There was once an ailing father who speaks to his children of treasure buried in the backyard.
The man dies.
The children arise from their grieving, and reach for shovels, hungrily searching for fortune.
Day and night: they plumbed the soil, until they realize there’s no buried treasure after all.
Later, one of the children said to the other two: “look at what we’ve done. We’ve plowed and turned the land. We should plant seeds.”
The siblings began dreaming together.
They lovingly planted seeds, which they dutifully watered. The seeds blossomed. There was food for their respective families. And on Shabbat: they gathered and ate together.
On Rosh HaShanah, we celebrate new beginnings, and renewal - for ourselves, of course, but also for our treasure: our 57 year old synagogue community. This morning, it’s time to focus on Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El, and our future.
Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg describes the Rosh HaShanah tradition of cheshbon hanefesh:
“The Rabbis taught that from time to time people must […] assess their deeds and [...] spiritual condition. [...] Cheshbon hanefesh - a reckoning with one’s self - literally means accounting for the soul. Such moments are a time for penetrating questions and self-criticism; they pave the way for [...] renewal.”
Today’s shofar blasts call us to this work individually, as we strive to become better people. But we’re also called to reflect on our community.
Let’s begin by acknowledging Scarsdale Synagogue for the treasure it is.
For our long, distinguished history, we give thanks.
It’s a blessing to journey Jewishly here, inspired by our congregation’s unique identity centering on warmth, welcoming, and inclusion.
We take seriously Isaiah’s utterance: My house shall be called a House of Prayer for all people.
Everyone’s welcome here.
Our Founders put inclusion at the in the early 1960s, believing that something was missing from the local Jewish landscape.
That vision was powerfully furthered when Rabbi Stephen Klein became this congregation’s second rabbi, around 1980.
And we proudly reaffirm that vision today.
We dare not take our inclusivity for granted.
As I speak, my Israeli colleagues are being publicly shamed. They celebrate Rosh HaShanah under the absurdist threat of arrest for living out Jewish principles that you and I cherish.
And here at home: we are troubled witnesses…to an alarming rise in anti-Semitism, to a renewed acceptance of racism and homophobia, and to a draconian governmental response to the immigrant and stranger.
At a time when our values are being attacked, we dare not take our inclusivity for granted. And we dare not take this synagogue, a proud outpost of that inclusion, for granted.
Precisely because our synagogue’s values are so precious: the shofar beckons us to plan for our future.
In that spirit, we are preparing a strategic plan as a roadmap toward institutional renewal in the coming years.
We began partnering last year with the Union for Reform Judaism on their Benchmarking and Assessment Project. A remarkable 50% of our households completed surveys towards that effort.
Given the emphasis in our tradition during this season to the notion that words matter, we were moved by your response to the question about words to describe the congregation. You shared powerful, values-laden words like: accepting, caring, and community. These are the words that all of us are using to create community that touches lives, heals the world, and prepares our young people to become the newest link in the enduring chain of Jewish tradition.
The survey results didn’t just tell us that we are using a shared language. Your responses also assured us that we are doing a remarkable job at collaborating to bring that sense of community to life. We are particularly proud, for example, of the fact that 88% of respondents would recommend us to friends.
But we didn’t do this communal cheshbon ha-nefesh to congratulate ourselves. We’re seeking constructive feedback so that we can effectively prepare our congregation for the future.
Using your input, our Strategic Planning Team has begun focusing on three areas of synagogue life.
First: our relational essence.
Our congregational Shema affirms that we honor “real lives and real relationships.”
Being in relationship isn’t a fluffy cliche. Our obligations to one another are at the heart of Judaism. In relationship, we hold each other accountable: for all the ways we lift one another up, and heal the world. Judith Plaskow notes:
“In coming together with others [...] we [...] form new communities [...] to renew and carry on our purposes. It is as we join with others, [...], in shared engagement to a common vision, that we find ourselves in the presence of [something Ultimate] that is the [...] source of our hopes and intentions, and that undergirds and sustains them.”
We make each other’s lives better - and we change the world - when we come together, sensing God’s Presence in sacred community. And so, our synagogue continues to focus on relationship-building, that we might strengthen our connection to one another in the year ahead.
We’ve already begun. Cantor Becker and I try to reach families weekly to mark the anniversary of the death of a loved one. We do this because each of us matters. And we do this because we stand together during seasons of sadness, and of joy.
And - as we heard from Julie Glick and Danny Davis, and from Dan and Kara Alpert last evening: our Worship Revolution is an ongoing relational success!
We engaged with speakers like Steve Liesman and Will Swift, and from longtime members like Irving Picard and Mark Hoffman during vibrant Shabbat dinners. And we kicked off an awesome new intergenerational and social Havdalah series. As a result, our Shabbat attendance has dramatically increased. And we have heard from you how impactful the shift has been. There’s much more to come - as we share Shabbat together in 5779!
Your survey input has also led us to a second area of focus: our finances.
Your feedback has revealed a gap between our membership’s perception of temple finances…and what our financial reality actually is.
Outside experts advise that we boast a strong financial profile almost unheard of amongst synagogues! We are debt free, with substantial assets to boot. And our innovative pledge model is a success, thanks to your ongoing commitment and generous support.
To be sure: we are cognizant of declining affiliation regionally and nationally. Synagogues everywhere have less members and revenue today than ten years ago.
Our Budget Committee has steered us toward a more balanced budget as a result. And we have Membership and Fundraising Task Forces discerning new ways to sustain our future.
Even as the synagogue reviews financial presumptions, we re-dedicate ourselves to more transparency, so that you’ll be even more informed about what’s happening in the year ahead.
Thanks to your data, our Strategic Plan will also have a third area of focus: taking a hard look at our facility.
Our leadership is convinced that our sanctuary cannot fulfill our highest aspirations. How can our house be a house of prayer for all people when the steps prevent too many from navigating safely? And our fixed seating prevents us from facilitating the meaningful worship we have long dreamed of doing.
Last year, we explored facilities options on two fronts. We hired an architectural firm to begin drafting a Master Plan for the property.
And, we hired development consultants to conduct a feasibility study to assess whether we can make these dreams a reality. More than 70 members graciously sat for confidential conversations with our consultants to share an initial sense of whether support for this project exists.
A month ago, our leadership received these results.
We were proud to learn that the primary spending priority of those interviewed is our young people and their Jewish education.
That effort is centered on the wonderful contributions Rabbi Glickman and her teachers are making in our Religious School. I’ll call out here the noteworthy development of our Kulanu program - which creates inclusive learning spaces for students with diverse learning needs; and the groundbreaking work our 8th and 9th graders just finished with Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale. Looking ahead, we’ll be working with parents and stakeholders to develop our next generation of teen engagement opportunities.
The study from our consultants also revealed that interviewees’ second spending priority is the upkeep of our facility. Similarly: respondents indicated that the state of our building is one of the top three challenges currently facing the congregation. The data suggests you are as concerned about the structure as we are.
Thanks to all of this input, we believe planning for a sanctuary project should continue.
Many are wondering: Can we raise the money? How will we be impacted during construction? And: what if new members don’t come afterward?
I grapple with these questions myself.
In that context, I return to our synagogue’s most recent capital project: our wonderful playground. Jody Glassman tells me these same questions were raised before Mazel Tots embarked on playground construction.
Today, the playground is a huge success. It is a jewel in the crown of our property, where young people of all ages and abilities congregate.
And local parents have noticed: Mazel Tots and Summer Star enrollment is up more than 25% since construction.
A new playground was no guarantee, of course, that Mazel Tots would enjoy a renaissance.
But not building was never an option.
Because Jody and her team knew that our preschool would never thrive without an outstanding, inclusive space that kids could enjoy and grow with.
The same is true for our congregation.
Addressing our facility is no guarantee of a revitalized synagogue. But if we don’t build, we’ll remain rooted in the past, unable to fully thrive going forward.
Now is the time to grapple with these meta-challenges. As we strive to build stronger and deeper relationships, live within our financial means, and inhabit an updated facility, our dreaming must be accompanied by planting…by “do-ing”.
This family of families that embodies our hopes and dreams is a treasure.. And its preciousness must be protected and sustained. In every generation, new seeds must be planted, to ensure that the work of the ones who came before us continues.
We need your help to make that happen.
Shared financial generosity is one step toward our future. But it’s just a part of what we need moving forward.
Now, we need to hear from you. Plant with us by sharing your hopes for the future - particularly during the Town Hall Meetings we’ve scheduled on Sunday September 16th and Wednesday September 26. We are excited to hear from you where our Strategic Plan should be focused, and the best way to get there.
Plant with us by heeding the call of our Worship Revolution. Join us on Shabbat: to socialize, pray, learn, and eat - together. Because our strength is multiplied when we build relationships together.
Finally: plant with us by sharing time with the congregation. We have ambitious plans, but they require dedicated volunteers who can lift us to new heights. If you’ve never volunteered for Scarsdale Synagogue before: seize this moment! Let us know where you’re called to serve. We know that volunteer service will be meaningful to you. But it will also be transformative for us.
We began with treasure...so we’ll end there too.
There was once a poor man named Yekel - a dreamer. Nightly, he’d sit in his tiny home, on his broken chair, at his battered table. He’d dream about a future filled with promise and fulfillment. Not with unlimited riches. Just enough to get by, in comfort.
But the years passed.
Until one night: Yekel had the most vivid dream. There was a bridge in the capital city, on the banks of a great river. And underneath the bridge: buried treasure.
Yekel awoke. The treasure: so real, so close. It called to him!
At midnight, he set off for the capital, found the bridge, and by daybreak, he was digging.
A policeman came and inquired. What could Yekel say? He revealed his dream.
You believe such dreams? the policeman said. Fool! If I believed every dream I had, I’d be ridiculous too. Just last night, I dreamt that a man named Yekel has a treasure buried beneath his home - and he doesn’t even know!
On hearing his name, Yekel dropped everything and ran home. Sure enough, in the ground below his table: a treasure.
The treasure we seek on Rosh HaShanah isn’t monetary. It’s a sense of connection, belonging, and meaning. Of values, heritage, and justice. Of inclusion and continuity. And it’s right here before us: our synagogue community.
In this national moment of marginalization and discrimination, this synagogue is our bayit, our home and haven, and it’s now more precious than ever.
May this be the year that we move decisively to plan for our future...and to plant for it...to ensure our treasure’s well-being for many decades to come.
The Tzanzer Rebbe was once asked by a disciple: “What does the Rebbe do before praying?” And the Rebbe replied: “I pray that I might have the ability to pray.”
His answer reveals the existential dilemma of the modern Jew. We have lost our voice and our inclination to pray. Some of us have even lost our faith in God. Like the Rebbe, we grapple with communal prayer.
Oliver Sacks tells the story in Awakenings of a former music teacher who suffers from Parkinson’s. Ultimately, her motion and personality are restored “by music.” She said: “As I am un-musicked, I must be re-musicked.” It is the same with us. Modernity has un-musicked the Jewish people when it comes to our communal prayer life. And we must be re-musicked. We must learn again about the value inherent in sharing Shabbat with our friends, family, and neighbors in a communal context.
To that end, last year our synagogue kicked off a Worship Revolution, whose goal was to reinvigorate Shabbat worship. Thanks in large part to Cantor Becker and our Communal Worship Committee, we were wildly successful.
Shabbat is now the moment in our weekly schedule when folks come together - not just to pray - but to eat together, and to learn…either with our clergy…or with an exciting outside speaker. Our Brotherhood, in particular, has become an extraordinary partner in this work - enabling us to bring in well known experts like our own Mark Hoffman and CNBC journalist Steve Liesman; presidential historian Will Swift; our own Irving Picard sharing candid reflections on the Madoff case; and our own Bill Grueskin on “fake news”.
But our Worship Revolution isn’t just about study and current events.
The question of “re-musicking” ourselves…of setting off on a journey of the spirit again…is sometimes less about our wanting to find God…and more about needing God and others to find us.
As Avivah Zornberg, puts it: “The desire to see God’s face is at the same time the desire to be seen.”
She suggests that to be in relationship with God is to be in relationship with other people. And to be in relationship with others, we have to leave the comfort of our homes, and enter the space of community.
This is one of the great functions of synagogue life. We are conveners of community. We come together on Shabbat to get to know one another better. And to share in the highs and lows of our lives. That is how we begin to encounter God again. By encountering one another.
And in that sense, too, our Worship Revolution has been a resounding success. We have purposely increased the number of Shabbat dinners on our calendar - both catered and potluck - because the meal space, more than the Sanctuary or the Classroom - is the place where we have the freedom to get to know one another and strengthen the bonds we share with each other.
And increased attendance over the last year proves that the Revolution is having a wonderful impact!
Later this evening, we will be privileged to hear from two couples uniquely situated to speak about their respective families’ Jewish journeys in the context of our Worship Revolution. First, we’ll hear from Julie Glick and Danny Davis. Julie has been a leader in helping us envision this second year of the Worship Revolution, branching out to bring intergenerational and social experiences at the conclusion of Shabbat to our entire congregation, including young families. We’ll also hear from Dan and Kara Alpert. Dan is one of the co-presidents of Brotherhood, whose leadership team continues to inspire us with creative learning and dialogue opportunities in the year ahead. May their willingness to share their personal stories inspire you to share your stories with one another.
In the year ahead, Cantor Becker and I invite you to pray with us. Pray by singing with us. Pray by learning with us. Pray by dining and socializing with us. Pray with us because - as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes: “prayer is to the soul what food is to the body. Without prayer, something within us atrophies and dies. It is possible to have a life without prayer, just as it is possible to have a life without music, or love, or laughter, but it is a diminished life, missing whole dimensions of experience. We need space within the soul to express our joy in being, our wonder at the universe, our hopes, our fears, our failures, our aspirations - bringing our deepest thoughts as offerings to the One who listens, and listening, in turn, to the One who calls.”
May this be the year that we listen. May this be the year we respond to the call. May this be the year we pray together. Keyn Yhi Ratzon - may this be God’s will.