Rabbi's Annual Meeting Message - June 1, 2021
Good evening and congratulations again to those of you elected to represent our congregation on our Board of Trustees. We are so grateful for your vigilance to our community.
As we normally begin our Board Meetings with a word of Torah, it’s appropriate to begin this evening by looking to this week’s Torah portion - Parashat Beha’aolotcha. Most often we look to the narrative driven part of this story, in which Miriam is struck with a skin disease and is put into quarantine. Moses then prays to God “El Na refa nah lah” - “Please God heal her.” Certainly, this is a meaty portion. But, interestingly, people have referenced Beha’alotcha for another reasons this year. That is the ritual of Pesach Sheni, or a second Passover, which refers to the14 Iyar, exactly one month after 14 Nisan, the day before Passover, which was the day prescribed for bringing the Pesach offering in anticipation of that holiday.
In our portion we are taught that the Passover sacrifice (Korban Pesach) can only be eaten on a specific date and only by those who are ritually pure. The people raised a question - do they have to completely miss the opportunity to perform the mitzvah if they, but no fault of their own, became impure through coming in contact with a dead body.
'We are unclean by the dead body of a man; wherefore are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of God in its appointed season among the children of Israel?' (Numbers 9:7).
In our portion, God responds by declaring that anyone who is unable to bring the sacrifice – either due to ritual impurity or an inability to reach Jerusalem to make the offering during Passover – can instead make the sacrifice on the 14th of Iyar, a full month after Passover, and eat the paschal lamb with matzah and maror (bitter herbs). In essence, we are given an official “make up day” for the Passover offering to ensure its performance and to ensure all will have a chance to fulfill that duty.
This is the way our past year began. With the pandemic shutting down our traditional observance structures, our community began to look at alternative ways we might fulfill our religious life outside of the way things have normally been done. For some, there was a hope that even an extra month might bring families together to join for Passover - which is how this portion became so relevant. Little did we know how many other observances would need to be adapted. But for us, an extra month did not change much in terms of our ability to fully engage in our Jewish life. We began to consider pushing off life cycle events and other observances, hoping that things would quickly change. But we quickly realized we would need to find new high-quality ways to bring Jewish life to our community. Babies still needed names, young adults were ready to become bnai mitzvah, brides and grooms were anxious to move forward as a married couple, mourners yearned for the opportunity to be surrounded by loved ones. We could not continue to look for other Pesach Sheni opportunities. We could not continue to push off Jewish life until it was convenient again, nor could we put any of our members at risk by returning to normal. And so, like every generation of Jews who have come before us, we learned to adapt and create new ways to honor sacred Jewish time and ancient Jewish rituals.
Over the last year we have demonstrated that: “The doors of our building may be closed but our synagogue is always open.” Despite a year of disruption, we have managed to keep ourselves moving forward with even footing. Our success was not just in maintaining the essential elements of Jewish life, it was about forming new connections - within the congregation, the Jewish community, other congregations around the country, and even our connection to Israel.
We were able to maintain the sanctity of Jewish time, finding meaningful ways to observe Shabbat, the High Holidays, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, Hanukkah, Purim, Passover, and Shavuot. We introduced our Thoughts of Elul meditations, Drive Thru events, and an online Purim spiel. We continued to gather with our greater Jewish community to observe Selichot, Yom HaShoah, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut. We found ways to observe life cycle observances with virtual baby namings, b’nai mitzvah, confirmations, weddings, funerals, shivas, and even conversions.
We stayed committed to Jewish learning - teaching in the community-led Intro to Judaism course, engaging our children with a top-notch religious school program, meeting virtually with conversion students, offering adult education opportunities in partnership with Beth Abraham and Beth Or, and providing interesting education pieces through the Taste of the Jewish Cultural Festival. We held robust weekly Shabbat Torah studies, introduced a new Tea and Text series, and offered a session on how to run a virtual seder.
We also found creative ways make connections with other Jewish communities around the United States and Israel, participating in a multi-congregation meditative micography program with Rae Antonoff, a Yom Kippur Social Action Lecture with Eric Ward and members of Fairmount Temple in Cleveland, a Passover Holy Wanderers Retreat with Noah Aronson and other participating North American congregations. And we were even able to bring Israel close to home, offering meaningful Israel programming with our tour guide, Muki Jankelowitz, who also brought us along for a virtual Tour of Israel.
We also engaged locally, continuing our pulpit Exchange tradition with Omega Baptist, launching our Taste of the Jewish Cultural Festival, promoting health with our Oy Vey 5k and Chai Challenge. We participated with community partners with collection drives and gifts to first responders during the drive thrus and weekly meetings with our mayor, local clergy, and county health officials. We made casseroles for St. Vincent, helped ensure people could get appointments for vaccines, and held internal discussions of what it means for us to engage in the work of social justice, which resulted in the placement of a sign on our property vowing that we at Temple Israel will not be silent about racism.”
Social justice was a large part of this past year. We participated in the YWCA’s 21 day community conversations challenge, Nancy Cohen helped lead our involvement in the Religious Action Center’s Every Voice, Every Vote civic engagement effort, We have congregants currently involved in research for the next RAC OH campaign issue and others being trained in REDI work, Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion work, within our congregation.
Internally, we also looked at ways we could support one another, offering healing services, a session for parents to meet with mental health expert Dr. Betsy Stone, virtual pastoral sessions with the rabbis, QPR suicide prevention training, and a weekly Coffee with the Clergy drop-in time.
Communications have also been key. We created a beautiful new High Holiday microsite, developed a robust YouTube presence, reformatted our Tidbits and included a new weekly clergy blog, and formed new connections between congregants, thanks to the more than 2,000 calls made by our caring committee this past year.
Despite how exceptional this year has been, we have risen to the occasion. Even during the challenging times of a pandemic, antisemitism, racism, and political polarization, we have continued to fully operate in a way that highlights our values and acts to brings these qualities into the world. Our success as a congregation could be measured by the numbers. We have healthy finances, strong fundraising, a dedicated lay leadership, and an exemplary professional team. But this alone is not enough. Our success must also be defined by our strength of character, our commitment to Jewish values, and the power of our relationships.
This year we recognized that many of us are seeking greater intimacy in our relationships with each other and the synagogue. I believe each of needs to feel remembered and that we matter. I am excited that our new President, Linda Novak, has chosen to make this a priority during her presidency.
In the next year, things will, of course, continue to evolve. And you can be assured that we at Temple will continue to adapt and do so in ways that reenforce our commitment to enhancing Jewish life and learning, cultivating relationships, and engaging in Tikkun Olam, finding ways to piece together the brokenness of our world. And I am excited. I feel inspired by the devotion of our congregants who have reached out to each other this year with compassion. I am grateful to those who have supported this congregation in every way possible. Thank you to all who have kept the synagogue open, even when the doors were closed.
It has been and continues to be a privilege to serve this sacred community. Thank you.
This message was originally delivered on May 26, 2021 to the congregation.