12 May 2009

Rabbi's Annual Report

It's that time of year again and so I share my annual report to the Congregation.

Thoughts?

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Rabbi Andy Bachman

Annual Report to the Congregation

May 11, 2009

“If not now, when?”

I begin this report by thanking my devoted wife Rachel Altstein, who holds our family together so that I may serve Congregation Beth Elohim. “A woman of valor, who shall find? She is more precious than fine rubies.” Solomon’s proverb is a truth I know in the essence of my being, the expression of which I can never realize enough. To Rachel and our three daughters—Audrey, Lois, and Minna—thank you for allowing me to pursue my desire and need to serve the Jewish people and this holy congregation. What I lack as a husband and father you must continue to correct with exactitude and haste—please!

Since writing last year’s Annual Report, our teacher and neighbor, Union Temple’s Emeritus Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus died. Words and feelings of comfort continue to go out to his beloved Marianne Dreyfus, and their beloved son Dr. James Dreyfus, daughters-in-law Helen and Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus, and many grandchildren. Rabbi Dreyfus raised many disciples and I was blessed to be one of them. His soul is constant reminder in our work of the need for honesty and integrity, for humor and dignity, and for the ultimate focus of our endeavors, which is service to the Divine. It is to Rabbi Dreyfus’ memory that I dedicate these words this year.

I write this report at a time of great challenge for our nation and our community, with the knowledge and pride that our particular community, Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, New York, is experiencing unprecedented growth and development in its mission to share Torah, Worship and Deeds of Lovingkindness to its membership and the surrounding Brooklyn Jewish community.

This is our sacred privilege.

Just as Abraham and Sarah, our Biblical ancestors, were called upon to be a blessing; and just as their successors were challenged by God to be a “light unto the nations” and a holy people; so it is our lot, as inheritors of Torah, to carry on this call to serve others than ourselves in the sacred pursuit of bringing peace, justice and redemption to our world.

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when?” The sage Hillel spoke these words more than two thousand years ago and they ring true for us today as well.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Park Slope, Brooklyn, where Congregation Beth Elohim has resided for more than a century, is one of the most beautiful and sought after neighborhoods in all of New York City. It boasts beautiful homes, beautiful and interesting people, terrific restaurants and food stores, and some of the best public and private schools in the entire City. People move here in order to experience the individual satisfactions of their heart’s desire.

If I am only for myself, what am I? And yet our neighborhood also is outward looking. Here there are more activists, non-profit leaders, community builders, pushing for change throughout the private and pubic sector as an essential characteristic of their ideals not just as Jews but as Americans.

And if not now, when? Hillel fortuitously captured what can only be coined “classic Jewish impatience.” We all know it when we see it. Sometimes it’s vexing and difficult; at other times, we swell with pride in knowing that we are a people who likes to get things done. “Deed over creed.” Our own President talks about the “fierce urgency of now.” It’s the same idea. Whether we are reaching out to the sick or those in mourning; whether we suddenly realize that our child must be educated; whether we must feed the hungry or clothe the poor; whether the creative dimensions of our souls must be heard through music or art or the written word; or whether an idea burns within us—to start a business, to find a partner, to make a friend, we are people of action—uncompromising in our efforts to fulfill that calling.

On a daily basis, I tend to the mitzvah of teaching Torah in our community through the sacred work of serving Congregation Beth Elohim. It has been an honor and a privilege to greet toddlers on their way to the Early Childhood Center; to engage their parents in conversations about life and Jewish choices; to spend morning meetings teaching students for conversion, preparing couples for marriage; counseling the bereaved and troubled; and, hammering out a new idea of expanding our mission, both inside and outside the synagogue walls.

It has been an honor and a privilege to work with our talented and devoted Clergy and Staff as we work together to serve our community. It has been an honor and a privilege to tutor children in Hebrew and the ancient melodies of our tradition as they prepare to become Bar and Bat Mitzvah; to plan programs with a variety of lay-leaders; to recruit neighbors to join our synagogue; to cajole reticent members into more active participation; and to be at the ready for that phone call that can change plans instantly but channels one into the state of readiness and presence of “if not now, when?”

In particular, I would to thank the members of the Chesed and Membership Committees for their tireless and holy work of serving those in need. Their selfless acts have uplifted the hearts and souls of many of our members—may God continue to bless you in your work. Bobbie Finkelstein, our beloved After School and Day Camp Director, continued her great work this year but also read the situation with the economic crisis, partnered with our friends at UJA Federation of New York, and provided our community with real help in a time of crisis. Thank you, Bobbie!

To my clergy colleagues: Rabbis Bronstein, Epstein and Rabbi Emeritus Weider, and Cantor Leuchter—you each have my deepest gratitude for your presence, your spirit and your service. May you be strengthened in serving God and our people.

And finally, to our energetic President, my daily partner in helping lead this community, David Kasakove—I thank for your devotion to Beth Elohim. It has been an honor to serve with you and in particular, I think your wife Yahz and your daughter Sophie for your time away from home. The sacrifices, we make for sustaining and building our community are great—and the burden is shared by many. But God willing, the attainment of our goals will make all such labors rewarding!

Some of the initiatives undertaken in the last year speak to Hillel’s call.

Bronfman Fellow for Neighborhood Jewish Life. Through a three year grant of $150,000 from the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, we have been blessed to be able to carry out some very important programming in our community. Our first Fellow, Benjamin Resnick, has served us wonderfully and deserves our heartfelt gratitude. Ben begins his rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in June. Ben coordinated Tot Shabbat, our monthly outreach program for ECC and neighborhood families that this year expanded to include a monthly Friday night dinner attended by more than 100 people each month; Shir L’Shabbat, coordinated in partnership with our new Trustee Ron Lieber and songleader Debbie Brukman, to reach more than 100 people each Saturday morning with song and worship for young families with Tots. Each of these programs have served as effective portals for growth in our membership.

In addition, the Bronfman Fellow coordinated Film Park Slope, a monthly film series ongoing now for the second year and curated by our members Rachel Dretzin and Barak Goodman. The Bronfman Fellow has also worked with the Membership Committee, providing staff support for Membership initiatives from Long-Term Member Shabbat to a variety of Brooklyn Jews services for the unaffiliated 20-30 somethings. Leah Rosen, a new member of CBE and the Membership Committee, joins this year’s class of Trustees, a testimony to this partnership’s success.

In addition, the Bronfman Fellow coordinated our innovative Shabbat in the Neighborhood Program, offering Shabbat programming to outlying neighborhoods with little Jewish infrastructure for growing liberal Jewish community in Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, and Williamsburg. Working with our HUC Rabbinical students who are also Yachad Staff, CBE has supported lay-led Shabbat programming which has reached several hundred people since January. Our new Trustee Michell Lyn Sachs and her husband Steven have already hosted two such events for their neighbors in Fort Greene—and some of those young families are now coming to Shir L’Shabbat. Grass roots community organizing at its finest for CBE!

Finally, Ben Resnick has been the coordinator of our weekly CBE Advisory, handling our internal and external electronic communications, so that our Congregation can receive up-to-the-minute information about our many initiatives. For much of the past year, Ben did this service with our member Dave Friedman, who deserves special recognition for his uncommon devotion to the Advisory and Website.

I want to thank our friends at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation for making this gift possible.

Support from the Charles H. Revson Foundation for a number of positions has helped us enormously at CBE. Since 2006, this remarkable foundation has helped our congregation in numerous ways. An annual grant pays for the Revson Rabbinic Fellow, a position occupied in exemplary ways by Matthew Soffer, an HUC Rabbinical Student, who now leaves this position after three years. Matt has been a teacher in Yachad, a songleader for the Brooklyn Jews high holy days services, an Academy teacher, a teacher of parents each Shabbat morning, and a coordinator of many of social action activities. He is a bright young star of our movement and we have been blessed by his many achievements as we wish him the best in his career. In the coming year, the Revson Rabbinic Fellow will be Marc Katz, a third year HUC student and current Yachad faculty member.

Support from the Revson Foundation also covers part of the salary of Debbie Brukman, our incredibly energetic and positive songleader who is the musical pied piper for hundreds of Tots in the Early Childhood Center, Tot Shabbat and Shir L’Shabbat program. We are so blessed to have Debbie’s energy and optimism inspiring children and their parents to embrace Jewish choices as they start their families on their sacred journeys.

Finally, Revson monies help supplement the salary line for Alix Fellman, a recent graduate of NYU and technically my assistant but a person of such extraordinary talent and energy who serves as an administrative glue for many of the professional and lay leaders in the Congregation. Alix has demonstrated leadership that is truly commendable and I thank her for her continued service to our community.

I want to thank our friends at the Charles H. Revson Foundation for making this gift possible.

CBE Tzedakah Fund. Inspired by the discovery of hundreds of tzedakah boxes left over from an earlier fundraising campaign, the Trustees of our Congregation elected to sell the boxes and devote that income to the creation of a CBE Tzedakah Fund. This important new initiative grew out of our need to answer the call to help our community and our country in a time of crisis. Since March, a group of members including Josh Blackman, Gail Bernstein, Steven Gold, Lori Leibovich, Joanne Nerenberg, and Emily Berger have been meeting to give shape to this idea. In the coming months, they look forward to launching this idea congregation-wide, with educational components to interfacing with the ECC and Yachad Programs.

Shabbat Worship and Daily Prayer. On a Friday night at CBE, we often burst at the seams with robust experiences welcoming the Shabbat. Our regular services at 7 pm three times a month and 8.15 monthly satisfy a cross section of our membership. Often with new musical accompaniment to join our Musical Director Rose Moscowitz, these services also feature our CBE Singers. I would like to thank Cantor Leuchter, Rose Moscowitz, and the Singers for enriching these Friday night services. Monthly Tot Shabbats followed by dinner satisfy another. This year we began a Yachad Family Shabbat program once a month, to experiment with a more informal, “camp-style” service. And twice a month, Altshul, a local independent minyan, meets at CBE. On Saturday mornings, we are doubly blessed, as should be the case on Shabbat! Learning and Torah Study each Saturday followed by Yachad Shabbat, Shir L’Shabbat, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Service, the Lay Led Minyan (with rabbinic guidance from Emeritus Rabbi Weider and CBE member and HUC rabbinical student Carole Gould), and, twice monthly, Altshul. Most Saturdays, more than 500 people cross our doorways. When guests visit and leaders of the Reform movement are here, they congratulate us for increasing Torah and Worship in our community. CBE is looked to increasingly as one of the most vibrant and diverse congregations in the country. We should all be so proud!

Each Thursday morning since September, at 8 am, a few of us gather for the morning service. There are a few regulars and an occasional guest. This moment each week, though small and brief, is a spiritual highlight and I encourage you to give it a try.

In the coming year, two areas of attention will be: building a more cohesive and integrated bridge between the Yachad Shabbat Service and the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Service. The Bnei Mitzvah Sub-Committee of Yachad has been exploring this integration and will soon be presenting to the Executive Committee and the Ritual Committee an integration plan for their approval. This will answer the call being heard to truly celebrate a child becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah in the midst of their Shabbat community, and not only in a separate service which, though beautiful, is often exclusive.

In addition, the Ritual Committee will be examining a number of issues, always looking for ways to strengthen successes and grow in new directions with regard to overall holiday worship. In what ways ought we to be strengthening Sukkot and Simchat Torah, Hanukah and Purim, Passover, Shavuot, and Tisha B’Av? Our High Holy Days are strong—it is now time for us as a community to address the entire Jewish calendar and engage in the full scope of Jewish time. I hope you will join in these efforts.

Rabbi Tarfon said, “The day is short.” Let’s face it—there really is never enough time for all our dreams and aspirations. “And the task is great.” A Congregation moving toward its 150th anniversary has founders to answer to, current membership to serve, and a legacy we must leave to the future. No small task indeed—and one known by all prior generations of our people. We can gain most by working together. “The laborers are lazy.” Rabbi Tarfon didn’t cut corners with the truth. He knew that hard work paid off in the end. It really did get the job done. “The wages are abundant.” The reward of teaching a child to read, of comforting the bereaved, of making a friend in community—these are the abundant, measureless achievements, paying dividends to future generations of Congregation Beth Elohim. “And the Master of the House is pressing.”

God calls. Let us answer together.

Or, as Hillel said, “If not now, when?”

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