Kol Nidre - 2022/5783 - Lessons from 75 Years

Kol Nidre - 2022/5783

Lessons From 75 Years

28 years ago Lenore and I were welcomed to Shaare Tefila in a way that many Jews welcome others Jews - with food! I drove down from Massachusetts on the last Sunday of July in 1994 by myself and went straight to Sylvia and Marv Levy’s home. There, over dinner, I met several couples from the congregation. Though I was tired from the 8 hour drive, I was instantly rejuvenated by the humor, the warmth and the delight clearly evident in their home.

Every other night for the rest of that week, Ellie Alpert and Charlotte Potosky and their committee organized meals so that not only would Lenore and I not have to worry about dinner that first week, but more importantly we would get to know many members of the shul. In such intimate and warm settings we quickly learned how wonderful the Shaare Tefila community is. 

I think about that first week quite often. I especially think about it when I’m meeting with other rabbis and they complain about their congregations. I always think how blessed I am to be part of this community. But I also think about that first week on the job and those dinners because they reflect what a synagogue community is supposed to be about. The connection, the friendship, the warmth, the laid back vibe, are all values that our congregation upholds. Those concepts of community have defined who we are for as long as we’ve been a congregation. 

I also think about our community and our synagogue almost every day. I think about how great our congregation is and I think about us in the context of the greater Olney Jewish community and the American Jewish community as well. I think about how it is that despite a pretty sizable Jewish presence here in Olney that our congregation hasn’t grown. I think about how synagogues across the country have seen a decline in membership and how Jewish community sociologists are trying to figure out why that is. I think about what younger people are looking for in terms of faith and community and whether we as a congregation have the answers for them.

I ponder these questions all the time because the American Jewish community is constantly changing. I always wonder whether our services, our programs, our school and our classes are appropriate and relevant. As I look forward, I realize that it might be interesting to try to ponder these questions in the context of the history of our synagogue. Perhaps, while reflecting upon our past, we can learn lessons to guide us into the future. In 4 years we will celebrate 75 years since we were founded. It is a wonderful milestone that marks the many contributions our synagogue has made to the lives of our members and to the greater Washington Jewish community. 

Many of you know that we were founded in Northeast DC in the Riggs Road area. Scores of young Jews - all in their 20s and 30s - organized themselves and founded Shaare Tefila as a synagogue affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Within a year or two of establishing the congregation, they were able to purchase land and build the building that still stands on Riggs Rd. There the community quickly grew but within 10 years the Jews were moving to the Maryland suburbs. Most moved up New Hampshire Ave. to either just before the Beltway - in Oakview - or just beyond the Beltway - in the Hillandale neighborhood. The congregation wisely obtained land on Lockwood Dr. and moved into its new building around 1964. There the congregation blossomed - growing so large to warrant having two girls every Friday night become bat mitzvah and two boys every shabbat morning to become bar mitzvah. When I came in 1994 we were long past that prime, but there was still room for growth. The congregation grew a little but then we saw quick demographic changes. There was graffiti - not antisemitic - on our building and there was a mugging in our parking lot one night after a meeting. So again we were on the move and 16 years ago we sold our building in White Oak and rented various locations in Olney to hold Shabbat services. Thanks to his family we used Dr. Bresler’s home in White Oak for office space and daily minyan. And we rented various schools for the High Holidays. Many of us here today still vividly remember those wandering days and also still remember the joy we felt when we brought the Torah scrolls into the building and marked a grand inaugural event 11 years ago with Senator Ben Cardin and other dignitaries. 

Our history is quite remarkable. The resiliency of our community to endure those 5 years without a building was quite extraordinary. The determination to see the construction project through 18 permits and 2 construction companies was amazing. The leadership exhibited by our officers and board members who shepherded the project through was phenomenal. Clearly everyone in our community cares deeply about our congregation and is committed to see it survive for many years to come. 

Yet, my questions still stand regarding our relationship with the broader Jewish community - what are Jews looking for today viz a vis their Jewish identity? What role, if any, does synagogue play in a young Jewish person’s search for Jewish identity, and how can Shaare Tefila play a role?

As I try to answer those questions, I thought it would be interesting to chat with the two surviving charter members of our congregation. Several days ago I talked with Sylvia Potash and Manny Ginsburg because I wanted to hear from them why they joined, what the energy was like, and what the community was like over 70 years ago. 

    Sylvia told me that shortly after she and Joe (may he rest in peace) moved into the Riggs Road area, they were visited by Joe Wiliamowsky and two other men. Sylvia’s father was a kosher butcher and Joe Williamowsky and his friends thought it would be a good idea to pay a visit to the butcher’s daughter and son in law. Though it sounds like a visit from the mob (!) - it wasn’t. Apparently Joe - for whom our foyer is named - spearheaded the effort to organize a new community. He and his sister, Biddie (who was newly married to Manny) had also just moved into the area. They - Joe and Biddie - were children of Rabbi Chaim Williamowsky, a prominent rabbi and mohel in DC. They were raised in a very Jewish home and of course they were expected to carry that forward in their life as newlyweds. So Joe and Meriam may they rest in peace, Manny and Biddie may she rest in peace, Joe and Sylvia, and many more couples - including Ira Kolmaister’s parents (Ira’s mother was pregnant with him when the charter was signed) - banded together because it was the right thing to do. They didn’t need older people to tell them to do it. No one twisted their arms to go to shul. These 20 and 30 somethings knew instinctively that since there wasn’t a synagogue in their neighborhood they needed to build one. And they quickly made it happen. 

    Not only did they have a strong sense of Jewish commitment and responsibility - they also quickly formed a strong community. Sylvia remembers bringing pots of hot water to shul on Friday afternoons so that the men would have tea after services. Both Sylvia and Manny remember how people would always chip in and volunteer to cook and bake for meetings and kiddushes. Quickly these new neighbors became lifelong friends. They lived on the same block off of Riggs Rd. and then they moved together to White Oak. The Shapiros and the Loebs were next door neighbors. The Klimans were across the street from the Torchinskys. And I could go on and on. The community that prayed together also went to school together, played bridge or poker together in the evening and had a life together. Though many of those veteran members are still neighbors and friends in Leisure World, those halcyon days are mostly gone. 

    Those days were defined by responsibility or commitment to Jewish values and also to a strong sense of community. Jews naturally and instinctively joined a synagogue when they married. The synagogue was the source not only of their religious identity but their cultural identity too. The larger synagogues were often also community centers with either a gym or a pool or both so that everything a young Jewish family would need could be found in the building. 

    But Jewish demographics have drastically changed in the 71 years since our shul was founded. In their latest study of Jewish Americans published just 2 years ago, the Pew Research Center discovered two findings - of many other lessons - that apply to our discussion. The first finding relates to religion. The young founders of Shaare Tefila were committed to founding a synagogue. They identified as religious Jews and wanted a traditional synagogue affiliated with the Conservative Movement. They wanted services to be traditional and they attended in large numbers. Today the Pew study found that “overall, about a quarter of U.S. Jewish adults (27%) do not identify with the Jewish religion: They consider themselves to be Jewish ethnically, culturally or by family background and have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish, but they answer a question about their current religion by describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’ rather than as Jewish. Among Jewish adults under 30, 40% describe themselves this way.”

    That statistic alone should be enough to give us pause. Whereas young Jews 70 years ago defined themselves as religiously Jewish, 40% of young Jews today only at best define themselves as ethnically Jewish. In other words, a young Jew today would more likely eat a piece of kugel than walk into a synagogue. 

    And that is coupled with the next finding. Only 8% of Jews 18-29 and 11% of Jews 30-49 consider themselves Conservative Movement Jews. Our denomination of Judaism is clearly rapidly declining since most Jews over the age of 18 have nothing to do with us. Jews today are clearly more ethnically and culturally inclined - they’d rather listen to Jewish music or maybe cook Jewish food - as the Pew study suggests - then pray in a synagogue. 

    These findings are what keep me up at night. I am grateful for the young faces in our congregation and our community today. Their commitment to our shul and the energy they bring is rejuvenating. Their presence makes us a more diverse and multifaceted community. But I am concerned that more people aren’t joining us. These findings from the Pew study may explain our situation - and the current status of synagogues across the country - but they don’t provide a way for us to pivot and move forward.

    At this point you may be wondering that though this discussion is interesting, what does it have to do with Yom Kippur? I am intentionally raising these issues with you tonight - on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar - because of what Yom Kippur represents. The day of atonement is a day devoted not just to prayer but to serious introspection. The theme of today’s prayers is forgiveness and repentance. But we can only ask forgiveness if we recognize that we have done something wrong. We can only truly repent when we determine that we need to act differently. In other words, at its core, Yom Kippur is all about change. This day will have been fulfilled if we somehow alter our behavior. We have to sincerely and seriously reflect on who we are - what type of spouse, colleague, lover, parent or child we are - and we have to reckon with the mistakes we have made and the offenses we may have committed. 

    But after we recognize those mistakes - which is a major step already - we have to commit ourselves to figuring out how to right those wrongs. We have to figure out how to change our behavior so that we can be even better than we already are.

    Yom Kippur at its core is a deeply personal day. Yet the prayers we recite are in the plural. We don’t pray “ashamti” - I have been guilty; but rather “ashamnu” - we have been guilty. Even though the spiritual work we will be doing is individual, we do it all day with our friends and family sitting next to us and with us sitting with our community. The private spirituality of the day is transformed by the liturgy into a communal experience.

    Which is why as a community we also have to think about what we need to do to change - what we need to do to be an even better and more relevant synagogue. Unfortunately I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t have the answers and neither do the sociologists. But at least I know that we have to ask the questions. I know that in order to celebrate our 75th anniversary in 4 years we need to reckon with the Jewish community we want to serve and develop a plan on how best to reach out so that the young Jews will want to join us. 

    This is a tall order but I am heartened by our history. Talking with Sylvia and Manny brought a smile to my face because I could picture the love and friendship that existed back then. I heard so many stories not just from them, but from other veteran members over the years and I experienced the energy that we had when we built and moved into this building. I will never forget Sadie Blicher’s devotion to our shul. While we were still wandering from one rental facility to another we were raising funds for the future building. Then, as the oldest member of the congregation - she was over 100 at the time may she rest in peace - she contributed generously to our future. Dedication and energy like that - where history and future connect - sustains me. 

    I also know that our founders would want us to succeed. They would want to know that just as Shaare Tefila was born in response to the demographic and communal needs of the people at that time, that so too we need to keep on responding to the needs of the community today. 

    Therefore I pray that we spend time today not just on ourselves but on our community. Let us ensure that the beauty and spiritual nourishment we find in shul can be brought to those who aren’t here. Let us work together over the next 4 years to find ways to reach out, to talk, to program so that all Jews today can feel the power of community and the profound meaning of our tradition. Amen.