(October 3, 2014)
Address to Congregation Emanu-El Members and Friends
It’s been a very long time since I was standing up here, all by myself. In fact, it’s almost 20 years to the day. It was my bar-mitzvah. What a great day that was – for me at least. I was nervous though. I still am. I remember coming into Shul at 9 AM that day. That was the earliest I’d ever been to Shul. I was so excited. I went into to that little kitchen from the pre-Fisher Building era that such incredible food was created in and I robbed a quick snack. I remember taking a red napkin. I held it in my hand. I went back to my front row seat and as the service progressed, the room and seats behind and above me filled and I became more and more nervous. I held that napkin tight in my left hand as though it offered the comfort of a “blanky”. I was called up to the Torah! The butterflies erupted in my belly. I came up here, did my thing and once I had finished the blessing after the haftorah and was pelted with hard sweets, I noticed that my hand was still clenched. Now, as some of you may know – or may find out a little later, I suffer from CHS (also known as Clammy Hand Syndrome), especially when I’m a bit nervous. When I released my hand, that red napkin had nearly disintegrated and my clammy little hand had taken on a very deep red colour.
My first memory of this sanctuary and being a part of this family was sitting next to Willie Jacobs (may His memory be for a blessing). He always sat in the second or third pew from the front. As many of you will remember, Willy was a survivor of the Shoah, as was his wife, Helen Jacobs (may Her memory be for a blessing). Since I was just a small baby when I would have first met Willy, I can’t recall our very first interaction. However, on my first conscious and memorable interaction with him, Willy showed me the numbers tattooed on his arm. He told me what they meant so that a five year old could understand. I really loved Willy. All I could truly extract from our discussion about these numbers at age 5 was that someone tried to hurt him and something really, really bad happened to Willy. This angered me. Every Shabbat morning thereafter, before legging it outside to the yard where I’d meet my contemporaries for a weekly update, I would go to Willy as he sat in quiet prayer. I’d scooch up beside him and I’d say “Hi Willy – how is your arm today?” He would put his hand over his arm and reply “it’s just fine”.
How could it be “just fine”? Somebody had tried to hurt him. Bad things happened. Why wasn’t he angry? Why wasn’t he looking for the people that tried to, or in fact did, hurt him? How could he sit there, smile and pat my head after all of this.
As I matured (or didn’t), and as time went on and I was more aware of my surroundings and my spiritual self. I can recall routinely coming to Shul at the end of a school week. I never really liked school. I wasn’t good at it and it caused me great anxiety. I remember the feeling of coming to Shul. Seeing the people I saw each Saturday. Their smiles. Sometimes their finger over their mouth “Shhhh” but with a wink at the same time. I remember my little friends, some of which may have felt the same way as I did about their week of school. I remember this sense of comfort and unconditional adoration not just between me and those that I interacted with, but among everyone. This sense of release that occurred when I would walk through those doors. Those 150 year old doors. This was my first experience of community. Although I didn’t really know what community was in the literal sense; I sure knew what it felt like. As I look back, I now know why Willy wasn’t angry. I know why he wasn’t looking for the people that tried to or did hurt him. He was home. He was experiencing Shalom Bayit (peace at home) and he had a heart filled with love and peace. He was living community in our Shul and as part of our congregation where, no matter what, the community will be there for you when you need them. In exchange, you are there for those that need you. I know that in my life, I have never had such an intense sense of community and identity as I do and did through all of those years growing up under the Community Chupah of Congregation Emanu-El.
And what a fine chupah it is. A historical and regal building that truly is far bigger than it looks. It sits proud and is a symbol of shalom, equality and your Bubby’s cozy lap. As you are undoubtedly aware, the sanctuary recently underwent a significant restoration. On erev Rosh Hashanah, the 150th Restoration Committee Chair, Ed Fitch, arranged a presentation of the work that went into the restoration project. We were able to see photographs of the work’s progress and see artefacts that made up part of the original construction. The most memorable aspect of the presentation for me was hearing from the professionals that spent each day at the site, in our roof, in our Community Chupah. As they told us about their experience and the uniquely skilled work that they performed, these professionals, who previously had nothing to do with our Shul for all I know, had a sense of ownership and belonging. You could tell that they had fallen in love with this exceptional and beautiful space. As our architect, engineers, construction managers and foremen stood before us on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I could tell that they “got it”. They “felt it”. This was not just another job. This was something very, very special to them. I think that they adopted our sanctuary and we adopted them.
We have thanked and continue to be grateful to the donors who made the restoration possible. Tonight, for the very first time, I have the privilege of unveiling a most beautiful artistic tribute in recognition of those who, through their financial contribution, made the restoration project possible. I turn your attention to the North Wall of the sanctuary. The recognition juxtaposes the original donors of 1863 who enabled the building of our Shul with the donors who enabled its recent restoration and preservation. There are also many volunteers that gave significant amounts of time, creativity and skill in instigating, coordinating and executing the many fundraisers and events that took place in celebration of our Shul and Kehila’s 150th birthday. Thank you.
Not all families, individuals, couples living in Victoria and beyond have the means to give in the amount that they would hope to even though they desire to. You know, it’s not easy for everyone. I think we all know what it’s like to fall onto hard times. Such could be emotional, spiritual or financial. Sometimes…oftentimes, it all happens at once. In these moments, we are tested. We all understand what the word “struggle” means. When a member of our community is feeling a sense of struggle or catastrophe in their life – they should not feel alone. Behind each individual member of our Kehilah, there is an entire community of support to offer help and comfort in a time of need.
A few years ago, I experienced my own struggle. I fell upon challenging times when I lost a job I had worked very hard to get in 2008. It may not seem like a big deal now, but at the time it was catastrophic to me and I will never forget it. I had lost my ability to be independent after working very hard in university for many years. I felt ashamed and as though I had disappointed all of those around me who had supported me through those years of school and hard work. I went into a depression and became reclusive. A dear friend, a member of our Kehilah pointed me in the direction of our Shul which I had not connected with for several years. Immediately, the Shul gave me volunteer opportunities and leadership opportunities and provided me with a sense of connection. Nobody judged me because I didn’t have a job. On the other hand, they welcomed me and were grateful for my presence, as I was grateful for theirs. The Shul and my community made me feel a sense of value again. I was lifted and provided with unconditional friendship and support from my new friends, some of which were very, very familiar faces from the past.
When it came time to pay my membership dues I reverted back to the feelings I had unfortunately become accustomed to. I was embarrassed because as far as I was concerned I didn’t have the means to “be a member”. I had a call from a volunteer on the Membership Committee. This was a gentle reminder that it was time to pay my dues. I apologized and said that I couldn’t renew my membership. In my mind, I was returning to a place I had come out of with the help of my community and family. I knew I was heading toward a bad space. At that point, the woman on the other end of the phone told me about a program that had just been implemented by the Shul. “Adopt-a-Family”. She told me that this program was built for individuals – families – who couldn’t afford to pay their full membership dues. She explained that where a family or individual has a little bit more to give over and above their own membership dues; that little bit more will go to help a family or individual who doesn’t have as much. As a volunteer of the Shul, I knew that what little I could afford was not enough to ensure the sustainability and financial health of the Sanctuary and its programs. The Adopt-a-Family program gave me dignity and made me feel that, no matter what I could contribute, it was appreciated and of great value to the Shul. I also felt such a sense of love and support knowing that someone who had a bit more to give had “adopted me” and had given me the opportunity to continue learning, volunteering, socializing and having a place as a member of our Shul.
I know that there are Hebrew School families that give what they can. They struggle with paying full membership as well as their Hebrew School fees. It is so reassuring for these families and individuals to know that their fellow members are here to support them. We have to remember that the dues we collect go toward this sanctuary, the Fisher Building, keeping our refrigerator full so that we may break bread together and so that our kids – our future leaders - may have a snack while learning – it goes to heat, maintenance, cleaning, security, staff… The list goes on. Despite our skeletal budget and despite the steps we have taken to reduce our expenses, each year, the Shul operates with a built in deficit. Each year, the deficit equates to the subsidies that support those who are unable to pay full membership or Hebrew school fees. It is the Adopt-a-Family program that enables those of you who can give a little more to balance our budget all while supporting your fellow members.
I know that, in the past, there were individuals, families and single parents, my mother included, that gave to the construction of the Fisher Building even though they really couldn’t afford to do so. They gave what they could because they knew how important it was. They knew and know that the sustainability and growth of our Shul is of paramount importance so that the teaching of Jewish values and traditions may continue into the future. The same is true for the more recent capital project where people like the Sisters of St. Anne, who take a vow of poverty, came to us with some money that they saved especially for our building! It’s symbolic. The trusses that are now supporting our Community Chupah are analogous to the members who support this Shul, its programs and most of all, each other.
We all have something to give. Not just money. Ask yourself what you have to give? Is it your particular skill? Your passion? Your professional abilities? Is it your love of people? What can we all do to chip in? There are endless opportunities to volunteer with us, not just in aid of our Kehilah, not just in aid of Jews in Victoria and beyond but for many others in the community at large - be it with respect to culture, arts, education or social action such as the Out of the Rain Project led by Avodah where the Fisher Building is open to at risk and homeless youth so that they may have a safe place to sleep – in our Bubby’s Lap – under our Community Chupah.
I appeal to you all – if you have a bit more to give this year – a bit more to help a family with their membership – if you have time to give – call our office – call our dear Zelda or visit our website and make this giving a reality. I can assure you all that, if you are in a state similar to those that are struggling to make it work – you have a whole community behind you – here to help.
Finally, before I sign off, I must acknowledge one of the many giving souls in our community. This woman’s work, both behind the scenes and out front may oftentimes go unnoticed but is incredibly vital. RaeAnn Brechner. Our Rebettzin. As our Rabbi’s wife and the fearless matriarch of the Brechner crew, she performs an incredibly important role in our community. She is relied upon by many to be an emotional, spiritual and religious anchor – much like our Rabbi is. She is oftentimes the “Mikvah Lady”. She organizes the Kiddush on each Shabbat. She hosts meals at her home, she visits sick or lonely congregants, she supports families and individuals who are experiencing struggle and turmoil in their lives. She leads the incredibly important youth programs and organizes fundraisers and outings for our future leaders. This is all above and beyond the challenges involved with her busy career as an amazing social worker and mother to two young men. Perhaps her biggest challenge is keeping our dear Rabbi in check and organized! Her contribution is invaluable – Thank you RaeAnn.
I am looking forward to a wonderful year of growth, connection and sustainability. We welcome the new members who have recently joined – approximately 20 families over the course of the past month – this is unprecedented. I look forward to connecting with all of you.
We have so much to be thankful for and even more to look forward to.
L’Shana Tova and have an Easy Fast
G’mar Hatima Tova
Aharon Ittah (member since birth)