Many of you are probably wondering, who are YOU? Usually the President of the synagogue is someone who is chosen from congregants who are considered “regulars”. I am not. I am a third-generation retailer, so I have worked just about every Saturday from my teenage years through my adult life- until recently. When I tell my close friends that I am now President of my synagogue, I usually get the response- who ARE you? Some might call me a three-day a year Jew, which would be totally inaccurate. I am a Jew. 365 days a year- and 366 days every fourth year.
I was a young Jew on Oct. 6, 1965- when Sandy Koufax, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history- refused to pitch in the first game of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. He said he was taking orders from a “higher authority.” That was a proud day for all Jews, for all of the right reasons. He is still going strong at 83 years old.
I was a Jew in 1993, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was put on the Supreme Court as the first female, Jewish Jurist- G-d bless her. That was also a proud day for the Jews.
And I was a Jew on Oct. 27, last year, when there was the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. That was a very sad and troubling day for the Jews, and it continues to be. It also reminds us that it is not always easy being a Jew. But this is nothing new. It is as old as the Bible. But along with the struggles, and the persecution, and the outright genocide, we don’t just survive, we thrive. Is it in our DNA? Is it nature or nurture? Is it our belief system? Is it our mindset? Do we have some sort of formula for success? Or are we just stubborn?
Maybe. That works. I would prefer to call it- having resolve. At the end of the day, I don’t think it is one thing. I think it is many things. And at the center of those many things, I believe there sits a synagogue. Big and small, extravagant and simple. The synagogue. A place that people can go to pray, celebrate, to see friends, to give and get support, and to mourn. The synagogue. I believe in supporting the local synagogue. This is not a new concept. This is a very old concept, going back thousands of years. My grandparents came to this country so that they could support the synagogue- and it is because of that courage and commitment that I am able to stand here, free, in this great country, celebrating religious freedom. I have never forgotten their sacrifices, and this was one of the reasons why I agreed to join the board when I was asked. I am not used to being on boards, answering to boards, or answering to anyone but my customers for that matter.
In fact, I have never had a full-time job. After graduating college, I started a picture framing business on Clybourn Ave. in Chicago. 40 years later, my business has grown to include a furniture store and employs over 100 people. I am now thinking that the last 40 years has just been training for my new job- being the President of Congregation B’nai Tikvah. I am going to share our plan for the synagogue, and in honor of my parents and grandparents, and many generations before, do so using some very important Yiddish words to explain the plan. And I am not talking about your Americanized, amateur Yiddish words like- Kvetch, Shlep, Schmooze, and Tuchas. I’m talking Professional Strength Yiddish. I will translate for the Yiddish impaired. So, here is the Emes– the real story, the truth.
This synagogue was started in 1976 by twenty Jewish families. I joined in 1984. We moved into this building in 1993. There are a few things that make this synagogue unusual, special, haimish– warm, friendly, homey. An important part of this community. This synagogue was not built by a few big machers– big shots. No one wrote a check for 2 or 3 million dollars. Don’t get me wrong- we are still looking for that person! It was built by hundreds of families who made financial commitments over the years, and we most certainly have a few families who continue to give very generously in substantial amounts. But look around- this place does not look like a sports stadium or Nascar event- where everywhere you look there are billboards with acknowledgements or family names. Look at our beautiful stained-glass windows- they were donated- but you don’t see a gigantic sign next to them. There are plaques and donation boards that tastefully acknowledge the generosity of our congregants on the walls in the entryway, and throughout the shul. I look at them all of the time, and I am always appreciative of both the family that donated, and the vision that Rabbi Frankel had in not making the donation plaques the focal point of the shul.
Here is the good news. Due to the conscientious oversight by numerous boards going back many years, we are on very solid financial ground, and have a very small mortgage. But times are changing. All religions, including Conservative Judaism, are being challenged by shrinking membership and higher costs. We are not immune- our membership is down from years past, and this is due to many reasons- including social changes, as well as not meeting the expectations or needs of some families or individuals.
We, as a board, are working closely with the staff to review everything we do and see where we can do better. We also need to evolve. The world has changed. Parents have many more activities for their kids to juggle, college debt, and much higher health insurance costs that can put a strain on many people’s budgets. Parents also have different priorities, expectations and needs for, and of, a synagogue. I have talked to numerous congregants who have given me invaluable input into what we are doing right, and what we need to improve. I have also talked to several people who have left the synagogue. I am not naïve enough to think that we can meet the needs of everyone, but I am sure there is room for improvement. We are a Conservative synagogue, and some people really want us to operate like a Reform or Orthodox synagogue. There are many shades of grey here, and in some cases, it is black and white. I am inspired to work with board members who are very invested, passionate, and ready to do anything and everything they can to help improve and best serve and engage the community. We are working collaboratively to find solutions to be the best we can be. And to be clear, I mean EVERYONE is working together. Professional staff AND board. We recognize that a synagogue has a responsibility and duty to be available to everyone, not withstanding their financial means. But a synagogue also cannot just run on good intentions. There are bills to pay, and responsibilities to meet.
I have only been the President for a few months, and I am still getting the lay of the land. And yes, there have been a few moments that I have said to myself “WHAT did I get myself into?”
So, let me tell you. I have spent 35 years looking this way, at the back of people’s heads, and for the last couple of months I have been looking this way. It is a very different perspective.
First of all, when you stand on the Bimah, I am surprised to learn that you can really see when people are falling asleep. Maybe not all the way in the back, but farther than you would think. Just sayin! And I am still in training up here; there are a lot of rules. Rabbi Alex tells me to stand this way, turn over here, keep your head down- sometimes I feel like I am getting golf lessons- which have never worked out well for me. But over the last few months, I have had the honor and privilege to be up here for a Bar Mitzvah, a Bat Mitzvah, an Auf Ruf, and a baby naming. Here is what I have learned. When you look out on the families that are having their Mitzvah- you can feel the kvelling- proud, happy, joyous- a grandmother kvells from her grandchildren. It is like standing in front of a thermal heater. THAT is what I got myself into. And this synagogue has beautiful children, and beautiful babies, and beautiful people at all stages of life. Look around. Better yet, come around 12:00 on a typical Sunday when school gets out. That is a beautiful thing.
And then there are the High Holidays. Last week was a whole new experience. I didn’t do much. But I did sit up here for 4 ½ hours- per day. As they say- “I’m in for the win”. And I did get my win. I had a front row seat to see our glorious Shofar blowers. Does it get better than that? Actually, it did, at least for me. 75 years ago, during one of the darkest periods in our history, a young man struggled to survive the holocaust. 75 years later, I was able to stand next to his granddaughter, our very own Shelly Siegel, as she blew the Shofar on this Bimah. Watching her blow the Shofar was nothing less than triumphant, knowing what I know of her family history. It brought tears to my eyes.
And best yet, her grandfather is still with us. G-d bless. I know that some of you are also offspring from our people who have done more than just survive, they have conquered and multiplied. As a people, we have suffered unspeakable loses, but we won. This synagogue is living proof. This community is living proof. Which gets me to what is one of my biggest responsibilities; the “Appeal”. If you look it up in the dictionary, it means “make a serious or urgent request”. I’m not liking that name. In today’s business vernacular, I would call that bad branding. Don’t get me wrong. We do have a serious need to raise money to meet our expenses. And there is a certain urgency. But instead of looking at this as a plea for help, I would like to see it as a moment of reflection. And appreciation. And need. We have very deliberately kept our annual dues as low as we can. You might not be aware of it, but our dues are actually lower than most. Because of our low mortgage, we have cut our building fund to half of what it used to be in order to be more affordable to young families. We recognize that price matters. We are looking at all of the reasons why families join a synagogue, and reasons why they leave. We are proud of the fact that we are egalitarian and are welcoming to families who have different backgrounds and different orientations. We need to communicate this through our website, in social media, and everywhere else. In addition to improving our website, we are adding new programs and events that will appeal to different audiences.
We are also looking for new ways to work with Bar and Bat Mitzvah families to be more responsive to their needs.
And then there is our building, which is now 26 years old.
We just replaced seven 26 year-old air- conditioning and heating units on the roof. Now, even with a brand-new system, I have come to realize that probably 10% of you are too hot, and 10% are too cold. I continue to work on that. When I solve that problem, I will definitely be ready to go to the Middle East and get a peace accord. We have to be careful of how we spend money, but we also have to be careful to properly maintain this building, and to provide programs and services to our congregants. The fact is, we need more money than just our dues to keep things going. So, instead of an “appeal”, I would like to invite you to join the celebration. The celebration of us. This synagogue is not all about he, or she, or me. It is about WE. I would like us all to celebrate what is right about this world, and right about our community. Our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren. L’Dor Vador. That one is not Yiddush. It is Hebrew, and means from generation to generation. My parents and my inlaws, used to sit right out here with us for years, and now they are with us- right here, and up here on the memorial board. I am wearing my father’s talit. My three sons have all become Bar Mitzvot on this Bimah, and two have had Auf Rufs. My youngest son and fiancé are having one in November, and getting married in December. I have been blessed with two grandchildren and am about one week from a third. So yes, this is my synagogue, and I am committed to doing everything I can to keep it the loving and welcoming place that I have known it to be. Whether you are here every week, once in a while, or three days a year, B’nai Tikvah is here for you.
And maybe as important, it is here for everyone who needs it to be here. For this generation and next. I get great nachas– joy, pleasure- whenever I look around this place.
Our place. So, I ask you, to not only celebrate the rich and far reaching love and community of B’nai Tikvah, but also help fill in the gap between our dues and the cost to maintain this “love boat”. The other reality I want to mention is that inflation keeps marching along, and while we appreciate anything you can give, “Chi”, or 10 x “Chi” has not been indexed for inflation. Please consider moving over a tab or two on your donation card. And if you have already bent the tab and sealed the envelope, it is not only perfectly acceptable to rip it open and re-bend, you will be a superhero- to me at least. We really need to step it up. Thank you. Being charitable is also in our blood. It is definitely a Jewish thing. Of the 20 biggest philanthropists in the world, six are Jewish. That would be 30%. Pretty remarkable, considering that only about .2 % of the world is Jewish- only 2% in the U.S. When you lay your “Kepi” – your head- down tonight on your pillow, you can feel you did a good thing today. You might be hungry; it will help take your mind off of it. My wife Sherri and I want to wish you a Gmar Hatimah Tovah- which means “A good final sealing”. My name is Jay Goltz- and I belong here.