KOL NIDREI SPEECH
September 27, 2009
Congregation Beth Am Israel, Penn Valley, PA
Ma-Tovu Oha-Lehah. How beautiful it is to look across this room and see us all together.
I would like to thank you for your confidence in choosing me as your President. I am honored and humbled by this responsibility, and take it very seriously.
The job of being President is made much easier and far more enjoyable by my partnership with our professional staff, Rabbi David Ackerman, Shaliach Tzibbur Harold Messinger, Director of Education Robin Kahn, and our Executive Director Grace Gershkoff with our staff, and teachers, and with our volunteers, the officers who serve on the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, Committee Chairs and dozens of other volunteers. All of them put in countless hours to make Beth Am Israel a warm and welcoming place that is our spiritual, educational and communal home. I extend my deepest gratitude to all of you.
The Kol Nidrei service is a holy moment and this is a solemn night. Many of you know that it is our custom, as it is the custom in many synagogues, to conduct an annual appeal on this night.
How do I do this, without the service feeling like a fundraiser? How do I not dilute the holiness of this moment by asking you tonight to give to Tzedaka?
It might be useful, and in our Beth Am tradition, first for me to explain how I came to stand before you this evening.
I was born and raised in Vineland, New Jersey, on a chicken farm. 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.
My parents taught me that I should take great pride in being Jewish, and they wanted to make sure that I was Jewishly knowledgeable.
What I learned, above all, from my parents was that as survivors of the Shoah they believed they had survived for a reason. They rose from the ashes with a solemn obligation to continue Jewish life, first in their immediate family, and beyond that, by rebuilding the Jewish community. To be a Jew meant you were connected to the community, supported it, and contributed to it.
My parents did not talk to their children about their actual Holocaust experiences. What my parents did talk about is that as a Jew I was a link in a five thousand year old chain, a continuous chain that has not been broken. To quote my father, quoting the prophet Samuel, “Netzach Yisrael Lo Ishaker, the Jewish chain will never cease.”
As a Jewish adult, I have carried with me my parents’ sense that they survived for a reason, and that their survival had a special meaning and obligation. It is of highest importance to me to carry on that commitment, to continue Jewish life and contribute to it. Some of you are aware that in March this year, I published my parents’ first person Holocaust memoir, a book entitled I Choose Life. This was written by Beth Am member and my friend Jerry Jennings, with my support and research contributions. In the course of preparing this book, I went on a number of remarkable journeys, emotional journeys that involved learning previously untold stories of the war from my parents, and physical journeys, including to Poland and Austria.
In Poland, I went back to my father’s hometown of Radom, and visited his childhood synagogue. In today’s Poland, the location is on a street called “Synagogue Street.” Last year, my father shared a memory about this synagogue. On a cold night, in October, 1939, 70 years ago, after his hometown had been occupied by the Nazis, he and his family risked going to synagogue on Kol Nidrei. When they walked out of services, the Germans forced my fourteen year old father, his father and his brothers, all dressed in their finest clothes, to scrub Synagogue Street on their hands and knees.
The synagogue itself does not exist today. 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 on the square, in the place where there used to be a synagogue.
This past May the journey took us to Austria. My father, uncle and grandfather were imprisoned there in a concentration camp called Mathausen, toward the end of the war. Just one week before liberation, my father and his father were tragically separated, and my father never knew what happened to his father. While researching my parents’ stories, I learned a startling and chilling fact. My grandfather died a few days after liberation, and was buried in an unmarked grave, in a municipal cemetery in Wels, Austria. This was unknown to us for 64 years. In May, my family and I traveled to Wels, placed a gravestone on my grandfather’s grave and held a memorial service with Chief Rabbi Chaim Eisenberg of Austria. My father could not be there for health reasons, but we videotaped it for him. Rabbi Eisenberg said at graveside, to my father, “Mr. Finkelstein, I can see, being here with your children and grandchildren, that the Jewish chain has not been broken.”
We went to Synagogue on a Friday night in the nearby town of Linz, a community formerly of three thousand Jews, now just fifty, to say Kaddish. The Synagogue was recently rebuilt on its original location. On one wall of the synagogue I saw a photograph showing the grand old building as it looked before the war. Opposite this, on another wall, I saw a photograph of the synagogue as it looked on November 10, 1938. This was Krystallnacht, and in this picture the synagogue was consumed in flames. It was a haunting experience for us to stand on that spot, after having just said Kaddish for my grandfather, and to think about the people and communities that were burned and destroyed.
When I returned to Philadelphia, I was asked to become the next President of Beth Am Israel. The memory and images of these two synagogues, and Rabbi Eisenberg’s words said at my grandfather’s graveside, were in my mind and heart. In memory of my grandfather, other lost family members, and all of the peoples and communities of Jews that were destroyed, and in honor of my parents, whose lives have been dedicated to restoring and strengthening Jewish life, I knew that I would carry on that commitment. I agreed to become President of Beth Am Israel. It was an awesome gift to me. It is a great blessing.
It is a great blessing because here tonight, we are together to express our Jewishness, and our desire to be part of something bigger. We are here to make this place better for ourselves and for future generations. We are here to keep the eternal Jewish chain alive and strong.
Things are going well at Beth Am Israel. We just completed two remarkably successful search processes for Rabbi and Education Director, and our Shaliach Tzibbur has joined us full time. Our membership is growing, and we warmly welcome our many new members. There is optimism, positive energy and an increase in commitment and involvement.
Beth Am Israel is a community of doers and not of spectators. Beth Am is a diverse community, a learning community, a spiritual and caring community and a place where we support each other.
Most of all, Beth Am Israel is our extended family. It is a place where we celebrate our life cycles together, where we gather for celebrations or when we grieve or suffer. It is a place where communally and collectively we express our sense of Jewish identity, Jewish traditions and Jewish values. We care for each other, pray together, teach our children together, learn with and from each other, and laugh and cry together. I believe, and I hope, every one of you can say, not only “I belong to Beth Am Israel,” but that “Beth Am Israel belongs to me.”
And now the financial ask which is a mandatory part of the President’s speech on Kol Nidrei. Membership dues and school tuition cover only a fraction of our expenses. Most of the rest is raised as a result of tonight’s Kol Nidrei appeal. The financial pledges that I am asking you to make tonight help us operate our building, pay our mortgage, hire and retain our professionals, run our programs, educate our children and allow us to worship, learn, celebrate, grieve, and perfect the world together. I am also asking you for a pledge for the purchase of a State of Israel Bond. 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.
My Jewish journey has taught me that I am not just a child of Sol and Goldie, Holocaust survivors, but that I, you, and all of us, are also the children of Abraham and Sarah. The five thousand year old Jewish chain is alive here, in each of us, and in our community. I would like to share my father’s reflections with you from I Choose Life, where he concluded his memoir with the following words:
“I am reminded again of the Hebrew expression “Netzach Yisrael Lo Ishaker”. The Jewish people will never cease. We are the proof of it. We rose from the ashes of war and depths of the concentration camps. It is unbelievable that it happened. We were determined to survive and not allow the enemy to eliminate Jewish life. We were reduced to nothing yet we overcame with our humanity intact. We made it, and we made it for our children. “Netzach Yisrael Lo Ishaker”, the Jewish people will never cease. Amen.”
Please take a moment to reflect how blessed you are to be here tonight, to have the opportunity to continue and to strengthen the eternal Jewish chain, and let your pledge reflect what all of this means to you.
Please select your level of giving and fold down the appropriate tab on your pledge card. Each and every donation is deeply appreciated and you are making a difference. 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. “Netzach Yisrael Lo Ishaker”. Amen