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Yom Kippur Address 2015

The High Holy Day season is not only a time for self reflection but also a time to thank all of the wonderful people who work tirelessly on behalf of this congregation.

Three years ago I had the honor of serving on our Senior Rabbi Search Committee and my friends, WE MADE THE RIGHT CHOICE.  Rabbi Bitran has the vision, the knowledge, and the energy to lead this synagogue into our second century. He is a real mensch  and I am proud to call him my Rabbi.   Let me also take this opportunity  to thank Hazzan Leubitz for all the work he does.  Those of you who attended Selichot services saw what can happen when our Hazzan harnesses the musical talents in our Congregation to create a new and innovative take on a traditional service. It was extraordinary.  A  sneak Preview,  as part of our Centennial Celebration we will be celebrating Hazzan Leubitz’s 20th Anniversary at TBE next March and I hope every member of this congregation will take part in the festivities,  so stay tuned for more information as it becomes available.  Let me also thank Rabbi Simeon Kolko, who enhances our services every week with his beautiful Torah leyning and generously offers to “pinch hit” as needed.

Samara Sofian, our Director of Youth and Education is doing an outstanding job in re-imagining our Religious School. Samara and  Randi Fox-Tabb who heads our Keshet  Nursery School, along with all of our teachers,  continue to put their heart and soul into educating our children. And of course  thank you to Michelle Caron, who makes it all work smoothly.

A special thank you to Michael Bernstein, our head chef, and his tireless kitchen crew.  I hope everyone appreciates that just  about everything that comes out of our kitchen each and every Shabbat and holiday is home made right  here at TBE:

So anyone who wants to learn how to bake Challah, cook brisket, or decorate a carrot cake should join us in this beautiful mitzvah of providing food for our congregation.

As always a heartfelt thank you to Joe Samluk and his team for keeping our building and grounds in good condition and just being there when we need them.

Let me take a moment to introduce the newest member of our team,  Jesse Atkins, who is our  new  Marketing and Volunteer Coordinator.  Jesse grew up here at TBE and it is great to have her back home, for us and her parents. Please  stop by the office and introduce yourself to Jesse and she will be happy to share all of the available Volunteer Opportunities and find the right spot for you.

What can I say about our Executive Director, Debbie Zeger and her entire staff. I have spent enough time with Debbie to know that she has an impossible job; to make all of us Happy.  And yet, she walks in every day trying to do just that.  She is the most compassionate, hard working, ethical person I have had the privilege to work with and all of us at TBE owe her a debt of gratitude.

I would like to give a special thank-you to our immediate Past President Todd Stein who continues to work tirelessly on behalf of this congregation.

Thank you To all the volunteers who make everything happen, to our generous donors, who provide the financial support that allows us to continue to thrive, and to our officers and board of trustees who spend their time wrestling with the difficult issues we face.

Thank you to my wife Lesley, who redefines what it means to be an Eshet Chayel, a woman of valor, on a daily basis.

And of course we should always remember that the name of this institution is Congregation Beth El and so thanks to all of you,  our members.

In years past at TBE, the President has given a “state of the shul” address on Rosh Hashanah and a respected   temple member has given a HH Appeal on Yom Kippur.  This year we thought we would try something a little different. In my letter to each of you I promised that if we came close to our fundraising goal for the HH Appeal before Yom Kippur, WE WOULD FORGO THE HH APPEAL and  you would only have to listen to one HH SPEECH, NOT TWO.  I did not promise, however, that the ONE  speech would not be twice as long.

As of Monday 140 members have made their pledges to the HH Appeal and I thank each and every one of you who actually read my letter and followed through. However, we are only 20 percent of the way towards our goal because our goal is not just a financial one, our goal is to have every member participate in our HH campaign. But my HH Appeal to you will be short.

We are on the cusp of entering our Centennial Year and we are moving into the future. We are on Facebook and Instagram, and our newly designed Web Site will be up and running shortly. There is a sense of excitement and energy at Temple Beth El that has not existed for many years.  One look at our newly designed Kol and High Holiday Booklet outlining some of the programs and educational opportunities planned for this coming year should give you the sense that this is a “New Temple Beth El”.  We need everyone’s support so we can continue the transformative work that we are doing.

So I am asking every one who has not made their HH Commitment to do so either by sending in the commitment card mailed to your home or online at  If for some reason you  have not received a card in the mail, please let the office know and we will be happy to provide one for you. We are trying a new approach this year so we will not be interrupting services by walking up and down the aisles.  If you have brought your card with you please drop it through the mail slot in the office on your way out.

Sitting up  front, on the Bimah, on Rosh HaShanah,  these past two years I have had the opportunity to see something wonderful unfold before my eyes.  I see people from every age group, from our few remaining Holocaust survivors to our newest of new borns sitting side by side, everyone getting re-acquainted. The truth be told, many of us are not here due to some deep love of ritual or liturgy, we are here to reconnect with one another.  In our increasingly depersonalized world, where we can do almost everything from the comfort of our home, the synagogue has become that last stronghold, that one uniquely intimate  place where we hug and kiss our friends and neighbors, where we watch each others children grow and reach new milestones, and we recognize with sadness those that are no longer with us.

When I venture to the back of the sanctuary, however, I see and hear a different story.  And most of those stories start with “I remember when……. I remember when the sanctuary was full…I remember when we needed seats up on the stage……I remember Rabbi Karp, I remember Cantor Rosenbaum.  And to each person who shares their nostalgic memories of some  perceived Golden Age I ask the same question.  ” So where are your children today! The stories I hear often bring tears to my eyes.  “My daughter married a non-Jew and even though she is bringing up Jewish children she did not feel comfortable here at TBE.  My son is gay and does not feel welcome here. The world has changed, my children just don’t feel the need to join a synagogue.  If they want to go to services on Yom Kippur, Chabad will welcome them with open arms, without a ticket.

Two weeks ago I stood on  this bimah under the Chuppah as my daughter was married.  Those of you who were here at her aufruf that Shabbat saw my daughter and my son-in-law and their friends and family read Torah, and we all danced  in the aisles as we celebrated a Jewish marriage.  Yet even though my daughter grew up in a Shabbat Observant home, even though she attended Camp Ramah and visited Israel twice, even though my wife and I did everything our Conservative movement told us that we should do to bring up a Jewish  child, I will be surprised if she joins  a traditional Conservative synagogue like the one she grew up in.

Yet I stand before you today, as we enter our centennial year, more optimistic about the future of our shul and our conservative movement than I have been at any time in my adult life.

And It is not just because you have to be a MESHUGANAH OPTIMIST to be President of a synagogue.

It is because our Conservative Movement, a movement founded on the premise of preserving our core traditions as we respond to the cultural changes taking place around us, a movement that has been asleep for a generation, HAS FINALLY WOKEN UP.  There is a new generation of Conservative Rabbis and activists committed to revitalizing the Conservative Movement. One of those Rabbis, Rabbi Brad Artson, the Dean of the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles,  will be our guest at our kickoff Centennial Event in just a few weeks.  His sermon that Shabbat is entitled : CREATING TOMORROW’S SYNAGOGUE TODAY  And I invite each and every one of you to join that conversation. Any  of you willing to travel to B’Nai Jeshrun or Romemu in NYC or any number of revitalized synagogues across America  can witness what happens when synagogues are willing to take a good hard look in the mirror and begin meeting the needs of the next generation.  My wife and I visited a synagogue, aptly called The New Shul, in Scottsdale Arizona, that was founded by our own Rabbi Kanter’s daughter, Rabbi Elana Kanter, and her husband,  Rabbi Michael Wasserman. This synagogue is a real time laboratory for some of the new ideas coming from the best thinkers in our Movement and the vibrancy and vitality is evident from the moment you walk thru the door.

In broad  strokes, let me enumerate some of the defining characteristics that these thriving Conservative Synagogues across the country have in common:

  1. Successful synagogues engage in high quality, serious explorations of Judaism.  The biggest mistake our movement has made in the last 50 years is assuming that the way to get Jews in the door is to offer'”Judaism lite”. If you want to taste serious text based Torah study come to our Shabbat study sessions with Melissa Nunes-Harwitt, come “Swim in the Sea of Talmud” at our Shabbat learning sessions with Rabbi Bitran.
  2. The way to attract our children back into our shuls is to offer them an alternative to the overly secular, overly consumerist, overly superficial aspects of American life.  The challenge is to create a form of serious, non-orthodox Judaism that is gender sensitive, LGBTQ  sensitive, and sensitive to interfaith couples.  We have spent the last 50 years asking the question “Who is a Jew”.  The time has come to INVITE  IN ANYONE  AND EVERYONE who wants to connect with Judaism but doesn’t yet know that they are welcome.
  3. Vital synagogues understand that meaningful Judaism needs to extend beyond the four walls of the synagogue into parks and coffee shops and most importantly into our homes  so check your booklets for information regarding our new “Guess Who Is Coming to Shabbat” program.  Over 20 families have already signed up to host TBE families for Shabbat dinner in their homes so please join the fun and sign up to be either a host or a guest.
  4. Successful  synagogues have a culture of creativity and imagination. :”Because we always did it that way “is no longer an acceptable answer.   We need to be willing to experiment, to take risks and yes, we sometimes need to fail if we want to create vital and vibrant communities.  We need to be “hard on the problems”and “soft on the people” trying to fix them.
  5. We need to REDEFINE what it means to be a member of a shul.  Our children will not join and support a synagogue out of a sense of communal OBLIGATION, they will join only if our synagogue helps to create meaning in their lives and connects them to a community in which they feel both needed by the community and intricately engaged in making it thrive.
  6. And finally,successful shuls understand that  authentic, imaginative religious practice must lead to moral action; to acts of compassion and justice.  Our synagogue is located in a city with some of the highest poverty rates in the country and we suffer from all of the concomitant social ills that accompany such severe poverty. Our Social Action Committee is tasked with turning our Jewish Values into Action and the list of our accomplishments is long and continues to grow: our Beth El Garden supplies fresh produce to the Brighton FoodCupboard. TBE Volunteers Staff the Asbury Dining Center that feeds the indigent, we are active participants in RAIHN, the Rochester Area Interfaith Homeless Network, and we support the Ronald McDonald House.

Yet, there is so much more that can be done and that should be done. We are limited only by our imagination and our desire to do God’s work. Yes, let’s think globally, but let”s act locally.

As we enter our Centennial Year I think it is worth remembering where the concept of a temple  originated:  it comes from the Book of Exodus when God gives Moses the following instruction:

Va-a-soo lee mikdash ve-sha-chan-tee bi-to-cham


That first sanctuary was a portable ark carried through the wilderness,  which then became the Holy  Temples in Jerusalem, and then the shtebels of Eastern Europe and then the  Touro Synagogue in Newport Rhode Island, and then the Grand Reform Synagogues of Germany, and then 100 years ago  our ancestors came together to build a synagogue on Park Ave, Temple Beth El, and here we are today in this beautiful sanctuary as we come together as a community to ask for forgiveness.  Always changing, always evolving,  always in constant need of reinterpretation

One of my teachers once defined Judaism as the ongoing task of building a world where God would want to dwell.

Our mission, that mission,   is the same as it was in the beginning and it is just as compelling today as it was back then. But the model for trying to accomplish that mission is going to look different in every generation. How could it not?

My friends, we understand the mission,  we have a time tested  product, we just need to get to work.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah

May each of you be written and sealed in the book of life