Sunday, May 16, 2010

Response and Remarks for Temple Beth Zion's 160th Anniversary and the First 10 Years of My Rabbinate Here

Tonight we celebrate our past, our future and our present.

Eight score years ago, our founders dreamt of forming a congregation that would represent who they were and how they wanted to worship. Twelve years later, they decided on a new path and invited Isaac Mayer Wise to send a rabbi to Buffalo who would lead a service in the “Reform tradition”. So 148 years ago, Temple Beth Zion left its original orthodox roots and became a congregation committed to adapting to its times and its community.

In Hebrew, 148 equates to the letters ק מ ח which spell the word “kemach”. Kemach literally means flour but our ancient rabbis understood that it is really much more. Kemach means sustenance, the sustenance we get from food, from our material goods and most of all, the sustenance we get from Torah. Our founders understood that for them, Temple Beth Zion would not only sustain their worship but also be the center of their social and communal life.

Our founders lived in a vastly different time than ours, a time when their goal was to acculturate into American life and be accepted by their neighbors as equals, even while being barred from the general community’s social institutions.

Throughout the years, the decades, the last century and a half, each generation of Temple Beth Zion faced its own challenges and met them with the same strength and insight of our founders. Led by wonderful, committed, 34 caring rabbis and cantors, 50 dedicated presidents and countless lay leaders, Temple Beth Zion changed and adapted to meet its time and community head on, finding positive ways to help its members negotiate being Jewish in Western New York.

In many ways, our challenge is the polar opposite of that of our founders. Fully acculturated into America, we strive to instill in ourselves and our young people what it means to be Jewish and be part of a Jewish community. We no longer live in Jewish neighborhoods. Our children often find themselves the only Jews in their class or even their grade and do not have the Jewish support network so many of us grew up knowing.

So 12 years ago, after much soul searching and planning, a decision was made to adapt our historic nursery school program, to confront our reality and reinforce the incredible base that our nursery school had created, and thus the Play and Learn School was born. Through the almost 11 years of its existence it has not only educated and brought our youngest children closer to Judaism and the Jewish community, it continues evolving to meet the changing needs of our children. Like every aspect of Temple Beth Zion before it, including our incredible nursery school, the professional and lay leadership of PALS understand that its work is not about the present, but rather ensuring the future.

A week ago, a great man died, Walter Hickel Sr. Anyone who knows me, knows there are few politicians that I like and even fewer that I respect. I liked and respected Governor Hickel. He was a man of principle. Forty years ago when he was Secretary of the Interior under President Nixon, he sent a letter to the President decrying the invasion and bombing of Cambodia and the killing of the students at Kent State. Nixon fired him and Wally Hickel returned to Alaska and in 1992 was reelected Governor. Why do I mention him this evening? Because when the congregation in Anchorage honored me for my 10 years of service there, Governor Hickel took time to be there with us. Tonight as we celebrate my 10 years here at Temple Beth Zion, he is here as well through these words of his that I try to live by and would like to share with you:

“If God didn't like big projects, he wouldn't have created the universe.

“When a man thinks he's too good to do another man's work, he neither understands work nor understands the man.

I am sick and tired of those who say life is cheap. Life is only cheap when it is not your own.

And most importantly: “Dream big dreams. Because if you dream little dreams, you can only achieve little things. But if you dream big dreams, you can achieve little things and big things.”

Our founders, and our leaders since, dreamt big dreams, achieved things little and big. Can we afford to do any less?

I know I have gone past my self allotted 5 minutes but...

Tonight we have mentioned and honored many people; our founders, our historic and current supporters, our rabbis, and our lay leadership. But there is one group of people who get little or no public kavod, public recognition. But they are represented on this Bema and in this service. My predecessors certainly gave and I do my best to give as much as possible of ourselves to this, our congregational family. Yet every evening meeting, weekend program, or class that we, our clergy partners, educators, executive directors and others who work here give to this family, is time donated to the congregation from our own families. Tonight, Rabbi Fink’s daughter, Toby Laping, Rabbi Goldberg’s wife Claire and my own wife Michele are up here representing all the family members who donated so much to you, our other family. On behalf of the Rabbis, Clergy and Professionals, thank you Toby, Claire, Michele and all those whom you represent for supporting the work we do. I would ask the rest of you to join me in honoring and thanking them as well.

Finally, thank-you to all of you who have honored me by letting me be a part of your life these past 10 years. We have shared joys and sorrow, great successes and some of the hardest of times. Each moment has been a gift you have given me.

To my team members, Ilana, Penny, Susan and Mark, Gary, David and Jackie, colleagues and the office and maintenance workers thank-you. Temple Beth Zion would be so much less without each and every one of you.

Thank-you to Reverend Tom Yorty who has been my partner and friend these 10 years just as our predecsssors at Westminster and TBZ were partners and friends. No celebration of our history could be complete without Westminster being here with us.

To Rabbi Elwell, when I showed you around HUC 30 years ago who could have imagined how our lives would intersect and that we would be together here tonight? Thank-you for representing TBZ so well through your life and work and for representing the Union and our colleagues and friends tonight. And thank-you for always being there for me when I have called upon you as a friend and colleague.

And Michele, you love me (although God knows why) you push me, challenge me and support me. Thank-you. Who could ask for anything more?

Tonight we celebrate the first 160 years of Temple Beth Zion, the first 10 years of PALS and my first 10 years at TBZ - and the best is yet to come!