A fund-raising speech in support of Congregation Shir Shalom, Woodstock, Vt.
Dear fellow congregants, which includes friends and soon-to-be friends. I want to start by saying that I am thrilled to have the honor of addressing you today on a subject that is very close to my heart. We have important work to do and it’s a true compliment that our president has recognized me as someone who understands the challenges we face. Today I hope to bring that same understanding to all of you so that we can leave here feeling that we learned something and that we are compelled to act on it.
My name is XXX XXXX. I’ve been coming to this synagogue for a number of years. Even though I only spend a few months here in person each year, my commitment to this synagogue is permanent and unconditional. And by permanent, I mean that even my burial plot is already secured!
The connection that I feel to this place and the people I’ve met here is a connection I value immensely. Last week, on Rosh Hashanah, we had a full house. We had local families and some who traveled from farther away. We had “regulars” and “newcomers”. We had children. We had seniors. We had gay couples, we had intermarriage couples, we had what’s called a community. A room full of people who all belong here. That sense of belonging, that sense of community is something we all need at one time or another, even if we don’t always realize it. I was fortunate that I was made to understand the value in community from a young age. My parents, while they weren’t necessarily religious, taught my sister and me what it means to belong, what it means to give, to practice good humanness, and to help those who need it, even in the smallest way. I can remember my father taking in strangers and giving them a roof and food, and helping them find work when they needed it. We grew up with a sense that as long as we have a community to belong to, we will always find what we need during the tough times, and no matter how little we feel we can give back, we must, because, and as my grandmother used to say, “there’s always someone worse off.” When my mother was a little girl, her parents were pretty poor. There was a pischa on the window sill, and my grandmother would throw loose change into it. Then every week on Friday the Rabbi would come along and pick up the money from the pischa, and give this money to the very needy, which apparently wasn’t us by my grandmother’s standards. And my mother would say to her, “Mom! We can barely buy groceries, why are we giving away money?” Then my grandmother would say, “ Because there’s always someone worse off.”
I mentioned challenges, and I’d like to elaborate on this: Our biggest challenge here at Shir Shalom, is assuring the survival of this wonderful place and all that it has become. What started as just an idea for bringing us together, now includes a farmhouse, a parsonage, a sanctuary, and a Rabbi, and it’s still growing. As you know, we proudly honor the wishes of our founders Annette and Stuart Matlins whose vision for a dues-free synagogue and tuition-free hebrew school has been realized through the generous spirit of those who give of their time, their talents, and their money. Since 1988, we’ve existed and grown solely on these gifts from the heart.
But really... what is a gift from the heart? How is that defined? The answer may be slightly different for each of us, but in the end, doesn’t giving from the heart come down to giving because we care? So then...what does it mean to care? What shape does caring take? And what happens when people cease to care?
Well, sadly, the answer to that question is prevalent throughout our greater Jewish community. Let’s look at the big picture for a moment. Active Jews are a dwindling population. Not to bore you with statistics, but, we know from a recent Pew research study that 62% of Jews in America view Judaism as only a cultural thing. And of those 62%, the majority are raising their children with no religious affiliation whatsoever. We also know that more and more Jews are marrying outside the Jewish faith. My own two sons are included in this demographic. Between them, I’m blessed with 6 beautiful grandchildren, none of whom are attending Hebrew schools or being raised in the Jewish religion. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with marrying outside of the faith. In fact, I’m very proud to say that this synagogue is quite unique in that we have welcomed and embraced many new non-jewish spouses, and we appreciate and value their contribution. But we also must recognize that this isn’t the norm. And we must recognize the consequences of a rising number of families raising non-jewish children, and how that is affecting the progression of our faith.
Those consequences mean that we are losing Jews in vast numbers every year. My family alone accounts for 6 non-Jews, and that number is still growing because I do expect many more grandchildren! (humor). Now, this reduction in numbers isn’t the result of any evil or destructive entity trying to wipe us out. That’s the frightening part. No one is doing this to us, but us. I’m certain that even Adolf Hitler himself never considered that his dream would eventually be realized, NOT through any effort of his or of others like him, but through the blind complacency of the very people who fought so hard to resist their own eradication. I’m sure he never thought that he could simply sit back and watch us do it to ourselves, dwindle in numbers that is, while effectively and collectively ceasing to care.
When I suggest that we’ve lost the ability to care about our faith, what I mean is that there is truly a failure to understand what it is to be Jewish, and it’s impossible to care about something you don’t understand.
I love Lisa Kudrow. Who doesn’t? I think she’s very funny and talented, but I wonder what she was feeling deep in her heart when she shared with Conan O’Brien that notorious anecdote about her son’s “drive-by” bar mitzvah. Apparently, he was bar mitzvah’d in a mall by a group of young Haredi Jews who, while I’m sure they meant well, clearly had no idea what a bar mitzvah is supposed to mean. I mean they even forgot to throw the big party and collect all the cheques! In all seriousness, my point is that our future generation is at risk of losing sight of what it means to be Jewish in this modern world. The fundamental values of being a good Jew and good human being are obliterated or washed over by a world beyond our control. But those fundamental values do exist here. They are alive and thriving at this very synagogue and inside the walls of the Hebrew classroom we house. I do fear, however, that we have a dwindling number of people who understand just how fragile our establishment is, and how quickly and easily it could all be wiped away if we forget to care. We mustn’t take for granted this establishment that embodies everything that our religion is founded upon.
One way we’re doing this is through Heneni. Heneni means We Are Here. That means that if, for example, you fall and break your leg and need help getting up and down your stairs, or you need someone to go to the market for you, we are here. If you’re elderly and you need a ride to synagogue, we are here. We also have programs in place, and in development, to serve the different interest and needs of everyone who comes here. Programs for children, programs for singles, a torah study which is even available via Skype for those who can’t be here in person. These are just a few examples, and there are others. And we encourage ideas and suggestions for more programs, more ways to serve the people of this community.
But listen, nothing we do here is without cost. Our school is not without costs. Our building is not without costs. All these resources intended to be accessible to you and your children and grandchildren, are not without cost. Our Rabbi and staff should not be expected to work for free. Our endowment fund, which will assure the long- term sustainability of Shir Shalom, cannot and must not remain stagnant. We have to continue to build that fund, as the expenses and costs will continue to rise.
When I look around the room today, I see some familiar faces, and some I’ve never seen. It’s an equal honor to welcome each of you, whether you come here every week or whether you are just passing through. We are very happy that you found us and we hope that you will fully benefit from everything that Shir Shalom works so hard to provide. The beautiful thing about this place is that the benefits are in no way measured by the contributions we make. Because no matter how little we think we’re giving, this synagogue will never limit what it gives back. But let’s be realistic: in order for Shir Shalom to do that, and to keep doing that, everyone must give something.
Those who can, must. And most already do. Those who feel they can’t, must think again, and say to themselves, I can give something.
Because remember, there’s always someone worse off than us. And for them, We Are Here. We are here in person, we are here in heart, soul, and spirit, and we are here in prayer.
Prayer brings us the messages that we mustn’t forget. I’ve chosen this one because of the power of its message. It’s the same prayer that our Rabbi offered to our choir in gratitude of their beautiful music. The greater message of this prayer, really, is the beautiful music we make, both literally and figuratively, when we work together. This prayer is not only for those who are worse off than us, but for the entire Jewish community, that we can find the path back to caring, and back to understanding fundamentally what my parents taught me... what it means to be Jewish.