It is my privilege to bring to you my sixteenth Rabbi’s report on the state of Oheb Shalom. To paraphrase Hillel, while standing on one foot, our congregation is healthy, stable, and growing. We are engaged in incremental change in almost every area of our congregational life. In this day and age, that is an incredibly positive statement. All the rest is commentary.
The commentary is still very important. Allow me to wax for a few moments upon a verse in this week’s Torah portion, one that is at the heart of what it means to be a Jew. At the end of Parashat Behar (26:1) towards the very end of Leviticus, God tells the Jewish people, “
You shall not make idols for yourselves.” That verse has defined our identity from Abraham until today- we are idol breakers. We smash false assumptions and destroy cultural norms. We stand for that which is timeless, for values which endure throughout the ages. We are the descendants of the greatest idol breakers of all, Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets. Today, we devote our lives to the creation of sacred community, one which is counter to the American cultural value of the autonomous self. We speak not of “self,” but of community; of “responsibility,” not of privileges. We ask our people to be “selfless” and not “selfish,” to think of others before we think of ourselves. In an anti-intellectual age, we urge our people to make the study of Torah a priority, to continually think and question, to find answers in ancient texts. To be a serious Liberal Jew today is to be completely counter-cultural. This is the attraction of Reform Judaism. It is also what turns some away. Not everyone will be drawn to a community that places expectations upon them. Yet to be part of Oheb Shalom is to stand with Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets as we continue to shatter the norms that govern modern life. As your rabbi, I am proud to be part of this venerable and vibrant community.
The Pew Research Center’s recently released report on American Jews offered some interesting findings which Oheb Shalom reflects. Next to Hindu Americans, we are the most educated religious group in the country. We are still the largest religious minority in the United States and the Reform movement is by far the largest of our three major denominations. What I find very compelling, and crucial for our future growth, is the growing number of non-White Jews. Today, 90% of American Jews say they are Caucasian, while 2% are black, 4% Latino, 2% Asian, and 2% other non-Hispanic. These numbers indicate tremendous growth in the Jewish “non-White” population, for which we should be incredibly grateful. We are a world – wide tribe of peoples united by our faith and traditions. Race has no place among us, for every Jew is a descendant of Abraham and Sarah. If you look around our congregation and religious school, these figures become palpable. There is no such thing as “Jewish” looking anymore. Just look at the children in our religious school and you will see a remarkable array of physical and racial types. It is incumbent upon us to be as inclusive as possible. In addition, the Pew Report tells us that 17% of all adult Jews are converts, a remarkable statistic that indicates our message is a compelling one. Rabbi Nagel and I are certainly doing our part to increase that number as we work with and officiate at approximately ten conversions a year. These precious individuals reinvigorate us, add their strength to ours, and remind us what is so precious about our heritage. We are so grateful that they have cast their lot with us.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Oheb Shalom is our stability. Our three clergy have been here a combined 35 years, with no end in sight. Rabbi Nagel, Cantor Braun and I are a smoothly functioning team that works together each and every day on your behalf. Ken Davidson, assisted by Susan, is continuing to do yeomen’s work as our Executive Director. I do not know of anyone who works harder than Ken. Ken is especially thankful for the Indian American and African American communities, because of whom rentals of our facility have tremendously increased. Sally is completing her 16th year with us, presiding over Beit Midrash and Adult Learning which have grown exponentially. 90% of our parents study with her regularly. Aileen Friedman, the Directory of our Learning Ladder, is leading our early childhood center towards Maryland State accreditation, which we hope to achieve in the next two years. Maxine is busier than ever on special projects, planning our Israel trip for this December and staffing the very worthwhile Engagement Task Force. As an aside, there are, as of now, 63 of us going to Israel on December 23. We have room for eighty, so please feel free to join us! We were absolutely delighted when Meredith Geller rejoined us this year as our Programming and Communications Coordinator. As of July 1, Meredith will be resuming her role as Assistant Principal of our Religious School. Next month, we will welcome Caitlin Brazner to assume Meredith’s position. Aliza Raskas has been with us for three months and has done beautifully as assistant to the clergy. We hope to have a new youth director in the next few weeks so we can concentrate on rebuilding OSTRYG, our Senior Youth group. On a sad note, Debra Mogul, assistant to our Executive Director, has announced her retirement after 28 years with Oheb Shalom. Debra will always be an integral part of our congregation as she makes a well-deserved life transition. We will have an opportunity to thank Debra for her service next month.
When our congregants return for Rosh Hashanah, they will notice a number of physical improvements, most obviously the resurfacing of the West parking lot. As a result of a very recent, quite generous anonymous donation, we will be doing major improvements to our O’Donnell Street Cemetery. We hope to begin that process this summer.
Our religious school now has 350 students, the largest number since the mid-70s. We expect it will even be larger by this time next year. We will have the largest b’nei mitzvah class in two decades, with each child having his or her own service on Shabbat morning or during the Shabbat Mincha Service. Perhaps the most notable change for this year will be Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Machzor. Given the approval of our Religious Practices Committee, our ushers will be handing out new High Holyday prayer books on Rosh Hashanah. Gates of Repentance is now forty years old, which means it is in drastic need of revision. Mishkan HaNefesh is more than a revision but an entirely new Machzor in the spirit of Mishkan T’fila. Our clergy team had its doubts about the efficacy of the new book when we piloted the Yom Kippur Afternoon Service and looked at Yizkor. Just last week, Rabbi Nagel, Cantor Braun and I attended a seminar in New York to review Mishkan HaNefesh and learn how to better utilize it. We unanimously agree that we are very excited about our new Machzor and look forward to its formal adoption by our congregation. It will enable our High Holyday services to be even more meaningful than ever before.
In the words of the poet Kohelet, time is fleeting and of the making of books there is no end, so even though I can go on and on, it is incumbent upon me to end. I conclude by thanking our officers for their devotion to this kehilah kedosha, our clergy and staff for their continued dedication to Oheb Shalom and my dear wife, Sally, for being the best partner a man could ever have.
Amen and Shabbat shalom