvah preparation to the little pitselehs who could not contain their excitement – and to see their parents and fellow congregants kvell was truly a magical and inspiring experience. Oh, and did I mention the food? Hosted by the parents and members of our committees, each youth/folk service was followed by a themed dinner. These were a big hit and will resume again in 2017, so mark your calendars now!
And there’s more: just look at the calendar on the Temple website and take note of the events that interest you – and if you have an idea for something that is not on the schedule, let’s talk and see if we can add it!
Ok, so at this point in most President speeches, there is a humorous interlude. Most of you who know me recognize that I do not appreciate humor, nor do I feel it appropriate to bring such levity into these oh so serious remarks during the holiest of our religious observances.
So, instead, let me tell you a story from my very first Board meeting as President. Rabbi happened to be away at a CCAR retreat that month and so I asked our Spiritual Committee Chair to present the D’var for the meeting. It did not go well, so I asked Rabbi upon his return what the tradition was for presenting the D’var during his absence. He asked why and I explained that when the Spiritual Committee Chair started giving the D’var, they were interrupted by Board members insisting that when the Rabbi was away, we skip the D’var, but then another faction on the Board insisted that the D’var continue and there was yelling and screaming that only stopped when I broke down in tears, sobbing. “Well, that,” said Rabbi, “is our tradition.”
Common to most speeches is also some kind of message – something to get folks to thinking and discussing something other than the bad jokes they’ve been subjected to.
This time of year, I begin thinking about cycles in nature and how they are represented in the Jewish faith, in our holidays and rituals. You know, cycles like the moon orbiting the Earth every month, the Earth circling around the sun each year. We experience and celebrate the passing of time by marking the seasons: winter, spring, mud, winter, mud, spring, mud, summer (ok, these are Vermont cycles!). And the holidays follow: from Rosh Hashanah, to Yom Kippur, to Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Chanukah, Purim, Pesach, Shavuot, Tish’a B’Av and then back to Rosh Hashanah. And every seven days, we rest - Shabbat.
We see cycles everywhere: in the school year, in agriculture, in our climate, in business and the economy, in music. There’s the carbon cycle, the Krebbs cycle, the water cycle, the Carnot cycle, even the seemingly never ending Election cycle. Sometimes we have to wait for a long time to even notice a cycle (most of us will only experience Halley’s Comet once in our lives – next up: 2061, mark your calendars!). And sometimes things cycle so quickly, we think of them as being steady-state. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Cycles are reassuring – it comforting to know that the sun will rise tomorrow to start a new daily cycle. But with each cycle, something changes. Sometimes the change is almost imperceptible; other times, the change is profound. Each year, the moon moves an additional 1.6 inches away from the Earth and the Earth’s rotation slows. But with each passing year, our (once) infant children, grow bigger and smarter by leaps and bounds until they tower over us and can no longer count on us to answer their increasingly complex questions.
So, even with each cycle, there is change. We do not end up back where we started. Each time we go through a cycle, we either progress or we regress a bit. Each year, while my kids get smarter and faster, I seem to slow down, feel more aches and pains, and take just a bit longer to remember where I parked my car (or worse: where I left my keys . . . oh, they are in my hands!).
Cycles, then, are less like circles and more like spirals – our starting position changes with each cycle.
As Jews, we recognized early on that progress with each cycle depended on our working to make things better. We have to work for peace. We have to study if we are to gain knowledge. We need to anticipate the changes that will happen if we leave things unattended, and then work to counteract those changes if we are to see progress.
But this work is not free – it takes time, energy, resources, and attention; and these are in limited supply. There is only so much we can spare. If we work for progress in one area, then we have fewer (or no) resources in another.
I am talking about sustainability – and from my Jewish perspective, I see that this has always been a part of our faith and tradition. In his talk last year at the Summit of Conscience for the Climate, Nigel Savage (who leads the Jewish sustainability organization Hazon), said:
“the Jewish people have been thinking about sustainable energy ever since God spoke to Moses out of a bush that was burning but never consumed. Moses might have been the first environmentalist: He recycled a staff into a snake, he got Egypt to turn off all its lights for three days, and he convinced an entire nation to go on a 40-year nature hike.”
Torah teaches us that God has given us control over the natural world, but also that we have the responsibility to care for it. So, we can’t just consume and take what was created, we must replenish what we have taken. But simply re-creating what we have consumed is not truly sustainable. Each day, the world’s population increases by nearly a quarter of a million people – for sustainable consumption, what we replenish needs to increase, not simply equal what we have consumed.
So how can we repair the world (Tikkun Olam) when faced with this reality? Judaism provides insights and guidance that can direct us towards the right path. When we do mitzvot, we are giving back, replenishing what was given to us and to others. Each of us needs to ask ourselves what we are able to do; and recognizing that we must do something is the first step.
But sustainability is not just a physical concept – this also applies to how we, as people, interact with each other. How we treat our family and friends as well as strangers and sworn enemies. Whether we act with love and compassion or hatred and cruelty. Jewish ideas about social justice, speaking up to protect and advocate for those who are most vulnerable, guide us here.
We cannot do this only as individuals – if we act as a community, we amplify our actions in ways that we can never do alone. If we act locally, we can contribute to and be a part of a global solution.
Our congregation, Temple Sinai, is one such community. And as much as I marveled at the wonderful and varied activities across our 50th Anniversary weekend last June, I also wondered whether our Temple Sinai community would be around to celebrate a 100th Anniversary. How sustainable are we? It takes a lot of work to keep our community healthy, to keep it moving forward. We have a small but dedicated staff, but we rely on our members to serve on and chair committees, to provide leadership on the Board, to volunteer their time.
And we are nearing the end of another cycle, the Rabbinic cycle. As you know, Rabbi Glazier, after more than 35 years as the spiritual leader of our Congregation, will be retiring in 2018. We have initiated a search process that must engage everyone at Temple Sinai and will require active involvement if we are to be successful. If you are interested in serving on one of the four search subcommittees or just want to help out with the search process, please indicate your interest using the online form on the Rabbinic Search tab (http://www.templesinaivt.org/rabbinic-search) on our website; take one of the paper forms on your way out today as a reminder (you can also fill out the paper form, but be sure to return it to Temple no later than October 15th).
While the search is important, exciting, and bittersweet, it is the start of this process that is most important. It is a process of self-discovery for us, where we as a Congregation explore who we are, where we are as reform Jews, and what we aspire to become. For this, we need to engage everyone in this discussion.
The Board began this process earlier this year when we reconsidered Temple Sinai’s Mission and Vision, statements that try to encapsulate who we are and who we aspire to be. But these are starting points, snapshots of our thinking today, and they are subject to change based on this process. So, whether you are able and interested in being part of the search process or not, we want to hear from everyone. Only then can we discover who we are and where we are headed, so that our vibrant progressive reform Jewish community will not only be sustained, but thrive and prosper with each cycle of new years.
I wish all of you and your families a sweet, healthy New Year, filled with joy and naches.