Editor’s Note: Sara Ann gave this talk at Kol Nidre Services 5779/2018.
Good evening. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Sara Ann Ericson and I’m two months into my tenure as being the president of this synagogue.
I was on the internet recently – looking for advice on how to write this speech. I saw this remark from one former synagogue president: “Three things make a successful High Holiday speech: a good beginning, a good ending, and having the two be as close together as possible.” Ok, I have kept that advice in mind, but I do have some thoughts, observations and information that I want to share with you this evening.
My husband Howie and I joined Shomrei about 19 years ago. At the time my older son Danny was 5 – and ready to enter Hebrew school. His younger brother, Jake, was 3 and two years away from starting at the JLC himself. Shomrei is the place where both my sons became a bar mitzvah. This is the congregation that my mother joined very late in life when she moved to New Jersey from Massachusetts. She was a member here for three years before she died, and this is the community that remembered her and supported me after her passing. And surrounding these major life events my husband and I have enjoyed years of services, social occasions and friendships.
I tell you this not because I think you are interested in hearing a biography about me or my history with this community. It’s because I want to share with you a personal observation. Since July 1st when I took on this presidency, I feel like a veil has been lifted up from over my face. I feel like I am seeing everything here for the first time. And for someone who has been a member of Shomrei for 19 years I am finding, frankly, this new ability to see rather stunning.
I see a place where so many of our members feel a powerful connection to our community. I see a place where individuals feel a strong commitment to one another. And I see a place where people so often see a need, step up and fill it. A synagogue like ours – one of modest size – wouldn’t be able to do what we do without this very personal investment and sense of personal responsibility.
Because of this, we can provide a ton of programming — different types of services, social action initiatives, special events — with options for people of all ages and different interests.
Because of this we have a very dedicated Board of Trustees. Some, I know, feel like their Shomrei work sometimes feels like a full time job! But members of the Board feel a deep responsibility to ensure that our synagogue is healthy. Know that you are in good hands.
Because of this, we have a newly created and exciting parent-teacher organization in our preschool. Parents stepped up, said they wanted to foster greater collaboration with teachers and staff, and to facilitate greater family involvement. They just did it.
Because of this, I find when I ask someone to take on something the answer is “yes” more likely than “no”. And I’m finding congregants approach me, proactively, to point out something that needs to be replaced or to suggest a new thing that we would benefit from having – with an offer to fund it.
And because of this, Shomrei is engaged in helping not just one another but the broader community. We had 70 congregants volunteer this year during the two weeks that Shomrei housed the homeless as part of our work with IHN – the Interfaith Hospitality Network. About 30 of us served meals as part of MESH – the Montclair Emergency Shelter for the Homeless. Last year, several members, on their own, formed the Shomrei Refugee Assistance Group that is helping out six families who have settled in the area. They saw a need; they filled it.
These are just some examples. Now, is there room for more of us to become more engaged? Of course. Do I sometimes hear that it is hard to staff a new committee or that we are too dependent on the same volunteers for multiple things? For sure. That’s likely true most places. I am both moved by the depth and breadth of our community’s engagement and, at the same time, I see a real opportunity for more of us to be more involved. For more of us to identify needs, to step up and to fill them.
At Shomrei, we are blessed to have an amazing leader in Rabbi Greenstein. And a great staff – led by an outstanding education director, two dynamic assistant education directors and a synagogue administrator who keeps the place humming.
Speaking of the rabbi, I would like to share some exciting news. News that a number of you will have heard but others not. Rabbi Greenstein has received the Daniel Jeremy Silver Fellowship at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University. This fellowship is awarded to an active congregational rabbi who has demonstrated exceptional intellectual and academic ability, originality, and energy in the pursuit of Jewish scholarship. This fellowship runs from January through May of next year and during this time Rabbi Greenstein will be on sabbatical from Shomrei and will take up residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We are very proud that our rabbi is receiving this prestigious fellowship.
Sabbaticals are increasingly the norm for clergy across dominations and faiths when someone has worked with a congregation for an extended period of time. This sabbatical will enable Rabbi Greenstein to disengage from us for a while and shift gears, study, write, and reflect and return to us renewed.
While we will miss Rabbi Greenstein’s presence in our everyday life here at Shomrei, we will take the opportunity that his sabbatical provides to explore new things. Last spring the Board of Trustees established the Rabbi Sabbatical Committee and this committee has been hard at work since that time lining up musical scholars, academic scholars, and guest rabbis. The Shomrei calendar, over the winter and spring months, will be filled with exciting, interesting and meaningful experiences for kids and adults alike. Outside guests will be joined by members of our own community – including assistant education director and rabbinic intern Lily Lucey — to provide varied experiences most Shabbats. Let me give you a brief taste on what to expect.
On Shabbat Morning, January 12th, Rutgers Professor Azzan Yadin-Israel will return to Shomrei for a guest d’var on “The Theologies of Bruce Springsteen” and will stay with us for Q&A during a special lunch & learn kiddush. Yadin-Israel has spent two years studying the lyrics of Springsteen songs, unearthing Old Testament themes and reinterpretations of biblical passages.
On the weekend of January 25th we will welcome Professor Gary Rendsburg as a scholar-in-residence. Professor Rendsburg, teaches at Rutgers, was previously a professor at Cornell, and is a renowned biblical scholar. He will speak about one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century (a topic on which he is an expert) — The Dead Sea Scrolls – so that we can expand our understanding of the Scrolls and how they link us to ancient Judaism.
And we are very excited that on the first weekend in March we will have Joey Weisenberg as our musical scholar-in-residence. Weisenberg is the Creative Director of Mechon Hadar’s Rising Song Institute, which seeks to empower Jewish community-building through music. Joey works with communities around the world to unlock their musical and spiritual potential, and to make music a lasting and joy-filled force in Jewish life.
These are just a sampling. A complete schedule and more information about our guests and activities will be published later this year.
In addition, the Committee and the Board understand the need to provide pastoral care during the rabbi’s sabbatical – someone who will be available in times of personal or family crisis – and we are currently in discussion with area rabbis about filling this important role.
If you have any questions about Rabbi Greenstein’s sabbatical don’t hesitate to ask him or me. Or you can ask Geoff Sadow and Dan Winter our members who are chairing the Rabbi Sabbatical Committee. In addition, after the High Holidays, we will publish a Q & A piece in Shomrei Week and Kol Emunah that will contain more information. And when you next see the Rabbi, take a moment, and congratulate him on this honor. Rabbi, we are truly proud of you!
One of our goals at Shomrei is to focus on community building and to provide more opportunities for Shomrei families and individuals of all ages to be more closely connected. To help us with that I am really excited that Lily Lucey, who is one of our assistant education directors, has taken on an expanded role at Shomrei as a rabbinic intern. In this role, Lily is creating high-energy, engaging Jewish programming for all ages.
This programming includes, among other things, “Hiking the Holidays” – a series of community hikes that will take place during Chanukah, Purim, Passover and Shavuot. It also includes special services such as a Disney-themed Kabbalat Shabbat in October. In addition to programming, Lily will be coordinating social action programs and activities for the very young (with their parents) to older kids to teens and to adults. More to come in the coming months. I am really happy to have Lily on board in this expanded way.
During Rosh Hashanah services I held up this flyer, titled “Fall at Shomrei”, copies of which are on the table outside this hall, and asked every family to take a copy home with them. If you already did so, great. If you haven’t yet, I recommend you pick up a copy on your way out tonight. It lists not just our “regularly scheduled” programming between now and the end of the year, it describes all our special events – with indicators suggesting the fit of each event for kids of different ages. There are too many events to describe individually, so please check them out.
I said at the beginning of my remarks that I feel like I have a new-found ability to truly see this community. To be clear, I was aware of many of our individual programs, individual committees, and individual initiatives. And I was aware that fellow members of my community, along with our staff, make each one of these happen. And I have been involved with Shomrei myself over the years — chairing our education board, serving as a trustee, running the occasional event. But what I now see so clearly, which I did not fully understand before, is the extraordinary commitment of so many people. And, most importantly for me, how all these individual pieces come together to form a rich tapestry of community life. That is what I think makes Shomrei such a special place.
Four years ago Shomrei moved away from having traditional membership dues to a voluntary dues model – which we call Sustaining Share. For guests in the audience, that means that instead of having a one-size-fits-all dues structure, along with an annual Kol Nidre fundraising appeal, we ask each member household to decide its own financial commitment. Each year our members make a pledge, based on their own financial ability, to support each other and the community.
So how are we doing? In general, very well. Our finances are solid; we run a balanced budget – we only spend what we have. Our synagogue membership is growing, albeit modestly. But in the context of challenges facing many conservative synagogues we are happy that more families want to be a part of this vibrant community. Not only do we have more families, our members are giving more. During our most recent Sustaining Share campaign, 80% of families pledged more than they did the previous year.
So that all sounds good, right? Well, it is. But there are always challenges. One of ours is how we manage through a generational transition. As in any community we have some long time families entering new life stages. Whether it be empty nesters who decide to leave the area – thereby leaving our community altogether — or folks who retire from the workforce. We have been relying heavily on the financial support of these members. We still do and will still need to. But this generational transition creates what I see as a real opportunity. It is the opportunity for the next generation of Shomrei families to step up and engage more deeply with the Shomrei community both financially, for those who are able, and with time. This speech tonight is not a fundraising appeal or any direct ask for money – that is one of the great things about our Sustaining Share model. But I do ask that everyone think about increasing their engagement with this community moving forward.
Think about the Shomrei you want to see and the Shomrei that you want to be a part of it. Whether it be reflected in your pledge amount next spring, a sponsorship of something in the interim (we always have needs!) or an event you’d like to plan or a committee you’d like to join. We are looking not just to sustain our present but also to build our future.
So, as I said, I feel like a veil has been lifted from my face and I have this new ability to see. Now, I know that many of you in this room have had 20/20 vision for years when it comes to recognizing what is special about Shomrei. That’s great. But to everyone else, here’s the good news: You don’t need to become synagogue president to be able to see what I now see. Whether you are a long time member of this community, or a recent one, I encourage you to open your eyes, look around with a fresh perspective, and see what I see.
Shana Tovah and may you have a meaningful fast.
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