Shedding New Light on Jewish Traditions

President's Messages

ROSH HASHANAH ADDRESS by President Phil Rosenberg,5779

L’Shanah Tovah!  Welcome to a new year at Or Hadash.

This is our congregation’s 35th anniversary year, a milestone. 

For those of you who don’t know our “backstory”, it started with six couples who got together to hold High Holiday services at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.  This went on for several years.  Then, in 1983, they decided to officially become a havurah and with the agreement of the RRC, they formed the CRRC, the Congregation of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.  In addition to providing a spiritual home for these families, it also was intended to serve as a laboratory for student rabbis at the College. 

From an initial group of six student rabbis who worked with them on a rotating basis, the congregation eventually went “monogamous” with Rabbi Vivian, who shortly after she graduated, became our full time rabbi.  The congregation grew and in 1989, decided to make itself independent of the College, and renamed itself Or Hadash.  In 1995, we finally moved out of our “parents’ house” and into this home, the former Cadwallader mansion, here in Ft. Washington.

Right from the start, the tone of the congregation was informal, “come as you are”, and very hands on.  A congregation where you can get as involved as you want to be, right away – no need to wait for an invitation. 

When my wife Penny and I joined, in 1990, what we found at Or Hadash, and drew us in, was a tight knit community that invited us to explore and practice Judaism through learning, innovation, social action, and creativity, and a community that likes to have fun.

And that is all still true of Or Hadash today.

We remain a close-knit community where people can come as they are, and a community that values life-long learning, innovative approaches to Jewish spirituality, creativity, and tikkun olam – healing the world.  That’s what draws people to us from diverse Jewish backgrounds, Conservative, Reform, and non-affiliated.

We are still a very hands-on congregation, just like we were in 1983.  I am proud of the way our members step up to the plate when we need them.  When we recently put out the word that our Kitchen Committee needed help, we were overwhelmed by the number of people who signed up to volunteer.  Or Hadash could not function without the efforts of our volunteers, particularly our committee chairs.

Our school director, Barbara Weisman, and our teachers, continue to find innovative ways to make Jewish learning relevant to our children and help them appreciate the value of living a Jewish life.

Our many programmatic committees – Spiritual Life, Adult Education, Social Action – continue to find interesting and innovative ways to connect us to our lives as Jews and to each other.

So here we are, at the start of a new year.   

Looking ahead, there is a lot for our community to get excited about.  In October, we will have our community trip to the Lower East Side of New York, which promises to be an interesting and fun time. 

An event that will be a reminder to us of our recent past in a very different way will be the dedication of our new Holocaust Memorial, on Sunday, October 14.

We are fortunate to be part of a movement, Reconstructing Judaism, that has found new focus and energy, and is now challenging us as Reconstructionists to live a Judaism that is deeply rooted but boldly relevant.  This energy and focus will be on full display right here in Philadelphia, at the 2018 Reconstructing Judaism convention, on November 15, 16 and 17.  If you have not yet registered, I urge you to do so.  It is a perfect way to experience the full depth and breadth of our movement.  It will feature a rich and varied series of panel discussions, workshops, and study sessions -- as well as a joyful, meaningful, musical Shabbat celebration – and the opportunity to connect with Reconstructionists from all over North America.  As the host city and one of the host congregations, we are still looking for people to volunteer to help in many different ways.  If you are interested in doing so, please contact Lori Rubin or Carolyn Savitzky, or leave your name with Nadine in the office. 

We may be the smallest branch of Judaism, but we are definitely the most energized.

I started off by noting that this is a milestone year for Or Hadash.  In addition to marking our 35th anniversary, as most of our congregants know, this coming year will mark the end of our time with Rabbi Josh and the beginning of a new chapter in our congregation’s history. 

We have been blessed to have had some remarkable rabbis.

Rabbi Vivian, who was rabbi when Penny and I joined, and is now our Emeritus Rabbi, has a true gift for helping people connect with Judaism no matter where they are coming from.  She taught us how to dance with Torah.

Rabbi Josh has inspired us to engage deeply with Judaism through learning, spirituality and social action. He has taught us about commitment and caring.

In true Or Hadash style, the rabbi search process, led by Jon Rubin, has been participatory and inclusive.  Many you have already provided input to our search committee, everyone will have a vote – this will be a community decision.  I believe this process already has drawn us closer together. 

Whoever our next Rabbi is, I have no doubt that they will inspire us in ways we haven’t yet experienced.  I am excited about our future and excited to see what the next chapter of Or Hadash brings.

So let me ask you, on this Rosh Hashanah morning, to think about what this community means to you and how you can contribute to making it a more vibrant place. 

Sitting here on Rosh Hashanah a few years ago, I thought about what this special congregation means to me, and how important it has been to me and my family for 30 years.  As not just a spiritual home, but an extended family.  And that’s when I decided to get re-involved in lay leadership, after taking a break for several years.

We need everyone’s time, everyone’s skills, everyone’s enthusiasm, caring and commitment to make our community work. If you are already one of our Volunteer Heroes, thank you for your time and energy.  If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines, we have many ways to get involved, both big and small – whether it’s leading a committee, helping out for a few hours in the office or with the school, joining our marvelous Makhaylah, or participating in our Purimspiel.  I invite you to think about what difference you would like to make in your community this year.  Let’s build the future of Or Hadash together.

L’shanah tovah!

 

PRESIDENT JAY COHEN’S ADDRESS ON ROSH HASHANAH 5778

This will be my last Rosh Hashanah speech as president of Or Hadash.  I will miss being president and I’ll tell you why.  Even in difficult circumstances it’s a pleasure to work with the members of the synagogue, Rabbi Josh and the members of the staff.  It’s a caring, intelligent, speak your mind but respectful group.  I’ll be lucky enough in May to continue on as immediate past president under our incoming president, Phil Rosenberg.  I’ll have the privilege of chairing the Leadership Development Committee which nominates lay leaders for the synagogue. 

But today I want to share with you a vexing issue that has troubled me during the time I have been president.  That is, why do people leave us and why is it so difficult to get people to join this wonderful community?  By no means do I dare judge anyone for leaving Or Hadash.  Short of death and geographic moves, the reasons for leaving Or Hadash are personal, multiple and complex.  But we need to understand better why people leave and what holds people back from joining.  I think understanding will allow us to better accommodate people.  Accommodation is key.

Finances are not a barrier at Or Hadash.  We accommodate everyone without regard to their financial status.  I want to emphasize what I said in my letter accompanying this year's membership packet.  Simply put, if you say you cannot afford full dues or tuition, you are asked to pledge what you can afford.  If circumstances are that you cannot afford any payment then that is accepted.  We value you for your presence and what you bring to the community. 

The reality is that finances are not the main challenge for Or Hadash and for other non-Orthodox synagogues.  The challenge is that people are not seeing the value in synagogue membership and in exploring their Judaism, or if you are not Jewish, in exploring Judaism as a partner of someone who is Jewish.  People are failing to see the value of the synagogue community in their lives.  Frankly, if a synagogue can’t demonstrate its relevance in this growing secular country then surely people will not come.  Demonstrating our relevance means that we need to accommodate people where they are.  Accommodation is not always easy.

Let me give you an example from my own life.

Cheryl and I have a house in Ventnor and we have guests all summer long who we try as best we can to accommodate.  

One weekend, Cheryl invited two of her cousins and their husbands.  They shared the upstairs which sleeps six but there are no doors separating the beds.  Since it was two sisters they felt comfortably accommodated.  Their husbands, well, they went along as husbands do.  The upstairs tends to get warm so Cheryl made sure the AC was on.  She had to go up for something later and husband #1 said the AC was making too much noise-it’s located on the upstairs deck not too far from the bedroom door to the deck.  Cheryl offered earplugs to all but was rejected.  So to accommodate him she said she would shut off the AC and they could open the door and windows. 

Cheryl went up again shortly thereafter and it was stifling up there - the door and  windows were not open.  Cheryl’s older cousin said that opening the door wouldn’t work for her.  She explained that when she vacationed as a child she always feared that a man would come through their upstairs door and harm her.  Cousin #1 is now 65.

When Cheryl inquired why the windows remained closed, husband #2 replied that he didn’t want to contract bell’s palsy.  This is a nerve disorder that can cause facial paralysis and sometimes is associated with a draft.  Cheryl proceeded downstairs, told me the story and we both were so hysterical we couldn’t fall asleep for a while.  The next day I heard from husband #2 that he was up all night because husband #1 was snoring like a foghorn.  The moral?  All you can do is do your best to accommodate people. 

We at Or Hadash try to accommodate everyone as best we can.  Let me just explore with you what membership here brings. 

It brings a close, personal relationship with a rabbi who can assist us to grow not only spiritually, but in other ways that help us hopefully to improve our lives. 

A look at our Gift of the Hand form, that was included in everyone’s membership packet, provides a plethora of opportunities to connect.  Let me list some.

Hesed.  Anyone here who has been touched by the acts of loving kindness from Hesed members knows how truly blessed we are to have such caring people helping us in our time of greatest emotional and physical need.

Social action.  We assist families by providing food and clothing.  Through the Interfaith Hospitality Network we prepare meals, transport families, eat with families and sleep in the building housing the families down on their luck.

Social events.  For you planners and party people there are numerous events to help plan and support.  We have FUN at these events.

Governance.  We have the Board which can be a great learning experience for how to run an organization. 

Parent Organization.  Join and you will appreciate what your child is learning in school better and you can also assist with the religious school in so many ways.

Building & Grounds.  Yes we have an old, beautiful building with accompanying grounds and your skills and sweat are always appreciated.  Camaraderie is a natural outgrowth of doing this work together and seeing the results unfold in front of you.

If you like marketing we have a committee, if you love Israel we have a committee, if you like to raise money we have a committee, if you like to learn we have adult ed, if you like finances and accounting we have the finance committee.  If you like to play games we have a poker havurah and we have mah jong too.  We have a hiking havurah.  Anyone want to start another softball team?  If you like to write you can edit HaKesher, help with our Facebook page and website and help with publicity.  If you are concerned about guns we have the gun violence prevention committee.  If you like to read and discuss the books you read with an awesome set of people we have a book club.  If you like music and comedy we have the choir, the New Klezmaniacs, coffee houses and the purimspiel.  If you care about civil and personal rights we have the inclusion committee. If you want to tell people about all we offer you can join the membership committee.

If you are not Jewish you can count on being comfortable here and be an integral part of this close community.   We want you here, we need you here.  We are inclusive no matter who you are.

And yes, we are a religious institution.  You can pray here, learn Torah here, learn how to lead services and shivas and so much more.

Can you see the relevance of all of this to your life?  I hope so.

The larger our community is, the more diversity and dynamism it can maintain.  But our members must volunteer.  Newer members can put their toes in the water and try something they are comfortable with.

We try to accommodate everyone in some way so that they will be engaged and enjoy it here.  If we are missing accommodating anyone we want to know what we can do.  We are not mind readers.  Communication is key.  Our lay leaders, rabbi, ed director, teachers and staff try to accommodate everyone as best we can.

Here at Or Hadash we try to accommodate everyone, but please… help us to accommodate you.

Thank you.  Shanah Tovah.

 

PRESIDENT JAY COHEN’S ADDRESS ON ROSH HASHANAH 5777

Like most of us who watch television or read the papers, my mind has been bombarded by all kinds of emotions about the presidential race. My emotions
have ranged from laughter, disbelief, rage and disappointment, to name a few. I’m not limiting my emotions to criticism of any one person or party - reference my letter to the editor of the Inquirer published in yesterday’s paper pointing out that the bloated $85 million raised for the Democratic National Convention here included the largest “donor” being the $10 million Pennsylvania taxpayers unwittingly forked out through a grant from the PA Dept. of Community and Economic Development. My research on their own website could not turn up any mention of this in their list of grants, even though their mission includes the promise that they will assure transparency and accountability in the expenditure of public funds.

This morning I’d like to juxtapose this crazy presidential race with our congregation’s Vision Statement. How odd right? Have I lost it? What’s the connection? For me, it’s the use of words, their meaning, how they are perceived and acted upon. 

We live in a world of words. Written and spoken. As Hillary Clinton said in debate #1, “words matter.” What words are said or written, how they are said or written, the context in which they appear, all affect how the words are perceived. Sometimes words are not spoken and that absence also says something. Sometimes there are misperceptions of words. I have a funny example of how one’s attitude at the current moment can cause a misperception of words. 

My first cousin Shirley, who lives in Nacogdoches Texas, visited us this summer. In the course of trading stories, she related one about her older daughter Wendy. Wendy is a divorced mother of two grown children. She lives in Nacogdoches which is a small college town, home to Stephen F. Austin State University. Wendy does not have a wide range of dating options there which sometimes can be a downer for her. One day she was driving in the area and saw from a distance a new billboard which advertised “Singles Vacations.” It gave the address and, since it was just what she needed, she drove over to the address. She parked and literally danced through the parking lot, ready to schedule a well deserved holiday with a chance to meet some men. With hopes raised, she walked up to the receptionist and asked to see some Singles Vacations brochures. The receptionist frowned and pointed to the sign to the left of her which said: “ Shingles Vaccinations”!

In the context of the use, perception of words and action upon those words, I want to reference the Or Hadash Vision Statement. Let me read it to you:

Or Hadash strives to be a dynamic and innovative community that inspires us to deepen our connections to Judaism and to each other through tefillah
(prayer), limmud (learning) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). We aim to achieve these goals in an atmosphere of mutual respect and intellectual integrity that welcomes everyone from all backgrounds. Through shared values and the egalitarian and progressive principles of Reconstructionist Judaism, we aim to evolve spiritually and intellectually as individuals and as a sacred community. 

Very important to me is the part where we are inspired to deepen our connections to each other in an atmosphere of mutual respect and intellectual integrity. 

Our Strategic Planning Committee is currently meeting for its second year and is tasked with making recommendations for the future of Or Hadash over the next 5 years. We aim to be proactive rather than reactive. These recommendations are to be in alignment with the current Vision Statement. So it’s important to understand the import of our Vision’s words. We need to remember how our synagogue functions and also what is not said in the Vision Statement, but what is understood from our history. 

For me, in my years in lay leadership here, I have been awestruck by the level of mutual respect and intellectual integrity that is exhibited here. I think we also share values inspired by Reconstructionism, including being egalitarian and progressive. For me, our Vision Statement is not just words, it is a snapshot of our actions.

In this agonizing and ridiculously long political season, we are living through a war of words that falls far short of showing mutual respect and intellectual integrity. There has been a lot of inappropriate behavior that has led me, and many other people, to be sick and tired of this political season. I literally hate it. How do I deal with this strong emotion in these days of awe? 

While this is the season of forgiveness, in my admitted limited understanding of the Torah, I think the Torah allows for not forgetting-not forgetting oppression, not forgetting injustice. To me, this whole political race, with all of its inappropriate behavior, is an injustice to the American people. 

I have asked myself over the years, and struggled with the question, whether we should always forgive? Should we forgive in the face of injustice? Hate is a very dangerous emotion, which can lead to more hate and violence. So what is our obligation in this situation? I have read that if you don’t act upon an obligation, then that can create negative energy and a negative outcome may result. What are our obligations as progressive Jews, and for progressive people who are not Jewish?

For me, hate is an emotion that is counterproductive. So, I think I shouldn’t say I hate politicians; rather, I should say I don’t like the political processes that drive politicians to say the odious things they often spew out and to pander to particular parts of the electorate. Many politicians use words in manipulative and misleading ways. The presidential race this year has underlayments of racism, veiled incitements to violence and flat out factual lying or, at a minimum, half truths. No matter who we support politically, if part of our mission as Reconstructionists is to repair the world, then should we forgive the politicians for their pandering and the people who fall prey to it? It’s a hard question. However, I think we truly are stronger together. We should try to engage in rational, respectful conversations with those we may disagree with, politically or otherwise. It doesn’t help to turn away from someone you disagree with politically. I think engagement is more meaningful and satisfying. I think that is our obligation as progressive Jews.

Our Vision Statement asks us to engage. We can’t be “dynamic” if we sit still. We can’t repair the world if we do not act. While the word “volunteer” is not present in our Vision Statement, volunteerism is at the heart of our dynamism and engagement. It is just understood that this is how we have always operated and a big reason why we enjoy belonging here. We connect in this way. I think we should strive to not just be observers. I hope we are not just observers in the political races this year. This year, voting is certainly engagement and our obligation. 

We at Or Hadash are naturally givers and not observers. Thanks to those of you who have filled out the Gift of the Hand this year. If you have not yet done this, please pick up the form and consider volunteering. I understand that this is difficult for many of you given family and work obligations. It took me many years to volunteer here. Do what you can when you feel you can. We do not pressure here. This is meant to be a safe, comfortable space. But at some point, please consider not just being an observer. Volunteering is the lifeblood of this congregation. It connects us to each other when we volunteer and forms strong bonds. Thanks to those of you who volunteer for so many things. I am always humbled by our hard working volunteers.

We are lucky also to have our devoted Rabbi, who is highly respected in the Jewish rabbinic community here. He holds positions in Bux-Mont and Philadelphia that reflect that. We owe Rabbi Josh many thanks. Thanks to our synagogue administrator, our bookkeeper, our innovative Education Director, our teachers, and all other staff and non-staff who make this place a giving, comfortable place.

Thanks to those of you on our Strategic Planning Committee who are working on taking Or Hadash into a successful future. Thanks to all who volunteer with the Interfaith Housing Alliance, cooking meals, sleeping over with the homeless families and supporting this effort year in and year out. Thanks to all of our hardworking committee chairs and their committee members who make this place work so well. Thanks to all of you who come out on work days and volunteer with your sweat, muscle and ingenuity. All committees are important. We have other committees recently formed that you will hear more about in the future, whose members are dedicated to the well being of Or Hadash and our larger community as well. We act on our Vision at Or Hadash and we can be very proud of what we do and who we are.

Shanah Tovah everyone!