by Toby Rosenberg
Recently some friends asked if my parents had been active in their synagogues. Had they been role models for my volunteerism? It took me a moment to reflect and recall, indeed they were up to their elbows in synagogue life. My father went to services nearly every shabbat and most morning minyans. He even led High Holiday services at our little beach town shul. I remember him building the synagogue’s sukkah. Each of my parents taught religious school at different times and if there was a fund raising event they were all in.
We lived in small towns with just one synagogue. Sometimes there was a rabbi and sometimes not. When there was a rabbi, my folks had a relationship with him and his family that existed well beyond the sanctuary. In fact, my first memory of my first rabbi is of his coming to lunch in our home.
It’s clear that the vitality, tone, and culture of those small synagogues were created and sustained by the members. I recall those places as caring communities where even a child was seen, appreciated, and cherished. Still there were things about Jewish practice and tradition in
the 1950s and 1960s that troubled me: the totally masculine God language of liturgy; the customs that precluded girls from full participation in religious life; and a preoccupation with post-holocaust times that did not engender joyous prayer.
You may know the current slogan “BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE.” Well, when the opportunity came in 1985 to get in on the ground floor of creating this congregation I realized I could do just that. I could take what I cherished from my childhood congregations—the loving, warm sense of community—and I could work to change the things that were troublesome to me. Little did I know I was stepping in at a time when Reform Judaism was eager to embrace those very changes.
One cannot initiate or nurture change from the sidelines. If I wanted to see women on the bimah, I’d have to be willing to get up there myself. If I wanted a congregation that cherishes its children, I probably had to get into teaching our kids. If I want a congregation that sees and nurtures the holy spark in everyone, I need to do my best at that in all my endeavors.
One recent Shabbat, Rabbi Saks shared a Yiddish folk tale about a man named Yankle who did not give. He seemed to take pride in his stance. One day Yankle was out on the water and a storm came up so that his boat capsized. Luckily another boat was nearby. The sailor called
out, “Give me your hand.” Yankle said, “I don’t give.” They went around a few times like that, the sailor calling, “Give me your hand,” and Yankle responding, “I don’t give.” Finally the exasperated rescuer said, “Take my hand!!!” and Yankle thought, “Take? Sure,” and reached out.
This little tale reminded me that when we give, we often get so much more. Each time I volunteer for something at Bet Ha’am, it is my opportunity to learn something new, to build relationships, to take pride in our flourishing congregation, and to feel assured it will be there when I need it. After so many years, I feel the most important thing I can do here, besides thanking you all for appreciating what I choose to do at Bet Haʼam, is to encourage each of you to discover the joy I know from getting in up to my elbows.
Image: Artwork by Bonnie Spiegel; presented to Toby Rosenberg in thanks. Hand-lettering with a painted illustration using gouache on Arches watercolor paper. 11 x 14; 17 x 20 matted and framed.