I am Phyllis Blumberg and I am honored to serve as your President of this very special and sacred community.
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) Rabbi Shimon said, “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah , the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty, but the crown of a good name is greater than all of them.” A good name enhances all other crowns. We at Beth Am Israel are most fortunate to have a very good name; in fact, we have three very good names. Let’s explore our three names: Beth, Am and Israel.
Beth is a house or building, and beyond that in reality it is our sacred spiritual home.
I remember with great pride the Autumn day in 2003 when we marched our Torahs down the driveway and officially entered our inspiring new space. In the 16 years since that day, we have made this building truly our home, for so many life cycle events and other occasions. As in a true home, we have shared our simchas: our joy. We have been comforted here by caring congregants here. We have welcomed our friends, family and visitors from the broader community into our home. This Beth, our home, has hosted interfaith dialogues and prayer, as well as MLK days of service. In this home we have experimented with different ways of praying, of learning and of being with each other.
In this Beth, we will be hosting many more wonderful events this year including a new intergenerational and enjoyable sing-along in December with the music from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Followed in January by a totally fun Quizzo trivia game event, and later in the same month ,our annual Martin Luther King interfaith Shabbat prayer service followed by a huge day of volunteer service to others. In early March, we are thrilled that we will host chief Michael Solomonov, owner of the award winning Zahav restaurant. Stay tuned to our Luach and come!
Our house’s design is very intentional. Instead of classrooms separated from the sanctuary, we purposely integrated them into our Beth. This configuration enables our commitment to intergenerational connections, as well as symbolizes the tie between learning and prayer. In fact, the only way many of the children in our religious school can enter their classrooms is to go through the sanctuary. I enjoy watching them as they pass through, often waving to their parents, affirming the congregation’s relationship to them.
Take a minute and look around this sanctuary whether as a new member, a guest, or one who has been here for years. What makes it holy and beautiful for you?
For me it is the huge windows behind me that allow us to see outside, to watch the clouds, birds, and trees as the seasons change.
Those among us who grew up at Beth An Israel’s original building in South West Philadelphia may be especially attached to the ark doors, the upholstered wooden chairs on the bimah, and the Ner Tamid/ Eternal light, all of which come from that building.
One of the often repeated verses from Psalm 27 associated with this Holy season is, “ One thing I ask of Adonai– for this I yearn: to dwell in the House of Adonai all the days of my life, to see the beauty of Adonai.” We have a beautiful house of Adonai here. But after sixteen years of use our building is not brand new anymore. While we have had successful capital campaigns to pay for the construction of this building, and to significantly pay down our mortgage to $271,000, isn’t that amazing, we still need to maintain the beauty of this building and to keep it functioning well. This takes additional funding beyond what we currently have done and beyond what our dues can support. Your Kol Nidre pledge is a major part of maintaining our sacred and beautiful space.
And now our second good name, Am. Am means nation, people, and more intimately, a community. While we each have our own individual scared and beautiful space here, we come together to make up a community.
What is a nation?
A nation is a community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, history, ethnicity, or psychological make-up manifested in a common culture. Our common culture of being inclusive and welcoming distinguishes us from many others. Years ago a member told me that he picked this shul because he wore jeans to services on Shabbat and he felt comfortable doing that here. The clergy accept us wherever we are on our spiritual journey; and they try to assist us to move where we wish to go on that journey. Professional and lay leaders welcome us to become more engaged on this journey. This happens through a diversity of practices. For example, tomorrow we will begin with meditative space. Then three times during the day we will have both traditional davening and alternative prayer options. On most Haggim, such as the upcoming Sukkot holiday, and on Shabbat mornings, we offer more than one spiritual activity. These may include traditional prayer, meditation, prayer through movement, Torah study or chanting with instruments. I hope that when you sample these alternatives you will find what is meaningful to you and will return often. Your Kol Nidre pledge, tonight, will help us engage the entire community to build meaningful Jewish lives together through our diverse practices.
Spirituality, music, and education further define our unique culture. I am thrilled that we have successfully and officially launched Mercaz LaHev, our own Beth Am Israel Center for Jewish Spirituality. We have planned many more wonderful programs of music, learning, discussion, and movement.
Our musical services are participatory, very enjoyable, and stress- relieving. Where else can you participate in a musical prayer lab and feel you are making a contribution to how we pray?
Our educational culture is so vibrant. I am proud that the feedback we receive from parents is that their children are happy here in our religious school, are comfortable with their Judaism, and have made friends. Our educational director, Leo Fuhrman, tells me that we will have an even stronger educational program this year. Our adult educational programs, often showcasing the talents of our members, are enlightening and entertaining.
Nations and communities need infrastructure, and leadership. I extend my heartfelt thanks to the numerous members who contributed to the greater good of Beth Am Israel. Please stand and stay standing as I acknowledge the important roles you assume here. First, I want to recognize Andrea Kahn Kothmann, our immediate past president, who served so capably and graciously. Many thanks to the numerous members who serve on the executive committee, the board, our many committees, our task forces, those who worked on events or programs, helped to lead services, tutored children, supported people going through a difficult time, or in any other way made a volunteer effort. Please stand if you are one of these volunteers who contributed to making our Am a very special community.
Look at this huge number of people who gave of themselves. This is an essential and wonderful part of our culture. We are an engaged community who welcomes your participation by joining committees and making our many events happen. You will find, as I have, that you receive so much more than you give, even more than you will ever imagine.
I also want to acknowledge the professional leadership of our community, composed of our fabulous clergy: Rabbi David Ackerman and Hazzan Harold Messenger; our educational director, Leo Fuhman; our recently retired executive director, Grace Gerskoff; our new executive director, Lori Dafilou, and office staff members Jessica Glickman and Sarah Lefkowitz.
In the coming months we hope to pass revised bylaws. These revisions should promote greater inclusivity for eligibility for membership, allow more people to assume leadership positions, and streamline the congregant- led aspects of how we function. Please join us at our meeting to vote on the revised bylaws once the meeting is scheduled.
All these connections I have mentioned make the AM in Beth Am Israel a singular community, which we cannot do in isolation. We need each other and we are here for each other. With your support, we are planning many events to foster community togetherness, such as our new intergenerational Friday night pot-luck dinners. All are welcome. They are casual, inclusive, and fun.
Our membership dues and school tuition cover only about 2⁄3 of our annual operating needs. The remaining 1/3 of the required revenue comes from fundraising, and the single biggest chunk of that fundraising comes from each of you with this Kol Nidre appeal. My goal is to have 100% of our community participating this year. We began the appeal in August and I am happy to report that we are making progress toward our goal of 100% participation.
So, please take a moment now to consider the many programs and activities that give the Beth Am Israel community its good name. Please generously support this Kol Nidre Appeal. Board members will now be at the ends of the rows collecting your pledge. You may notice people without pledge cards. They have already given to this year’s Kol Nidre appeal. Thank you.
Previously I asked you to look around the sanctuary to take in its simple, yet elegant, beauty. Now I want you to look around and focus on the people here. These are our Am, our people. As your eyes scan this sanctuary, pause when you see a friend or someone who showed they care or who helped you. Smile at these people to connect with them before your eyes move on.
Our third name is Israel, which has two important meanings for us. As a congregation, we support the State of Israel and the Israeli people. We celebrate the state’s myriad achievements and its vibrant culture. The Israel Program Committee has sponsored important programs to foster our strong ties, including learning its literature, its music, and even how it solves water problems. This coming May, BAI is taking an art-focused trip to Israel which will be co-led by our own Rabbi David and our member Deborah Baer Moses.
The other meaning of Israel is one that distinguishes us from many other shuls. In the Torah, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel when he wrestled with God. Beth Am Israel is not afraid to wrestle with God and with ourselves by considering how to construct contemporary and progressive Jewish practices. Over the years, we have struggled with how to be more inclusive and welcoming toward all people. We wrestle by studying text, holding forums, and when ready, by making decisions. As a result of wrestling with how we make our Jewish rituals more meaningful, we have introduced musical instruments, movement and meditation, and other innovations into our services. We continue to wrestle with complex issues by seeking to reach a consensus that fits us. For the past year we have been considering the role our clergy can play in conducting interfaith wedding ceremonies. We respect the fact that there are a variety of views. We are considering all of them in our deliberations. We hope to have a decision that all of us can accept by the end of 2019.
Just like a reputation we must maintain our good name. We need everyone to help us accomplish this through actions and through contributions. Names are powerful. In ancient cultures it was believed that knowing the true name of something gave you control over it. We must make sure that Beth Am Israel lives up to all three parts of our good name, our crown, so that the congregation’s proud history of nearly a century continues into the future.
G’mar hatima tova. May each of us be inscribed, and sealed for good in the Book of Life, and an easy fast to all.