Sustaining Judaism

Lynn Urbach, President. Yom Kippur 5780. Address to the Congregation.

On Rosh Hashanah, I asked you to consider strengthening your connection to Judaism by increasing your involvement with Bet Ha’am.  Afterwards, some of you thanked me for not asking for money.  Nobody wants to talk about money from the bimah, especially on Yom Kippur. The problem is, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are my only chance to speak to many of you in person. You can change this, and help make it unnecessary to talk about our budget on the High Holy days. How, you ask? I urge you to come to the annual congregational meeting in June to learn about our governance, our budget, our major decisions, and our needs. But until you, our congregants, choose that, this, unfortunately, is a president’s chance.

Let me remind you of a few things about our finances:

  • We are a non-profit and rely completely on your generosity to fund our operating budget and upkeep on our building.
  • If we were an art museum, a food bank, or an animal shelter, we could seek donations from anyone living in southern Maine, and potentially, from local businesses. But that does not work for this institution.
  • Jewish families and individuals are the source of 90% of our operating budget. Most donations come from the two parts of our relatively new financial model. Machazit Hashekel is a contribution of $180 per adult who wants to be “counted in;” Nediv Lev, are additional gifts from the heart. While our budget works out to be about $1,600 per family unit, that amount is beyond the reach of many of our members, particularly for young families. It is up to the rest of us to make up that difference.

So, while many of us, my husband and myself included, along with many other Americans, donate to our alma maters, the public library, and United Way, only we, those here in this room, or in sanctuaries all over the world, donate to synagogues.

This year Tom Rosen, our treasurer, projects a budget deficit of $44K. The Board of Trustees agonized over this budget. But the only way to cut it any further is to reduce staff. We are already well understaffed based on our obvious needs, and by comparison with other congregations of our size. It is rare to find a congregation of 350 families with only one rabbi, no cantor, and so few office staff.

I read our mission statement on Rosh Hashanah morning. I know all of you were here and taking notes, so there is no real point in reading it again. But I think it’s possible that I’m not the only person here who can’t remember that far back. So, I will repeat the first line of our mission statement:

Congregation Bet Ha’am is a welcoming Reform Jewish community providing vision, voice, and opportunity for connecting to, practicing, and sustaining Judaism.

Sustaining Judaism is a fundamental precept of mine. It’s why I taught in our religious school long after my children had left; it is why I continue to teach our B’nei Mitzvah kids even now, when I don’t really have time for it; and it is a major reason I took on this job as president of Bet Ha’am. As I said on Rosh Hashanah, I tell my B’nei Mitzvah students that for thousands of years, our ancestors found great value in Judaism. There is something extremely precious here. If you can’t see that now, at some point in your life you may figure it out—maybe when you have your own children, maybe when you celebrate a life-cycle event, or maybe when you need a rabbi to help you plan a funeral.

These students may not realize it, but we all know. Our children are the future of Judaism. But it is up to all of us here, to sustain it for them.

I want to share a piece of my story, my family’s journey back to Judaism.

My mother’s family was assimilated into Viennese society—or at least to the best of their ability in that anti-Semitic environment. My mom was eight years old when her family escaped Vienna right before Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) and eventually they ended up in Birmingham, Alabama. Her family joined a Reform synagogue, and she went to Sunday school through Confirmation, but it did not mean much to her.

She and my dad did not join a synagogue when they bought a house outside of Washington, DC. My mom loved to sing. With her closest friend, she joined a church choir and sent me and my younger brother to the church basement Sunday school while she sang. I started going to Sunday school at a very young age.

Then, two things happened when I was still quite young. Apparently, I started talking about Jesus. While classical Reform Judaism was not her thing, my mom certainly did not want me and my brother to grow up believing Jesus was our savior. The other thing that happened was that my dad died in a tragic accident right before my 4th birthday. The day my dad died, one of his coworkers called their rabbi, who came right to the house. I’ve been told Rabbi Lipman stayed with my mother and did what he could to support her even though she was not his congregant. Through him, she discovered a community she desperately needed at that time. That synagogue remains, to this day, at the center of her life.

Why am I telling you this?  I’m sure my mom paid dues at Temple Sinai. I’m also sure she did not “pay her own way.” She would not have been able to contribute a lot when she joined the congregation sometime after the rabbi officiated at my dad’s funeral. But many people before and later had made a commitment to that Reform synagogue and made sure it could would be there when a young woman needed it.

My mom finally remarried when I was sixteen; she put two kids through college and is financially comfortable. All this time, she has continually INCREASED her contributions to the synagogue. Temple Sinai and its rabbi and staff had been there when she needed it. She continues to feel an obligation to ensure that institution is there to support not only those who access its resources on a regular basis, but also those who don’t anticipate that need. My brother and I belong to different congregations now. Her financial support of the institution is not for her progeny. Yet she continues to support it to the best of her ability. And when she dies, Temple Sinai will get a piece of her estate. A fitting tribute, I think.

When we make financial contributions to this institution, we are not only supporting the present, so that the Rabbi and building will be available for right now. We are assuring ourselves and whoever comes to Southern Maine in the future that Bet Ha’am will be here when a grieving young woman, or a tourist, or a family looking to move to a town with a vibrant Jewish community, need us.

Thank you to those who laid the foundation for Bet Ha’am, and to the community that has and continues to sustain this congregation so that it is here for us today and in the future

As we reflect on our lives and contemplate our actions, may our community strengthen us and our families and enrich our lives. My husband, Jerry Olshan, and I wish you a g’mar hatimah tova, may you be sealed in the Book of Life.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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