October 2010: President’s Award

When Joan Levine asked me take on the Presidency, she executed the approach masterfully. It was a lesson in the art of negotiation. It was a Shabbat morning, services had been peaceful and relaxing, my stomach was full from the Kiddush food, and warm from the Kiddush schnaps. My children were playing with all the other children, and I was enjoying some good conversation with some close friends. Then she struck. Like a shark circling a seal off the coast of Cape Cod, she cornered me, took an introductory bite to test the sweetness, and then went in for the kill. And I have to say, I was flattered to be asked. I consider it a great honor to be here before you.

As I look around this great room, I realize that many of you don’t know me, and I’d like to share a little about my religious life with you. Thirteen years ago, we moved to Hamden to be near the Temple. We had shopped Temples and neighborhoods, and ultimately choose Hamden because of Temple Beth Sholom. Of all the Temples we visited, this was the most welcoming and friendly. We found we could relate well to Rabbi Scolnic’s sermons and sought his advice and counsel on many typical young parent issues. At the time, we had a young child and did not regularly attend services due to his lack of sit-and-stay ability. We limited our attendance to early family services and events geared towards children. Over time, our family grew and our connection with the Temple grew. Stacey began to participate in services, and pretty soon I began to be known as “Stacey’s husband.” Eventually someone learned my name, and asked me to serve on the Board. I participated as a member of the renovations committee, spent four years as House Vice-President, and here I am before you today giving a speech. Stacey and I have four children, three of whom attend Ezra Academy, and our oldest who recently graduated from Ezra, is a member of the pioneer class of the Jewish High School of Connecticut in Bridgeport.

Somewhere during those early years, we spent a long weekend on a Jewish retreat at Camp Yavneh. Camp Yavneh is a pluralistic Jewish summer camp that welcomes and accommodates children of all levels of Jewish faith, and every year, at the end of the summer, they run a four-day family camp. Of all the activities and events that long weekend, the singular event that was the most meaningful for us was Shabbat. It was a full 24-plus hours with no cell phones, no electricity, and no distractions. It was a beautiful day of prayer, rest, and, of course, food. By the time Havdalah rolled around, we were so relaxed it was like we had just spent two weeks off instead of one day. And the nicest part of the experience was it was portable. We took Shabbat home with us, and since then, you will find us here nearly every Shabbat morning.

It was not an easy change at first. The children put up a little fuss about not watching TV or using the computer, and about getting dressed up and going to Temple, but after a few weeks they got over it. They know TV is off limits until we do Havdalah, and have learned to look forward to the winter months when we can do Havdalah a little early, so they can sneak in a movie on Saturday night. We certainly make some exceptions and are not completely strict. But Shabbat is family time, it is relaxing time, it is catch-up time. It is time for board games, walks, getting together with other Jewish families and friends, reading a book, taking a nap. It is a time for reflecting on all the wonderful gifts in our life and saying thanks.

Shabbat has become a highlight of my week. I eagerly anticipate Friday night dinner at home with the family. With my hectic travel and work schedule, it is sometimes the only meal we eat together during the week. I start every Shabbat dinner the same way. I shut off my cell phone and email. Shut off the TV and radio. And then we sit down, light the candles, and sing Shalom Aleichem.

Saturday morning services are a time for some quiet reflection and group prayer. When I close my eyes during the Shema, I feel the presence of centuries of Jews with us in the room. When I stand in front of the open ark, it is if I am in a crowded room, standing shoulder to shoulder with the spirits of millions of the observant. It is a magic, transcending peace that envelopes the spirit for a few hours, the effects of which linger throughout the following week. After services, we have some lunch, a little Kiddush in the kitchen, and generally enjoy each other’s company for a while. It’s a diverse group that stays for that hour or so after services end and the conversation has more influence on my life than those who are there with me realize. Because we are all of different ages, backgrounds, religious outlook, and life experience, it is an informal way to gather some perspective on life.

I am sharing this with you tonight because Shabbat observance is the core of a Temple’s life. Although we are all concerned with social events, fundraisers, and education, Shabbat is really the seminal event. And it happens every week. In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Sabbath, he discusses Judaism as a religion of time that aims to express the holiness of every moment. Compared to “things,” which can be duplicated, time is unique and no two moments can be exactly the same. The Sabbath, he continues, is like a great cathedral and Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, is like the Holy of Holies in the great Temple. As Jews, we all must strengthen our connections to the Temple, our through this commitment to Shabbat services, and our recognition of the holiness of time.

Over this past summer, I challenged many of the Temple’s committees and clubs to coordinate events with Shabbat services to facilitate an introduction to services for more of our members. The response was positive and you will be seeing some new and exciting Shabbat programming. Already, a new Kiddush Club has formed, and by a combination of coordinating volunteer cooks, generous donors, and special events, they have been providing outstanding Kiddushes each week. With the addition of more Hebrew school classes to Shabbat mornings, we look forward to seeing more Hebrew school parents attending as well. It is a perfect opportunity to have some meaningful downtime for yourself, set an example for your child, and be with some friends.

Temple Beth Sholom stands strong on over 60 years of heritage. Since 1946, Hamden area Jews have been proudly gathering together to celebrate Shabbat, educate our children, and simply be with other Jews. Today we have over 400 member families and our Temple is so busy that committees, classes, and social groups negotiate for space. Shabbat morning attendance is up from last year, the Hebrew school continues to adopt new and innovative programs, and our adult education program is unbeatable. We are a thriving institution. And yet, we have needs. Not only do we have more financial consideration requests, but the need is greater. In addition to the usual requests for partial assistance, many people need 100% assistance. How can we expect someone to pay their Temple dues ahead of providing food for their family? The Temple has a responsibility to these members, and is committed to accommodating all those who want to be members, but honestly cannot afford it. In this respect, we are a family before a business and do not turn people away. At the same time, our costs are not going down, and we can use all the assistance we can get. So, this year, when you fill out your High Holiday pledge, consider what you can give carefully. An extra $1800 will cover the membership for one family in need. An extra ten thousand will help us pay down our mortgage debt and reduce our annual expenses. Consider donating to any of our many designated and restricted funds. These funds are used throughout the year to help defray operating costs and assist members in accordance with each funds’ rules. Does everyone know that there is a Kiddush fund to assist with Shabbat Kiddush, or an Adult Education fund to support the excellent programming that Committee coordinates? How about the new Bar/Bat Mitzvah assistance fund? Your donation to that fund can help enhance the special event of someone with financial needs.

Support the temple by attending our fundraising events. Buy a ticket for the fall dance and beer tasting. Don’t like beer? Come anyway and enjoy the music. Don’t like beer or music? Buy a ticket for some else. Like beer and music but can’t afford a ticket? Call or email me or Ira Kleinfeld – we’ll work it out. Your attendance at the event is as important as your donation.

And now for the moment you have been waiting for, the President’s Award. This year’s recipient exemplifies all that I have been talking about tonight. This person is not only a member of our Shabbat core, but actually in the service. Every Shabbat morning, as we recall how the “redeemed sang a new song,” shirah hadasha, to G-d at the shore of the sea, I get, I get a little chuckle as she squirms in embarrassment. She has served as Temple President, Ritual vice-President, Membership co-vice president, and on countless committees including currently leading the college liaison committee with her husband. As a Bar and Bat Mitzvah tutor, she passes along her knowledge to the next generation. She leads Shabbat services and teaches others to lead, reads haftorahs, leads minyan every Friday morning, and is always a great source of advice on all matters Temple and life. In addition to all that she does for the Temple, she also participates as a regional representative to USCJ. Her warm and welcoming ways make everyone feel at home here, at Temple Beth Sholom. I think her husband Greg, and her three children, Sharon, Alana, and Karen, will all agree with me when I say that Temple Beth Sholom is truly her second home. I present this year’s award to Shira Rosenblatt.