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high Holiday appeal 2023

by Lawrence Engle

Shabbat   Shalom and L’Shana Tova everybody.

I’ve been asked to speak to today, which is a rarity…because I usually speak in temple without being asked, just ask Rabbi Goldberg or Cantor Sklar or anyone else in near proximity to where David and I usually sit on Shabbat.

But in my defense, on Yom Kippur in about 1984, my Rabbi at Temple Beth El in Cedarhurst told me that it was okay if I talked in temple. You see, it was on that Yom Kippur that an usher gave Bethany and me a choice…we could either stop talking and stay in services or continue to talk and leave. We left. 
When we returned to the temple’s break-fast at the end of the service, our Rabbi asked us why we left. We told him about the choice that Mr. Fried had given us. Our Rabbi told us that he’d rather us be in temple talking, than not being in temple. He also told us that an essential purpose of synagogue was to develop relationships. 

So Rabbi Goldberg and Cantor Sklar, if you hear David and me talking during services, that’s what relationships and belonging look like, that’s what relationships and belonging sound like. 

I’ve been asked to speak today about what it is about KTI that I am grateful for and, no surprises here, I am also asking you to generously contribute to our High Holiday Appeal. 

Thank you, KTI, for creating an oasis away from the noises and stresses of the outside world, an oasis where each of us is valued and can enjoy a deep sense of belonging.

In the face of rising antisemitism and the continued, steady decrease in synagogue affiliation in the national Jewish Community, as well as my personal experiences working, voluntarily and professionally, with failing synagogues in Westchester, Putnam and Nassau Counties, I have concerns that I am compelled to share with you. 

A bit more personal perspective before I answer the essential question.

The Fall semester of my freshman year in college, 1976, was spent in an old railroad town in western New York. In addition to myself, only 5 other students attended the Rosh Hashanna Service. My English professor, Dr. Melvin Bernstein, was the lay leader. Aware that there were other Jewish faculty and staff, I asked where they and their families went for services. He said sometimes they went to the shuttered temple in Hornell which only rarely opened, but most often they had no where to go.

After the Holidays I continued my conversation with Dr. Bernstein and asked if the children of the Jewish faculty and staff went anywhere for religious instruction. He broached the topic with the Dean of Student Affairs, also a Jew, and within a few weeks I was teaching about a dozen or so pre-teen and teens of varying ages from a radius of approximately 20 miles in what was essentially a one room religious schoolhouse. It was the first formal Jewish education any of them had ever had. They began to learn how to read Hebrew, they learned about Jewish holidays and history and about Israel. Lessons we at KTI may take for granted. It was the first time their impressionable eyes saw an open Torah. And each of them learned not only what the meaning of the S’hema is, but how to recite it.

And then…well then for Spring Term I transferred. When my mom and dad drove me home from Alfred University, I asked them to pass by the shuttered temple in Hornell, NY. I shed tears of guilt that day, guilt that I was abandoning my small, nascent Jewish Community. 

I made a personal commitment that day, a commitment to never again abandon my Jewish community.
And so given my recent experiences with failing synagogues and the personal commitment I made 47 years ago, it is not that I have been asked to speak today so much as it is that I cannot remain silent. 
It is emotionally and spiritually depressing to work with the leadership and members of shuls which are failing and are dissolving and closing their doors forever. I speak with the leadership and the members and, almost to a person, through tears of sadness they lament, what might have been if I had only done a bit more. If I had only given more…give more time, given more financially, given more of my self. 
I would have like to share with them best practices, but quite frankly, by the time they reached out to me, my services were more akin to caring for the dying than then they were of offering life-saving advice. 

And then I think about KTI, 136 years young. Yes, today is KTI’s  birthday, having been born on the first day of Rosh Hashanna, 1887. Marking it as one of the oldest, if not the oldest continuously operating synagogue in Westchester County and the only synagogue in our community. And I think, how did we get here and what makes us different? What is our secret?

It is easy to become complacent and take for granted the storied Jewish community that is KTI that we, perhaps unwittingly, are blessed to be a part of.

KTI’s 136 years didn’t happen by chance, nor will its next 136  years. And this is the first thing that I am grateful for. I am grateful for the 136 years of leaders, volunteers, members, clergy, staff, contributors of money, time and resources who have served and continue to serve KTI and have sustained us to this day.

We are all proud of our stellar Early Childhood Program which boasts historically high enrollment and a seemingly ever-present wait list.

Our religious school is the envy of all visiting family members or friends who celebrated a b’nai mitzvah service with us.

Enrolling your children in our schools, attending services, or joining with eachother for Purim spiels, trips to shows or museums, or enjoying comedy night is our secret for which and I am grateful.
Your participation in our broader community through your donations to Food2GrowOn and KTI’s food pantry, or participation in our book club, or interfaith programming with our friends at neighboring churches, vigils at Lions Park when hatred in America rears its ugly head, your participation and support is our secret for which and I am grateful.

Thank you for supporting the Red Cross Blood Drives at KTI or participating in a Purim, Superbowl or Final Four “Fun”draiser… Your act of kindness and Tzedakah are our secret for which and I am grateful.
Or perhaps you attended some of Rabbi Goldberg’s continuing education programs or Cantor Sklar’s joint cantorial concerts, or joined with other synagogues to commemorate Yom HaShoah or joined with neighbors of other faiths to honor and remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And if you, did you are our secret for which and I am grateful.

My next comment of appreciation may seem a bit self-serving, but it does not diminish my sincerity… I am appreciative of KTI’s very involved lay and professional leadership who manage the business of KTI in a thoughtful, deliberative, future-thinking and professional manner. Rabbi Goldberg, Cantor Sklar, Executive Director Sylvia Spitalnick, and members of the Executive Committee and Board of Trustees are actively engaged with our Westchester and Metropolitan Regional Jewish Community and sit on its boards and committees and, as such, are making a difference, on your behalf, in our broader Jewish Community. 

It is in great part because of KTI’s leadership that your contribution is a responsible financial investment.
Because our leadership is directly involved in the fight against anti-Semitism and racism, you, KTI are Standing Up and Speaking Out against Hatred in America. I am grateful knowing that when Judaism is attacked, that we have our place to go in our community, a place where its members are standing up for and speaking out on our behalf. If we didn’t have KTI, where would we go? Who would stand up for us? Who would speak out for us? 

We must not be like other shuls who have closed their doors forever. Each of you hold the keys that keep and will keep a thriving KTI standing tall and vibrant now and for many, many years to come. Please, please give generously.

Your participation and generous donations enables us to provide a safe space of belonging, and enables KTI to continue provide Jewish education to our children, continue the fight against anti-Semitism and hatred, and enable KTI to ease the pain of hunger and want that haunts less fortunate members of our community.

And it is because of YOU, that we welcomed 13 new families this past year, five B’nai Mitzvot,  celebrated five auf-rufs, which if my math is correct, means five weddings, and quite a number of baby namings and brises. The KTI community thrives as it grows.
What am I most grateful for at KTI?

You. Corny, I know, but…I have said it before and I will say it again…because it is as true now as it ever was…
And it is not hyperbole…
You, each and every one of you, make a difference in my community, in my synagogue, in my religious and social experience at KTI, quite frankly, in my life.  
You, each and every one of you, matter.
And it is that sense of community and belonging and connectedness that I am most sincerely grateful for. 

But folks, “Belonging” is not passive activity. Belonging and being valued in a community requires, in significant part, responsibility to and sacrifice for the good of that community. The author Sebastian Junger wrote extensively about this in his book “Tribe.” 

And that sacrifice leads, in part, to individual and community happiness. I’m not making this up. This was one of the findings of the world’s longest scientific study of Happiness performed by Harvard University. So, give more than you were planning on, and you’ll feel happier in doing so. 
KTI’s continued success is directly dependent on you. 

When you consider how much to contribute to KTI’s High Holiday Appeal, please, please be generous. Your extra generosity sustains KTI and is the key to our future.

Trustees and Board members will be circulating through the sanctuary to collect your pledge cards. If you prefer, however, there is a lucite collection box in the rotunda in which you can place your pledge cards. 

Thank you for your time as I talked in temple.

Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tov
& Happy Birthday

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784