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Kol Nidre AppealPosted by: Joseph Finkelstein on: 09/20/2010 Display from: 09/20/2010
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September 17, 2010
by Joseph Finkelstein
Congregation Beth Am Israel, Penn Valley, PA
Shana Tova, Welcome, Shalom,
As President of Beth Am Israel, it is my pleasure and privilege to welcome you to your shul, and greet you on this Kol Nidre evening. I would especially like to welcome our new members to the Beth Am Israel family, our visiting families and friends, and all of our other guests.
It is the custom at Beth Am Israel, as in most synagogues, to conduct an annual Kol Nidrei appeal on this night. You all know the words that are coming – my asking you to give Tzedaka to support Beth Am Israel.
Let me begin with a story.
A wife asks her husband, “Dear, if you could know the exact time, place and manner of your death, would you want to know?” He thinks for a minute, and answers, “No, I don’t think so.” She replies, “OK, never mind!”
We all know that we will die, but we act in our daily lives as if we will live forever. On Yom Kippur, the theme of the day is to reflect on the reality that we are mortal, that we may be gone tomorrow.
The traditional ways we prepare for and observe the holiday are a symbolic rehearsal for our passing. We detach ourselves from our body – no eating, washing, no work, our body is non-existent. One dresses in a white shroud, the kind of clothes you will be buried in, and we light yartzeit candles at home for the departed. As part of Kol Nidrei, the Ark is opened, but it is empty, like your casket – “Aron” is the Hebrew word for both “ark” and “casket.” All these symbols and traditions bring us to experience today as if it might be our last day. This is not a morbid exercise, to make us sad or fearful. The point is, by focusing and reflecting on our lives with a sense of urgency, we can seriously contemplate what we have, what we value, what we have left undone, and what we each can do to make our relationships and our lives fuller and more meaningful. Let us reflect on what this means for us collectively and communally, specifically to our community here at Beth Am Israel synagogue. What would it be like if our Beth Am Israel were gone? Would something significant be lost?
I believe that the answer is obvious, we would experience a loss and our lives would be diminished. You have choices and there are reasons you elected to be here on this most holy of nights. Joni Mitchell said it in her modern Midrash, the song “ Big Yellow Taxi,” in this way: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone. ...”
As many of you are aware, and as I have spoken about before, I am the child of two Jewish concentration camp survivors, originally from Poland, who came to America and rebuilt their lives after the Holocaust in a new world. In the past several years, in the course of preparing a book about my parent’s lives, I went on a number of remarkable journeys, emotional journeys, and physical journeys, including to Poland and Austria. These trips took me to places where once vibrant Jewish communities died, where synagogues no longer exist.
I went to my father’s hometown of Radom, Poland, and visited his childhood synagogue. The location is on a street today called “Synagogue Street.” My father told me a story about the synagogue. On a cold night, in October, 1939, 71 years ago, after his hometown had been occupied by the Nazis, my father and his family risked going to synagogue on Kol Nidrei. When they walked out of services, the Germans forced my father then fourteen years old, his father and his three brothers, all dressed in their finest clothes, to scrub Synagogue Street on their hands and knees.
The Radom synagogue does not exist today. It was burned by the Nazis. There is only a large open square with grey paving blocks, and a Soviet era monument placed at the rear of the site. When Sara and I visited, Polish children were playing soccer where the synagogue once stood.
We also visited my mother’s hometown, Sosnowiec, Poland. There, too, her family’s synagogue (and of course, all the Jews) are gone. The synagogue was burned to the ground after the Nazis occupied her hometown, forbade Jewish children from going to school, and prohibited any form of Jewish prayer or communal life. We also experienced services in a synagogue in the city of Linz, Austria, a community formerly of three thousand Jews, now just fifty, none of whom are survivors or the descendents of the pre-war Jewish community. This Synagogue was recently rebuilt on its original location. On one wall of the synagogue there is a photograph of a grand old building, the Linz synagogue as it looked before the war. Opposite this, on another wall, there is a photograph of that same synagogue as it looked on November 10, 1938. This was Krystallnacht, and in this picture the synagogue is burning, consumed in flames.
So, it is not merely a fable or academic exercise to contemplate the loss of Jewish lives and communities and the destruction and disappearance of synagogues. All of this happened only one generation ago.
Happily, we are fortunate to live in a different time and place. Beth Am Israel is not facing an existential anti-Semitic threat, and our shul is not in distress nor about to disappear. Here at Beth Am Israel, to the contrary, things are going very well. Our membership is growing, and there is a “buzz” about BAI. There is much positive energy and optimism here. Our Rabbi, Hazzan, Education Director and Executive Director, our teachers and staff, and our lay volunteers combine efforts to make Beth Am Israel a strong and vibrant community of doers, a community of learners, a place where we support each other, a prayer and spiritual community, and a caring community.
Tonight, on Kol Nidrei, it is an appropriate time for us to contemplate what we have as a community, what we value, what meaning it gives to our lives, and to reflect upon the nature and depth of our commitment and contribution to Beth Am Israel. This is where we celebrate and mourn together, where we communally and collectively express our Jewish identity, our Jewish tradition and our Jewish values. What can we each do to make our communal experience fuller, richer, and more meaningful, for each of us, and for our children and for future generations? Since this is the President’s Kol Nidrei Appeal, here is my appeal: please strengthen Beth Am Israel this year by pledging to enhance and deepen your participation in, and your contribution to our community’s life, whether that be through our prayer and religious life, the many opportunities for learning, growth, and community service, the performance of Mitzvot, or any of the many other activities and programs that make being part of this community a rich experience.
How will you do this? A good place to start is by reviewing our web page, and the twice weekly e-mail of activities and programs, called the “Luach,” which is sent to all members. You will discover dozens of ways to connect to the BAI community, a full range of religious and educational programs and services and volunteer opportunities for adults and children, from preschoolers to high school, for empty nesters, and family programs. There are opportunities for participating in and leading services, learning new Jewish skills, studying to become an adult B’nei Mitzvah, sustaining our minyan, engaging in social action and Tikkun Olam and Gemelut Hasadim activities, such visiting the sick and elderly, supporting those in mourning or others in need, preparing meals and Shiva baskets and Misloach Manot Purim baskets, providing rides, supporting blood drives, and making collections of books, clothing, supplies and food for the needy. Perhaps you will find a connection by volunteering in our kitchen, preparing and sponsoring Kiddush luncheons and community dinners, or by training to become a Mashgiach, supervising our kitchen’s use. Our strong commitment to environmental values and sustainability may attract you to join our groups which are working actively to make BAI a “green community.” If you like to sing, dance or perform, join in by singing in the choir, learning Israeli dance, or performing in our annual Caberet. Plan and execute adult, teen and child and family programs and social events. Teach or attend a class, organize a lecture or a trip or tour, go on our synagogue’s trip to Israel this December, trim bushes, plant shrubs, build the Sukkah, lend your expertise in finance, education, law, business, technology, real estate, insurance, and other specialties and skills, help in the office, become active in our many committees and task forces. Have an idea for some other program? You can create it, it is the Beth Am tradition. Beth Am Israel is a community of doers and not of spectators.
A rabbi once reflected on the age-old question: “Is the glass of water half full or half empty?” His answer was “It depends upon your relationship to the glass.” He explained, “It depends on whether you fill the glass with water or simply drink from it. If you participate in filling the glass, you are a contributor, you have a stake in the glass, and you will always feel like it is half full. You will always see its potential, and you will always strive to fill it up. On the other hand, if all you do is drink from it, you will always see it as half empty. Not only will the glass never seem filled, but YOU will never feel FULFILLED.” There will be times when each of us need to drink from the glass, and the rest of us at Beth Am Israel will be here with you and for you to support and care for you, to celebrate your simchas and to grieve your losses with you. But if that is all, if you are not also filling the cup, you will not be fulfilled. And if not now, when?
Our programs and activities are gratifying, interesting, wonderful, exciting, stimulating and life affirming. But it takes money to support and sustain a vibrant and energetic community such as BAI. Aren’t our dues enough, you may wonder? Unfortunately no – and so I will make the financial ask. Membership dues and school tuition cover only a fraction of our expenses. Most of the rest of our revenue is raised as a result of tonight’s Kol Nidrei appeal. Your support is meaningful, and necessary, not only to sustain the current operations of the synagogue, but for our continued growth and vitality into the future. I am also asking you for a pledge for the purchase of a State of Israel Bond. These forms were mailed to your homes. This is an investment in the security and well being of the State of Israel, with the proceeds used to build infrastructure, for such things as water projects, roads, and schools. Our brothers and sisters in Israel are also our family, and now more than ever they are counting on our support.
Please take a moment to reflect how blessed you are to be here tonight, how fortunate we are to enjoy what we have here in our BAI community, and what it would be like if it were gone, and let your pledge reflect what all of this means to you. Please give generously.
Each and every donation is deeply appreciated and you are making a difference. Please select your level of giving and fold down the appropriate tab on your pledge card. When you are through please pass your envelopes to the end of the aisle, where they will be collected by our ushers and Board of Directors. May this Jewish New Year bring all of us health, happiness, peace and an opportunity to make a difference.
May you live all the days of your life.
May you be sealed for a good year. G’mar Hatima Tova.