Saturday, December 2, 2017
Parashat Vayishlach – Genesis 32:4 – 33-17
If you’ve ever stood up here you’ll understand me when I say this is so daunting. When I consider the others, who have stood before me – the infants in their parents’ arms, the six-year-olds at their Consecration ceremonies, youth on the verge of adulthood as they become b’nei mitzvah and then a few years later when they return for Confirmation I am humbled.
So many in this congregation and so many in the greater Toronto Jewish community have stood under a chuppah and been married on this bema.
Beloved rabbis, brilliant speakers, great leaders, and so many strong Congregational Presidents. And now me. This is daunting!
In preparation for addressing you this morning I met with Rabbi Splansky. I told her it is far more appropriate that she deliver the sermon. Obviously, she declined. She told me that it is for me to deliver an address this morning.
She is so wise. She is so thoughtful. She told me that today’s Torah portion, Vayishlach is dramatic. It’s rich with meaning. She told me we’d have such fun preparing for this. I do love her spirit.
Vayishlach is the story of a journey and a reunion. It’s the story of Jacob planning for a reunion with his twin brother Esau. In this week’s parashah, Jacob and Esau hadn’t seen each other for twenty years. Their parting years earlier was dramatic, painful and even life-changing. In anticipation of meeting again, Jacob was terribly worried and he wanted to make sure he did everything he could to ensure success. He planned each detail. He considered what to take with as gifts – how many she-goats, and he-goats and camels and cows. He wanted to get it right.
Several of the Torah commentaries offered that Jacob was apprehensive. Not once, but twice in the story it was said that Jacob was frightened. Apparently, as Rabbi Splansky taught me when something in the Torah is mentioned more than once, it’s very important.
Rabbi Plaut in his commentary suggested that “The time has come to face the past and in doing so we can secure the future”
Vayishlach is a dramatic story. There is one aspect of it that for me, is especially meaningful and that is the notion of preparing for a journey, and then, embarking on the journey itself.
This week’s Torah portion is about Jacob’s journey. Well, we too at Holy Blossom Temple, are on a journey.
I think about how Holy Blossom has been preparing and how we are now on the journey toward the reunion of this sacred place, the Sanctuary, with the school wing. For so many years our two houses, like Jacob and Esau were living separately.
To get from one to the other was circuitous and difficult. In preparation for bringing the two together, to make the physical space one, there has been careful planning.
About 9 years ago while the new building was still in the early planning stages I was first joined the Transition Committee to help think about how we might continue to operate the congregation while at the same time taking on a massive building project. We talked about how we might have to operate offsite entirely. We talked about where we might hold High Holy Days services if we were without the sanctuary. We investigated alternate locations like the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the then Skydome, the Downsview hangars. We talked about renting tents.
We worked with the Leo Baeck Day School to understand their needs and visited other schools in the city to investigate rental of alternate temporary venues.
There has been meticulous planning that included consultation with the many stakeholders and users of the building. Together with the architects from Diamond Schmidt, we met with groups of congregants who use the building – those who come for daily minyan, those who come for Adult Education programs, the parents of our preschools and the youth in religious school.
We met youth leaders and the organizers of our Monday’s at the Temple Seniors group.
We met with the archivists, the Sisterhood, the Brotherhood, and the OOTC leadership.
Members of the Building Committee have been involved over the many years in detailed planning meetings with our architects and all the associated consultants on security, sound, wayfinding, IT, kitchen, furniture etc. etc. etc.
All this meticulous planning has been taking place and now, look outside. We are truly in the midst of a major building project.
The construction of the new atrium, library, administrative offices, Judaica shop, café, staircase and the Family chapel is happening now and we are planning for the day next year when this house, the house of Tefillah, or prayer, will be physically joined to the house of Midrash, of learning with the new house, the house of Knesset or gathering.
We’ve been calling this the Renewal of Space.
The equally important part of this journey is Renewal of Spirit – Over the past years, our membership has remained strong and even increased while other synagogues’ membership numbers are in decline. We took a risk when we introduced the Terumah membership model in which families with young children are welcomed and asked to decide themselves what membership fee they can contribute. We do not turn any congregant or family away because of an inability to give the full sustaining membership fee.
Last January when there was a terrorist attack at a mosque in Quebec City, it was our own Rabbi Splansky who led us, and inspired other synagogues and churches to participate in an active show of support by creating human Rings of Peace around mosques in our city.
That one act of caring, or tikkun olam brought international acclaim and a personal phone call of congratulations from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to our Rabbi.
Three years ago, as the Vice President of the Department of Education I participated in a Youth Education Task Force.
The Task Force helped inform us that we needed to look at things a little differently. And so, there have been significant changes to the b’nei mitzvah program and to the grade 6 & 7 curriculum. There have been scheduling changes for the younger children and there have been significantly more programs and activities created not only for the children enrolled in our religious school, but for all the children of our member families. I am referring to those the children who do not come for religious school because they attend Jewish day schools. There are also many children who participate in no formal Jewish education whatsoever. When we talk about the children or Holy Blossom Temple we can no longer only think of those children enrolled in religious school.
Holy Blossom has throughout its history served as a collective conscience for our members and for others in the city who cannot stand by when they see social injustice and suffering. Our beloved Rabbi Plaut rallied communities here in Toronto and across Canada and in 1962 invited Dr. Martin Luther King to speak here on non-violence and racial justice.
When boatloads of refugees from Viet Nam were being expelled from their country it was Holy Blossom Temple who organized and served as a model for other congregations to adopt Vietnamese families.
And again, in 2017 when there is an even greater global refugee crisis members of Holy Blossom Temple are actively involved as sponsors for two Syrian families.
I could go on and recount so many examples of the good work, the renewal of spirit that is happening here at Holy Blossom Temple.
And so, we are this journey of the renewal of space and renewal of spirit.
Well, I too am on a journey.
I know that some of you must we wondering about me. Who is she? Why is she the President? What does she have to offer?
Many of you have heard me say that I am a member of Holy Blossom by choice. That means that I don’t have the years and years of family history but it also means that joining Holy Blossom was a deliberate choice that was made by my husband, Jack and me. When I was a child growing up in Toronto my paternal grandfather, Jacob Libman, was an active member of the Kelczer congregation, a small Orthodox shul where the only spoken language was Yiddish.
I attended family Hanukah parties with my other Zaida, Sam Feldt, who was an active member of Beth Sholom Congregation. My grandfather, one of the earliest JNF Negev Dinner honourees had a strong influence on me when he taught me about the then new country called Israel.
I grew up knowing that I was Jewish but equally important was that I was a Zionist.
I attended Sunday school at a little house on Bathurst Street that went on to become Beth David Congregation, and when the current Adath Israel opened in our neighbourhood my family joined.
And that’s where Jack and I were married 42 years ago.
I always knew about Holy Blossom Temple. How could a Jew grow up in Toronto and not know about Holy Blossom Temple? I had friends who loved coming here for Saturday school, I learned about social justice because of Rabbi Plaut’s strong voice and international acclaim. I’ve come to appreciate the rich history of Holy Blossom Temple from conversations with our brilliant archivists.
Next week, I am going to Boston to attend the URJ’s- the Union of Reform Judaism’s biennial convention. It’s just a small gathering for 5000 North American Reform Jews. There are fewer things that make me feel prouder to be a member of Holy Blossom than when I attend URJ events at which we are revered and cited as trend setting and forward thinking. The esteem in which we are held across the leadership of the Reform movement in North America is real.
A significant part of my journey took place during the two years that I participated in the Adult B’Nei mitzvah program and on the morning of my 60th birthday I stood on this bema and chanted Torah for the first time in my life.
Many of you who are the “regular’s” who attend each Shabbat morning are coming to know me better. Please continue to introduce yourselves to me. Please continue to welcome me. I told Rabbi Splansky that I have so much to more to learn but that the more I am with you on Shabbat the more I am appreciating the value of prayer, and the value of community and I am truly enjoying this part of my Jewish journey.
A little more about me since I was asked to explain: I have been a life member of Canadian Hadassah WIZO, the Women’s International Zionist Organization, for over 40 years and have served on both the National and Toronto Executive Boards. I have been recognized for leadership and philanthropy by the Israel Cancer Research Fund and UJA’s Book of Life. One great source of personal pride, one for which I received the Shem Tov- the good name award was for having served as the President of the Board of Jewish Family and Child Services of Greater Toronto. I tell you this not to boast but rather in the hope that it gives you some comfort in knowing that I have a strong commitment to good governance and that leadership is not entirely new to me.
I am a proud Jewish Canadian with a deep love for our tradition, our culture, and for the State of Israel. I think a lot about our Jewish future here and around the world– I think about our children and grandchildren, and those who will follow them. I wonder if we’re doing enough to inspire the next generations to continue to practice a meaningful form of Judaism so that our traditions continue and in fact, that our Jewish population grows.
The values of Holy Blossom Temple are clearly stated in our Statement of Identity and include compassionate and courageous leadership; Love of Israel and the Jewish people; honouring the past while boldly preparing for the future; social responsibility, Tikkun Olam, and tzedakah.
The values of compassion and kindness guide me in everything that I do. I think that my values and those of Holy Blossom Temple are well aligned.
And so, my personal Jewish journey and the Holy Blossom journey have come together. What comes next?
What am I looking forward to…?
I am so excited to know that in the coming year we will be in our beautiful new building.
I am committed building a strong membership that is welcoming and inclusive.
I continue to be committed to excellence in education.
I welcome the creation of a new Communications Advisory Group and professional staff to dream with them.
I look forward to being a part of a strong and responsive Board.
I want to pay tribute for a moment to and offer my most sincere thank you to the Past Presidents of Holy Blossom. So many have reached out to me, offered support, took me aside to share a story. I thank them for their warmth and encouragement. I promise that I will continue to seek them out because their wisdom will guide me.
I want to make special mention of our immediate Past President, Joan Garson and her unwavering passion for Holy Blossom Temple and her unqualified support for me. It has been an honour to serve with Joan as a Vice President under her leadership. Joan, I have said this many times but I say it again, you are inspiring. Thank you.
I would not have accepted the nomination to be your President if weren’t for the strength of the other members of the Board. Thank you to each of you who are continuing on the Board and a special welcome and mazel tov to our three newest members.
Please know that all of us on the Board are here to serve and to represent you, the congregation. Seek us out and support us in our efforts to ensure the health and strength of the vibrant community that we are.
I would be remiss if I did not pay tribute to our clergy– Most sincere thanks to Rabbi Splansky. You have been my rabbi, and now you are my partner. Thanks also to Rabbis Moscowitz, Helfman and Satz and Cantor Beny Maissner and Cantorial Soloist Lindi Rivers. I have learned so much from all of you.
To Russ Joseph, Executive Director, and Debbie Spiegel, Director of Education with whom I have worked so closely over the past three years, my most sincere thanks for your support and your guidance.
And, with great admiration my thanks to the dedicated staff who work behind the scenes at Holy Blossom Temple.
And of course, my darling husband, Jack. I would never have accepted this positon were it not for Jack’s support. My children too have encouraged me to take on this role and I so appreciate their support. I love you all.
And so, like Jacob in his preparations for the reunion with his twin, I too have been deliberate in my preparations, hopeful for the future and I too am just a little frightened.
I give you my word that I will do everything I can to serve well in this most auspicious role.
And now, as we do at the end of each Shabbat morning service I offer these words on behalf of the Board of Directors…