Mah tovu ohaleicha ya’akov mishkenoteicha yisrael.
As I look back on the past two years of my Presidency, I feel like the groundwork has been laid for a future of vision and promise. At my first Yom Kippur appeal I introduced myself as the first President of Sutton Place Synagogue who is also a doctor and told you that doctors are problem solvers which makes us particularly equipped for this position. That first year’s work required that we assess our leadership and our needs. My second Yom Kippur appeal was about leaving a legacy. I told you about a distant relative of my husband’s who, we discovered, gave the initial gift to build a synagogue in Bismarck North Dakota in 1921. Over the past year we worked to make necessary changes so that the foundation of the congregation is strong, and we are ready to build on the present and secure our future.
Here’s what I know after being President of our synagogue for the past two years. There are only two outcomes to any endeavor-success and learning. We have learned a lot from listening to you, and we are proud of the present and excited to create a magnificent future together. We know that we are stronger when everyone’s voice is heard.
This brings us to now. Today, I want to talk about us. This is an exciting time of growth at Sutton Place Synagogue. This is the time to make our vision a reality, and as it says in the information at your seat on this Yom Kippur… This is our time.
Almost every week I attend Shabbat services and have the honor of sitting through our beautiful service led by Rabbi Ain and Cantor Keren. As the Torah is expertly read by Barak Levy, I learn from Etz Chaim. The week that we heard parshat Balak in which Balaam sets out to curse the Jewish people but all that came out was a blessing and that blessing was Mah tovu struck me as a perfect starting point to talk with you about our synagogue, it’s strengths, its needs and its future.
What does Mah tovu mean?
How lovely are your dwellings, O Jacob, your sanctuaries, O Israel! In your abundant lovingkindness, O Gd, let me enter your house, reverently to worship in your holy temple.
Should not the place where we worship Gd, where we pray reverently, where we bind together as a community be lovely? Yes, our chairs may be frayed and our carpet may be worn, but we are none of those things. It is time for our sanctuary to reflect who we are as a community. We deserve this and we need this.
We are a strong, close knit, vibrant community who comes together in times of need and celebrates our triumphs. There is a commentary in Parshat Balak that states, “Individual Israelites may not be that impressive, but it has always been the genius of the Jewish people that the whole added up to more than the sum of its parts. Ordinary people combine to create extraordinary communities, sites of holiness and charity.”
We are that extraordinary community. We come together for Bris, baby namings, Bar mitzvahs, Auf Rufs, weddings, and, sadly, we come together for funerals, shiva and to say Kaddish. We are a community who loves each other even when we don’t always agree because, after all, we are a Jewish Community. We learn together, we pray together we laugh together and we cry together. We are a community who believes that giving tzedakah is a holy act and as a community we believe in Tikkun Olam, making our world a better place.
We are strong, and I want you understand that your donation will make a difference and further strengthen our sacred community.
This is a congregation that faced serious adversity earlier in the year. But with each adversity we rose higher-we became stronger, we became better. In October a swastika was painted on our front door in the middle of the night. The Rabbi and I met with the police and within hours, the swastika was removed and we were ready for our normal day to begin-minyan was held in the sanctuary and children arrived for nursery school. The people who performed this heinous act where not going to stop us. That evening along with evening minyan we had a service in which members of the Sutton Place community and the greater community came together. We had representatives from the Israeli government, the ADL, the Catholic Church and the New York Board of Rabbis come and speak and pray with us. Out of one of our darkest days, we found community, we found warmth and we felt the presence of Gd.
Then a few weeks later a Torah fell at a wonderful Bar Mitzvah. It was an accident. It fell off the Torah holders that, as we have learned, are not as steady as they should be. After Shabbat, Rabbi Ain sent out an email for us to do a community fast. Traditionally, people are supposed to fast for 40 days when a Torah falls. Instead, she said, we would fast as a community for 40 days. Each day a person from our community would fast for the entire SPS community. Afterwards, each person sent their personal reflection on the fast. There were several reflections that I could have shared with you, but this one was must appropriate for today:
Peter Miller wrote: The most rewarding fast I have ever done. All other fasts have been for myself alone; however, for this fast, I was fasting for the entire community and the importance of this fact was not lost on me. In a very small way, I got some insight into the responsibility that Cantor Keren must feel when he prays to G-d on the community’s behalf during the Yom Kippur services. Very powerful experience.
How proud I am and I hope you are to be a part of our Sutton Place Synagogue family.
Rabbi Ain started as our leader 6 years ago. Prior to her arrival, we had 10 years of steadily declining membership. However, in the past 4 years our membership has risen every year. That is almost unheard of in conservative synagogues, but not unheard of at SPS. Why? What changed? The change came when we started to think of ways to create entry points for everyone in our community. When we thought beyond what we offer on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, When we created affinity groups, like the young professionals and BoCo or Boomers Community, when we built a family center and camp to compliment our Nursery School and Religious School, when we expanded our community learning offerings and partnered with the JTS, the Jewish Book Council and our own members, and when we sponsored group trips to Israel and the south. These are just a few of the things that account for our growth, but not all of them.
I am pleased to announce that on September 5th the Board unanimously voted to renew Rabbi Ain’s contract. She will be our spiritual leader for an additional 5 years. None of this expansion, excitement and work could be done without her hard work , leadership and vision, and as we move to the future, we know that she is an integral part of our success. She understands, as does the entire Board, that this is our time.
How else are we strong? We have strong leadership. Our new Executive Director, Alan Herman, started this past April and has made visible changes. He took on the issues we have with the building and created a team with our building staff and members of our synagogue to make sure that any money spent is spent as a long term solution. We want to make sure we get long lasting and enduring work done.
The future we envision for Sutton Place Synagogue includes structural changes to our building so we can maximize our space and can enhance our programming and synagogue offerings.
Picture this…the balcony of our sanctuary is used 4 times a year. That is a lot of space for a limited use. We are envisioning using the space for programming. What if we had screens that came down and we had a film series up there. Or what if we had a portable arc to make it a more intimate setting for morning and evening minyanim. There are so many possibilities for the space if we think creatively.
We also know that our lobby does not project the warm and welcoming community that we are. What if as we walk into SPS, the doors were more welcoming and the lobby was warmer and it led seamlessly into a refurbished sanctuary with new seats and carpet. A sanctuary that honors our past but feels new and refreshed. I recently learned that the wood that makes up our pews comes from Israel. We don’t want to change that but we need to fix it. When the rabbi and I sit on the bima, we can’t see most of the congregation because of these large lecterns. What if this were newer and fresher.
This is our sacred space and it deserves to be treated as such thus. The work done in August was necessary before we moved forward with any renovation.
As we think about the look and feel of the sanctuary, we also need to think of expanding our outreach. This sanctuary should have the ability to stream our services so that our congregants who are ill could still be a part of any service. Or the snowbirds of SPS who leaves us to go to Florida in the winter months could still participate in our services. Or some of the wonderful speakers and programs we have would be available beyond the walls of Sutton Place Synagogue.
Lastly, we look upward to the roof top. The roof is the playground for our school but it also is where we have our Sukkah and multiple social events. However, if it rains, the children are forced to go into the ballroom. This precludes us from renting our ballroom for bris’s and baby namings during the winter months. What if we could put a retractable covering on top of the playground so that it could be used all year round no matter the weather. We could also use the space for services under the stars or other special events.
This is our time. We hit the elusive 500 member units this year and we are growing. Just 4 years ago were were down to 437 members. Our demographics are diverse and strong as well. We are a third young professionals and boomers, a third families and a third seniors. We are offering programs that are stimulating and spiritual for all.
We have a strong Board and development leadership team that has truly committed their time, energy and resources to move SPS forward. There are so many people I could recognize for their hard work in this speech, but I want to take this moment to honor the memory of David Sachs. David was a long time member of our Board and an honorary Vice President. David was one of the first people with whom I met when I became President. He blew me away. Brilliant, committed, loving and generous with his time and resources, he and his brother Marvin donated the money to help build the education center 20 years ago because, as David said, they knew that a Nursery School was the key to our being able to sustain ourselves as a community. No truer words were ever said.
David was a pillar of our past and now we need to follow his example and create our new legacy to help us grow and move us forward. Now is our time to create the new generation of donors and leaders whose love for congregational life and commitment to being a part of a Jewish community are at their core. This is our time. Join us and be apart of our new generation.
Can all the members of the Board and anyone who has been involved in a committee of SPS please stand? I ask that introduce yourselves to one another. Share what is happening at Sutton Place Synagogue. Ask how you can help. We need each of you to make Sutton Place Synagogue as successful as we can be. This is our time to Build on the Present and Secure our Future. (You can sit down)
Building on the Present and Securing our Future…
Contribute to this Yom Kippur Appeal to secure our community and our annual budget so that we can continue to do the things that we do best-prayer, programming, and education. Help us to support our leadership in Rabbi Ain, Cantor Keren, Barak Levy, Lindsay Bennet and Alyssa Schwager, our new Education Director, and all office staff with Alan Herman and Harriet Janover at the lead. Help up keep the lights on, have food for kiddush and wine for havdalah as it says in the prayer for the congregation. Help us to ensure the safety of this building. Help us. This year, please make a donation for the first time or turn down the new flap that increases your donation by 10% over last year. Every penny given to our Yom Kippur appeal will be used to enable us to be the Sutton Place Synagogue that reflects our quality and serves each of us in the best way possible. And know, you are giving to a growing, thriving and loving community whose time has come.
I want to end as I began, with a song. (Ask Rabbi, Cantor, Mark, Cela, Alan and Harriet to come up) When you received the information for your High Holiday tickets we quoted the song Hinay Mah Tov umanayim shevat achim gamyachad. How wonderful it is when brothers and sisters sit together. It truly is wonderful to be in this sacred space with you, my fellow, cherished members of Sutton Place Synagogue. Thank you for choosing Sutton Place Synagogue as your spiritual home and supporting this congregation with your heart and soul. We are stronger when every voice is heard. Please stand and sing with us.
Hinay Mah Tov…