President’s Remarks – Kol Nidre – 5772
I am highly honored to be on the Bima addressing all of you as President during these high holidays. As you know, I’ve made it a point at the close of Shabbat Services to recognize and thank volunteers who really make the Beth Am community such a special place, and I’d like to do the same thing now. I’d like to thank all of the Past Presidents, all past Board members and committee members, the current Board, all current Committee chairs and committee members, and all of the other volunteers who have no specific committee affiliation, but contribute so much to truly making us the unique community we are. I’d like to sincerely thank all of you for what you’ve contributed to Beth Am.
I’d also like to thank the highly supportive and understanding spouses who have enabled such important contributions to the synagogue, including my own bride of 40 years, Laura Wienick. Thank you all for your ongoing and enduring support.
Finally, I’d like to thank our very talented and hard working staff – Rabbi David Ackerman, Hazzan Harold Messinger, Education Director Robin Kahn, Executive Director Grace Gershkoff, Diana Wilson, John and Lydia Gray, Sara Beth Levine, and Will Stahley. Thank you all.
In differential calculus, an inflection point is a point on a curve at which the curvature changes sign. Andy Grove, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant to the U.S., and the former CEO of Intel Corporation, defined an inflection point as a set of conditions that dramatically changes the way we think and act.
Since I became President of Beth Am in July, I’ve been thinking a lot about inflection points in four key areas that I believe affect all of us as members of this congregation and as Jews. The first has to do with Beth Am itself, the second with Israel, the third with Jews in the United States, and the fourth having to do with some very individualized inflection points within our community.
When I started in this role, a wise and dedicated Past President provided some valuable advice, among which was to “watch the money”. So, I am doing so now through Beth Am’s Capital Campaign. For those of you who weren’t here when this beautiful synagogue was built, Beth Am had conducted what was acknowledged as a highly successful Capital Campaign, securing $5.2 million in net pledges. But the building, even with strict limitations, cost $6.1 million to complete, and we financed the difference. Since that time and until last year, we were paying principal only and have, over time, accumulated an additional $800,000 in unpaid interest.
The plan had always been to extinguish the debt through a second campaign. But despite a few attempts in the intervening years to pay it off, we never quite found the right time due to professional staff turnover, or the weak economy, or, frankly, the will to do it. There always seemed to be a valid reason why we couldn’t complete the job.
So today, we find ourselves with a debt of just over $1.7 million without the means to service it on a long term basis. We’ve actually been borrowing from our limited reserves to satisfy both interest and principal for the past 15 months, and we can only do this for another two years or so before exhausting these reserves.
We also have other long term needs – capital projects that include parking lot improvements, kitchen enhancements, and a capital repair budget to handle the inevitable roof, compressor equipment, and system repair and replacement that is a fact of life for any building. Our “new” building is now more than eight years old, and we’ve already had to deal with major repairs or replacements as a normal consequence of wear and tear, as well as some unwelcomed surprises. This past August, for example, we spent over $25,000 to replace two of our four compressors and the related air circulation systems which were beyond the warranty period. Less than two weeks ago, just before Rosh Hashanah, our sound system failed, and the rental system we’re using today will need to be replaced with a permanent installation that will likely cost thousands of dollars at a minimum.
Beyond paying off the debt, and dealing with the building and equipment issues, our Town Hall meetings conducted earlier in the year confirmed a strong community desire to create new long term programming initiatives. And last, but certainly not least, we need to address the long term retention and development of our professional staff.
To address these needs, we recently launched a crucially important Capital Campaign, chaired by Jeanne Devine and Ray Solomon, with the objective of raising $2.5 million, and it represents a major inflection point in the life of our congregation. As a community, need to be successful and put the synagogue on a sound and stable financial basis, or we will need to make highly undesirable, even draconian changes to our operations, our programming, and our professional staff, and very soon.
Thus, I am urging all of you – those who have given previously once, or multiple times; those of you who have given generously, or only given a token amount; those of you who have never given; and those of you who have joined Beth Am in the last few years, and have not yet been asked to give to this campaign, but will be called on to do so shortly. Frankly, we no longer have any buffers, and this is the opportunity to step up to a congregational inflection point that’s turning up and pointing to a bright future, rather than one that’s bleak and undesirable and turning down.
At the same time, all of you need to know that the synagogue depends on Kol Nidre pledges to balance its annual budget. And so, on top of my request that you give generously to the Capital Campaign when you are solicited in person (and I deeply thank those of you who have already made pledges in the last few months), I am also asking you, as we have done in the past, to make a generous Kol Nidre pledge as we depend on them to balance our operating budget each year, and this year we’re looking to raise $70,000 in order to do so. In that spirit, I’d like to share a quick story:
There was once a village in Eastern Europe that was famous for the quality of its vineyards and wines. One day, it was announced that an important dignitary who had heard about the village’s fine wines was going to come and sample the wines himself.
The village elders agreed that rather than have a few villagers submit their wines for tasting, to the exclusion of everyone else, and also to make it a more communal offering, they would have each family contribute a bottle of their own finest grape juice to add to the community barrel, which would then be a perfect blend. And after the juice fermented, they would open this huge barrel of wine for the visiting dignitary.
One villager, who was very proud of his vineyard, initially selected his best grapes. But then, he reconsidered. He thought to himself, “Why should I give them my best grapes? I’m not going to get any special recognition. Nobody will even notice my contribution. It will just be a drop in the bucket or in this case, the barrel. So when the time came for him to add his contribution, instead of fine grape juice, he poured in plain water. After all, one bottle of water isn’t really going to dilute the contents of the barrel that much.
When the dignitary finally arrived on that special day, amid all the fanfare, they uncorked the huge barrel, and, lo and behold, out flowed …. pure, unadulterated water. It seems that everyone had the same idea as that one villager, thinking that everyone else would provide their proper share, but in the end none did.
It was water, of course, because nobody was willing to contribute some of their own resources for the benefit of the community. They failed to take responsibility for their village.
At Beth Am we can’t afford to take the attitude that someone else will provide the necessary financial support. We pride ourselves on the fact that in the last campaign, instead of relying on a few big donors, more than 90% of families contributed. We all must take action with Kol Nidre and Capital Campaign contributions, and the task is ours collectively.
I know full well that this is a tough economy, and times are challenging financially for many of us.
But to illustrate that this isn’t a unique situation, I’d remind all of us of a classic scene in Fiddler on the Roof when Lazar Wolf, the butcher, gives Reb Nachum, the Beggar, only one Kopek. “One Kopek”, Nachum complains: “Last week you gave me two Kopeks.” Lazar Wolf shrugs and says, “I had a bad week”. Nachum famously replies, “If you had a bad week, why should I suffer?”
When I think about Beth Am, and why I’m a member and a volunteer, who happens to be President, some key feelings and images comes to mind:
The special welcome Laura and I received more than 14 years ago from Beth Am members, at a service followed by a dinner when we were moving from Chicago and synagogue shopping. We felt a genuine warmth and friendliness that really persuaded us to join.
My daughter Sara’s Bat Mitzvah service, a unique time for the Wienicks, being surrounded by our small family and many Beth Am friends, and it was special despite taking place in the old building.
The community support Laura and I received during the Shiva for Laura’s beloved mother, Annette Pockriss. I remember how packed our house was with members of the Beth Am community, and how thoughtful and helpful people were.
The break-the-fast gatherings we have had with Beth Am friends, both old and new, as we dissected the Rabbi’s sermon and the President’s remarks. I have no doubt the latter discussion will be even more vigorous this year.
The meaningful and relevant Saturday morning Torah study, learning from which I’ve been able to carry with me into other parts of my life, both personally and professionally.
And the genuine satisfaction I get from helping and supporting others within the Beth Am Community.
Please be generous with your contributions and be a part of making our synagogue succeed and flourish. Living a Jewish life by choice is the most fulfilling kind of Judaism.
Most of us here tonight have made a choice to be a part of Beth Am Israel. With membership comes a responsibility to support our house of worship, and that includes Kol Nidre donations now and the Capital Campaign in the near future. I’ll now ask all of you to pull out your Kol Nidre pledge cards from their envelopes, fold down the number tab that works for you and pass it to the aisles where Board Members and ushers will pick them up. Even a small pledge is better than none.
Turning to Israel, I believe that country, and our personal relationship to it, is also at a critical inflection point. For years, despite its many challenges and problems, we’ve all known what a miracle in the desert it has been, a unique refuge for Jews, a democracy,
an astounding source of technology innovation and entrepreneurship in the midst of hostility and hatred at worst, and indifference at best.
And many of us have deep attachments personally or through family. In my own case, some of my earliest memories were listening to my mother telling me of her experiences in the 1940’s, after World War II, when she worked for what was then called the Jewish Agency of Palestine, as a secretary to Chaim Weizmann and David Ben Gurion, among others, and was captivated by the dream of independent nationhood and urged to settle in Eretz Israel. Alas, my father didn’t share that dream and insisted they stay in the United States.
After all he was born on the Fourth of July and was, in his own way, a Yankee Doodle Dandy. Had my mother been a little more forceful or insistent, or my father less wedded to America, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, my life surely would have turned out quite differently.
But I believe that Israel is at an inflection point now. At this point in its history, more than 63 years after declaring independence, Israel has few friends in the world. Its enemies in the Middle East – large in number and population, wielding oil wealth and international influence as never before, and taking control of the story line that seems to resonate with much of the world, as seen in the recent Palestinian petition for statehood, submitted to the UN General Assembly.
So now, a small nation of 7.7 million people is under siege as never before. And what can and should we do about it?
Well, right here at Beth Am you can join our Israel Affairs Committee led by Maurice Schweitzer, or participate in activities the committee is offering, or visit Israel, or purchase its products and services where possible. Beyond that, you can proactively support Israel through emails and letters to our elected representatives and media outlets, through attendance at Israel support events, and through learning about what’s really going on in Israel and the Middle East, and how to verbalize that to Jews and non-Jews alike. If we as Jews don’t stand up for Israel, who will?
I also want to make another important point. I am not for a minute saying that Israel is a perfect society, or it’s democracy is unblemished, or that I agree with all of the government’s policies, or think they have been especially smart or proactive in telling their story to the world, or that serious mistakes haven’t been made over time.
But I am saying that we should individually and as a community fiercely resist and actively respond to both overt and subtle moves – in words and actions – to delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel. Because I believe that in many circles the criticism of Israel, or Zionism, are just other ways of attacking Jews in general.
This leads me to my related inflection point about Jews in our own country and the larger world. My generation – the Baby Boomers – has been a most fortunate one. We were born in the U.S. when it was the most powerful and democratic country in the world, its infamous, but now diluted racism aside. While Jews were not given the opportunity to enter the best universities and the professions in large numbers until the late 1950s and 1960s, our opportunities here were better than anywhere in the world, and we made the most of them. And while anti-semitism in the U.S. never disappeared entirely, and most of us have experienced it from time to time, sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly, like all citizens we have enjoyed the same civil rights and constitutional protections as others.
In many ways we’ve lived in this country at a very unique time in history, one of those rare times when Jews of the diaspora were treated as full and contributing members of society.
This differed from the 1920s and 1930s when anti semitism around the world was in full bloom, when the elites of western societies – Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and even the United Kingdom – openly expressed it, and when demagogues like Henry Ford and Father Coughlin in the United States were, for years, virtually unrestrained in spewing their vile propaganda, their anti semitic assaults – in newspapers like Ford’s Dearborn Independent, books like “The International Jew, The World’s Foremost Problem”,
magazines like “Social Justice Weekly” and unrestrained hate radio broadcasts that went on for years.
But today it again feels like we are at an inflection point – things are changing again, perhaps in small ways, but visible and obvious nevertheless – where Israel, Zionists, and Jews are grouped together and under direct attack by people like Stephen Walt at Harvard and John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago who distort history and politics to suit their anti-semitic agenda, where we see the outright and unrestrained expression of anti semitism, at the Irvine Campus of the University of California, permitted by its administration,
And we witness the abrupt and shameful shutdown earlier this year of the Yale University Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti Semitism.
And yet, many Jews have been strangely silent. We’ve been experiencing the modern illnesses of inertia, anxiety, ambivalence, and apology. But this is exactly the time to speak out, to make our voices heard, and to let people know that we won’t tolerate or stand for this persistent drip, drip, drip of subtle but deadly poison that is slowly being spread within our own society. We need to join others in standing up for our rights and status, and we need to teach our children to do so, despite the fact that today it’s fashionable to criticize things Jewish, cloaked in that subtle equation of Judaism equaling Zionism.
We need to resist, protest, and push back on hostility. We need to ensure that we as a people are free to invent, create, and yes, be successful in all professions and every venue, and not succumb to the envy and hostility of others, and, ultimately, and the hate of others. How should we do this? Well, we can start by being active in communicating with our elected officials, taking an active role in the political process, and speaking up to correct falsehoods and distortions of the truth, from whatever quarter they emerge. And doing this individually and in groups. As the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said:
There are historic situations in which refusal to defend the inheritance of a civilization, however imperfect, against tyranny and aggression may result in consequences even worse than war.
Let’s not refuse to defend our ancient and sacred inheritance.
Finally, and I am getting to the end of my talk, I want to turn to our own community. In the spirit of Yom Kippur, I want to turn a page, clean the slate, and start anew, by apologizing to and asking for forgiveness of three members of our synagogue who, in my opinion, were wronged earlier this year.
First, I want to apologize and express my deep regrets to Joel Greenberg for the personal criticism he encountered on the BAI Talk Listserv for exercising his right to support candidates of his choice and issues in which he believes. While no one else at Beth Am is compelled to agree with his politics or positions, and many certainly don’t, our synagogue is no place for personal criticism of people with differing views and opinions. So I publicly apologize to Joel.
Second, I want to apologize and express my deep regrets to Roy Eidelson and Dudy Tzafati for any role the leadership may have had in creating the conditions for the mischaracterization of their views on Israel. While a private warning was communicated to them under prior Listserv policy, for the tone of their postings only.
They were not, and I repeat, not warned for personally labeling Israel as an apartheid or Nazi state. So I publicly apologize to Roy and Dudy.
At Beth Am, members have different views on many issues and will continue to do so. It is consistent with our belief that pluralism is highly valued. It is my fervent hope that whatever our differences, we find a way to understand the views of others and treat them with respect and civility.
In that vein, I’d like to share a prayer for peace attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:
Lord of Peace, Divine Ruler, to whom peace belongs! Master of Peace, Creator of all things!
May it be thy will to put an end to war and bloodshed on earth, and to spread a great and wonderful peace over the whole world, so that nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
Help us and save us all, and let us cling tightly to the virtue of peace. Let there be a truly great peace between every person and their fellow, and between loved ones, and let there be no discord between people, even in their hearts.
Let us never shame any person on earth, great or small. May it be granted unto us to fulfill Thy Commandment to "Love thy neighbor as thyself," with all our hearts and souls and bodies and possessions.
And let it come to pass in our time as it is written, "And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down and none shall make you afraid. I will drive the wild beasts from the land, and neither shall the sword go through your land.
God who is peace, bless us with peace!!!
May this be a year of peace, prosperity, health, unity, and wisdom for all of you, and your families.
Gmar hatimah tovah.