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I thank the Sisterhood and all of you from the bottom of my heart for honoring me and sharing this special night with me.
Before moving to New Haven, I lived in Port Jefferson on Long Island, and was involved in a women’s tefila group at my synagogue. At that time, the Rabbi allowed only men to read Torah or lead services. After some difficult negotiations, we got his permission for interested women to gather once a month in a classroom, to tallit. Wrapping myself in a tallis for the very first time was a strange and very moving experience. I felt the weight and the beauty of our tradition on my shoulders, both physically and spiritually.
The tallit I wore was the one my mother brought back from Israel for my oldest son Ezra when he became a bar mitzva. He stopped using it when he received a full-sized coat of many colors tallit a couple of years later. That white wool tallit with the burgundy and gold trim is the one I’ve worn ever since, till three weeks ago, when Ezra and his brothers gave me a fabulous new silk tallit for my birthday. The symbolism of the gift fairly blew me away. Think of it: the sons giving their mother a tallit. When our heritage is passed mi-dor le-dor – from generation to generation – we expect it to go only in one direction, not the other. I was thrilled by the beautiful gift, and even more thrilled that they understood how important such a thing would be to me, and how precious, coming from them.
They also gave me a bicycle, by the way, which sent an altogether different message.
At the women’s service 15 years ago, when we took out the Torah, instead of carrying it around the room for people to touch and kiss, we passed it from one person to another. As we stood and waited for the Torah to come from row to row, it looked almost as if women were embracing and handing a child to each other. While we did this, we sang a verse from the siddur: “ve-kulam miqablim aleihem `ol malkhut shamayim, ze me ze: they all took upon themselves the yoke of the heavenly kingdom, accepting it from one another.” The words and the actions dramatized vividly that we were not only choosing to take on our traditions, but also enabling one another to do so.
When I moved to Connecticut and went shul shopping, about eight years ago, I decided to join BEKI because I sensed that same spirit alive and well here.
Soon after joining, I came on the Board of Trustees, and only a couple of years later, Brian Karsif talked me into becoming President. I was honored, of course, that people thought I could do the job, but more than a little terrified that I’d make a disaster of it. I really wasn’t prepared and hardly knew anyone. Brian assured me that there were plenty of people to lend a hand. And he was right.
Not knowing Roberts Rules of Order, I’ve run meetings by Reinstein’s Rules of Informal Consensus.
Whatever has been accomplished in the three years that it has been my very great privilege and joy to serve as president of this congregation, has been done because we have metaphorically been passing the Torah from hand to hand, sharing the challenges, obligations, burdens, and celebrations. Ze me-ze, from one another.
A new book by Mark Oppenheimer, a Yale alum who is current editor in chief of the [New Haven] Advocate, is about to be published. The book is called Thirteen and a Day, and it’s a look at contemporary American Judaism through the institution of the bar- and bat-mitzva. Mark visited a lot of synagogues to see how they handle their benei mitzva preparations and celebrations, and he happened to come to BEKI on the Shabbat of Annie Bass’s bat mitzva. Later, he interviewed the Basses, the rabbi and me. I think he got his description of BEKI and the community right, calling us “urban, middle class and prayerful,” mostly free of material excess; “[a place] where the impulse to worship, seriously and at length, was nurtured.” You will be very happy with how he sees this congregation. This is not a plug for the book, but you can order it through Amazon at a discount. If you log in through the BEKI website, we get a small donation.
Tonight is probably the last time I will stand in front of you as President. Despite our perennially precarious financial situation, I will not appeal for money tonight. Tonight is a time to celebrate what we have accomplished together by passing the Torah from hand to hand. It’s time to kvell about what we’ve doneÿugnot what I’ve done, because I haven’t done any of this on my own.
On other occasions, I’ve spoken about the physical improvements we’ve made to the building and grounds. Although I’m endlessly pleased with the new parking lot, the disappearance of the tractor trailer and decrepit sheds, the glorious new entrance, elevator, and many other renovations, tonight I’m going to focus on the spiritual, communal and social aspects of synagogue life.
It seems to me that BEKI is humming with renewed energy.
In the course of the past three years, we have revitalized programs that had been allowed to lapse. We have enhanced activities that have been flourishing for years. And we’ve initiated any number of new programs that you have suggested.
There is energy in the air that encourages people to think, “We can do it.” Our attitude is, “Just say yes.”
Last June we had a tribute dinner, honoring the rabbi and Miriam and raising a lot of money for the shul. A zillion people worked to make that happen. Prior to that, the last tribute dinner anyone could recall took place about 15 years ago, honoring Mr. Friedman, alav hashalom. Well, once every 15 years isn’t often enough. This coming November, we will hold another tribute dinner. I am honor bound not to say too much tonight. The Board and the honorees know why. This year’s first-ever auction, chaired by Donna Levine, was a brilliant success and a lot of fun. We are already planning the next one.
For years, I heard people talk about improving the Shabbat qiddushim. Now, thanks to Bryna Pauker, Sherry Rothman, Darryl Kuperstock, Ruthie Greenblatt, and all the shoppers and prepping teams, we have a feast every week that tempts us to linger, catch up with each other, meet visitors and guests, and arrange play dates for the kids. Some of the best qiddush recipes will be published in a new BEKI cookbook, which will have its first organizational meeting a week from tonight at Darryl’s house. If you’re interested, talk to Darryl or Bryna.
These qiddushim have become a great way to mark birthdays and other occasions. We honored our founders for the first time last fall with a lovely qiddush. Jessey Palumbo – who makes every visitor feel welcome – is organizing a qiddush to honor those who joined BEKI this past year. Come on June 11 and get to know our newer members.
There used to be Friday night dinners at BEKI – I don’t know why they stopped or when. Bryna took it on herself to bring them back, and now we enjoy them again.
For years, people had talked about a kosher wine tasting: now, thanks to the Colten-Berry duo, it’s an annual tradition.
In the past three years, we’ve had concerts — Magevet, Earl Banquer, Elm City Girls Choir — and we’ll have more in the year ahead. A choir is beginning to form. Ask Isaiah Cooper or Sascha van Creveld about it. If you can sing, they want you.
Despite the fact that the Men’s Club no longer functions, we’ve managed to have quite a few interesting brunches mdash; because people stepped forward to organize the food, the program, the publicity.
The teenagers asked for their own minyan and now they have one. Lana Gad wanted a Jewish Montessori School at BEKI, and she made it happen. Darryl and others thought we should have a Shabbaton: this coming September, we are hosting a weekend with Danny Siegel, Mitzva Hero extraordinaire.
We now have a Hesed committee that extends acts of kindness within the BEKI family. This project was described in the BEKI 2000 plan, published in 1997 – and it exists because Muriel Banquer made it happen.
Social action and tiqun olam have been given new energy this year, thanks to Jennifer Botwick, and projects are in the works that will enable us fulfill the mitzva of giving to the broader community. Our Habitat for Humanity project will break ground in Newhallville in a couple of weeks. Talk to Darryl about signing up.
All kinds of great ideas are waiting to be tried, including quite a few in the BEKI 2000 report that have not yet been done.
Is there someone out there who’d like to organize a film series? How about a book fair? A juried art exhibit. A children’s choir. A gardening club to landscape the new entrance. A scavenger hunt for adults. A congregational trip to Israel. There’s really no end to what we can do.
I know that in the months and years ahead, under the leadership of our next president Donna Levine and those who follow her, BEKI will thrive and grow, because we will continue to take upon ourselves sacred obligations and pass them to one another.
Before closing, I want to express my gratitude to our full-time staff, which is small, dedicated and very gifted. We could not manage without the inspiring work of Rabbi Tilsen and Education director Dr. Lauren Kempton, and the outstanding support of our office manager Peggy Hackett and custodian Clarence Bromell. Thank you.
I want to thank all of you who have been members of the General Board in the past three years. You are a caring, dedicated group of volunteers, and it’s been a pleasure eating carrots with you and getting the work of the shul done. I must especially thank my friends on the Executive Board, who have served with me and become an incredibly effective team. Most congregants – even most Board members – are spared discussion of the bylaws, contracts, leases, insurance policies, computer upgrades, fuel oil prices, photocopier rentals, and other necessities. Not us. We get to talk about this stuff every single month. The amazing thing is that despite the need to deal with nuts and bolts, the Exec Board has kept its focus on what is truly important: the religious, educational, and communal life of the synagogue. Ve-kulam miqablim aleihem `ol malkhut shamayim, ze me-ze. You have all taken upon yourselves the yoke of the heavenly kingdom, accepting it from one another. I love you all.
See also Parashat Huqat-Balaq by Gila Reinstein
See also Parashat VaEthanan — Installation of Officers by Gila Reinstein
See also Parashat Ki Tetse by Gila Reinstein
See also Parashat Sheqalim 5765 by Gila Reinstein
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