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High Holidays 5781

President Kathleen McFadden's Yom Kippur Address, 5781 (September, 2020)

We have had an amazing High Holiday experience this year.  None of us knew how we could ever pull of holding High Holiday services virtually, and through the creativity and sensitivity of both Rabbi Kideckel and Cantor Cohn and the dedication and hard work of our office staff, Merrill Mazzella and Ella Sacket, we have truly been blessed with a meaningful experience – one that none of us could have imagined a year ago.  This holiday has been a reminder to all of us of what a warm, engaging congregation we have.  From the many volunteers who handed out mahzors and cooked the break the fast meal along with Dona Casey to those that participated in the service, including the excellent Torah readers, we truly have a wonderful community – one that has been flexible and creative in dealing with COVID-19.   Yes, we have much to be grateful for.  However, I would not be doing my job as president if I did not remind you that a synagogue community, even one davening on Zoom, requires your financial support to operate.

This Kol Nidre, praying via Zoom and wearing a mask when I venture outside, I find myself addressing a question that I never thought I would be confronted with:  why is it important to participate in synagogue life and support the synagogue financially?  I’ll give you my thoughts.

When my husband and I were in our 20’s, like many couples in love, we talked about what was important to each of us.  What were our values?  If the relationship progressed to marriage and family, what did we think was important to teach our children?  I recall being surprised that Gabe felt such a strong desire to raise his children as Jews given that he wasn’t particularly religious and he rarely went to shul.  I had stopped identifying as a Christian shortly after beginning college, and I was baffled at why this intelligent man, with a math and science background, would want to teach his children bible stories.  When I expressed my surprise, and the apparent inconsistency with being a rational person, he said that his ancestors had been Jewish from the time of Abraham and that he felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to maintain the chain of light that had been passed down to him through the generations.  Gabe did not want to break that precious chain.  Over the next few years, I came to understand why he felt this way and I began to share his convictions.

Given the national trend of decreased membership in synagogues, we all have to ask ourselves:  have our Jewish ancestors and sages imparted something of value to us, and, if so, can that uniquely Jewish point of view exist outside of a synagogue?  Can we pass on Jewish values, not only to our children, but to the world, without synagogue life?  I strongly believe that the answer to this question is “no.”  Although in the aftermath of the events of 70 C.E. the rabbis figured out how to maintain Jewish life without a Temple and animal sacrifices, I don’t believe that we can do so without rabbis and synagogue communities.  Even well before COVID-19, Conservative and Reform synagogues were facing an existential threat – young adults in their 20’s and 30’s have been delaying marriage and children, and when they do create families, they are less inclined to join a synagogue than were past generations.  This change in demographics and behavior has hit the Reform and Conservative movements hard.  A quick google search shows that both the Conservative and the Reform movements had staff layoffs before COVID-19 struck, and since the pandemic, both movements have had even more layoffs and “restructuring.”  Federations, JCC’s, and Hillel’s all suffered steep reductions in staff levels in 2020 – and the Orthodox community has not been immune to these trends.    

Unlike prior generations, who did not view synagogue membership as optional, many in the Jewish community today have a more transactional view of synagogue membership – they view synagogue membership as a “fee-for-services rendered” relationship on a par with a gym or Costco membership and they ask themselves whether or not they are getting sufficient benefit out of their synagogue to justify the cost.  They want to opt in and out of synagogue life when they marry, celebrate a b’nai mitzvah or lose a family member, while leaving the “upkeep” of the community to others.  

 Rabbi Michael Knopf wrote an interesting article in Haaretz a few years ago entitled: “What’s driving Jews away from synagogues?”  He argues that perhaps it is the word “membership” that is a problem.  In contrast to organizations that sell memberships, synagogues are communities, not service providers and communities are not “transactional” – they are based on a sacred covenant among its members who are committed to supporting each other for the sake of the well-being of the entire community.  While a member of Costco is primarily interested in the benefits of membership, ideally, a synagogue membership should be about much more than benefit to the individual.    

Beth El does its best to accommodate both its members and nonmembers when they experience a loss or a simcha; however, synagogues can’t exist without sustained financial support.  I fear that synagogue life in general, and Beth El specifically, will disappear if everyone decides to pay dues only when it’s convenient.  What will we lose, as a nation, if Jews no longer feel it’s necessary to support synagogue life?

We are all proud of the fact that Jews represent 20% of the Nobel Prize winners despite being 0.3% of the world population. In the U.S., Jews represent about 2 percent of the population and yet until the recent passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, three out of nine supreme court justices, 9 senators and 27 representatives are Jewish.  Jews have gained prominence in the arts, medicine, academia, the world of commerce, the military and all aspects of civic life.  In the aggregate, Jews have embraced the American ideals of democracy, liberty, and duty to country, and have thrived as a result. 

On this Kol Nidre, I ask you to reflect upon why it is that Jews have had such an important influence in the U.S. while representing such a small percentage of the population?  Is there something unique about Jewish education and observance and how it informs the decisions and choices of everyday life?  And can that uniqueness be cultivated and perpetuated in the absence of synagogues?  I’m sure that each of you has a different opinion about this question.  I’m certainly not qualified to answer this question, but of course, I have an opinion that I’ll share with you.  For me, what was and is truly revolutionary about being Jewish is that God has not provided us with immutable answers to life’s most important questions, rather, we search for guidance and wisdom through study and debateJudaism is not a religion in which you can simply proclaim your faith and feel comfortable that you have done everything that is required of you – Judaism requires membership in a community, and all that entails, and some level of effort – study, tikkun olam (or repair of the world), and acts of loving kindness.  I have always been struck by the results of this tradition: individuals with creative minds, an insatiable curiosity, and a desire to seek truth and justice.  “Blind obedience” and “following orders” even when those orders are misguided are not characteristics that most of us value.  Although other cultures value knowledge and education, the Jewish approach of gaining knowledge through relentless study and questioning seems, to me at least, to be unique.

Many rabbis and scholars have taught us another important reason why Judaism is still relevant, as articulated by Mark Zuckerberg.  Prior to 2015, Zuckerberg did not speak publicly of his Jewish background; however, after the Paris attacks, he began openly expressing his ties to Judaism, stating: 

After the [ ] hate this week, I can only imagine the fear Muslims feel that they will be persecuted for the actions of others, . . . As a Jew, my parents taught me that we must stand up against attacks on all communities. Even if an attack isn’t against you today, in time attacks on freedom for anyone will hurt everyone.

Is this a uniquely Jewish perspective?  Perhaps not, but it is certainly a view held by many, if not most, in the Jewish community.  If there are no synagogues in the future, who will speak up when unspeakable injustices occur to Jews and to others who have been victimized?  Who will ensure that the United States continues to support Israel?  And what might the world lose in terms of the many positive influences that Jews have had on our collective morals and ethics?

In considering our future, it is important to remember Beth El’s past, and fortunately, our member, Dr. Stanley Solinsky, has posted a history of the Congregation on our website.  The idea for forming a Conservative synagogue in New London began in 1924 and by 1932 Congregation Beth El was officially established with 21 members, a rabbi and a donated Sefer Torah.  I’m sure that those original 21 members would call our current 185 membership units an overwhelming success!   Of course, many of us remember with great nostalgia the 80’s, when our shul had more than 400 families and a thriving Hebrew School and Solomon Schechter school.  We would love to re-create that past, and perhaps we will someday – COVID-19 may ultimately result in the migration of young Jewish families from crowded metropolitan areas to the open spaces of New London County.  That said, with 185 membership units, we currently have enough people to maintain a vibrant, active Jewish community.  But to do this, we do need your help, now more than ever.

When you hear the call of the shofar this year, I urge you to reflect upon what is unique about being Jewish.  What do you think that Beth El has contributed to our community and what have Jews contributed to the nation? Can these positive influences be maintained without synagogue life?  What would our community and nation look like if there is no longer organized Jewish life?  In contrast, what would Beth El look like if all of our members were engaged and involved in synagogue life?  Imagine the incredible community we could have if all 185 families made Beth El a priority and contributed their ideas and their energy? We saw a hint of what Beth El’s community could look like at Tashlich services last week when approximately 100 congregants came to Ocean Beach to socialize, daven and cast their sins in the ocean.  We also saw this community spirit when a group of Beth El women worked along with Dona Casey to prepare 150 “Break the Fast” meals for our congregation.

We begin the year 5781 with hope in our hearts that a Jewish Common Campus will become a reality.  Temple Emanu-El, the Federation, and Congregation Beth El have resumed meetings of the Common Campus Committee (after a brief hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic).  The Committee recently elected a Chair, Gail Weber, to lead the group, and we are in the process of retaining an architect. 

Beth El has a new rabbi, Rabbi Earl Kideckel, who is a wonderful combination of being both an experienced leader and a team player.  In the short time that he has been here, he has earned the admiration and respect of the Board of Directors and of the other rabbis and leaders in the Jewish community and the hearts of all of the congregants that he has met.  Just as importantly, he has demonstrated his commitment, ruach, and flexibility in dealing with the problems we face and he has done an incredible job in getting to know all of his congregants during the middle of a pandemic. 

In summary, we have a warm and engaging, thoughtful religious leader, who is open to your ideas for making Beth El the type of shul you would recommend to your friends.  Beth El is indeed at a crossroads (no pun intended).  Will Beth El survive this pandemic stronger than ever, with a renewed commitment to maintain a vibrant Jewish community?  Please call or email me if you would like to get more involved.  And if you want Beth El to be there for you when your family has a simcha or a life cycle event, please support Beth El -- we cannot continue to exist without your support.

Mon, October 26 2020 8 Cheshvan 5781