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September 22, 2015

Our Jewish Home (Yom Kippur Appeal 5776)

Abigail Pogrebin

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Last spring, just a week after I was given this humbling job as your president, I faced my first full-blown synagogue crisis: one singular bedbug was discovered in the Community House on 55th Street.

As I hunkered down in Central’s Situation Room, strategizing a response with our senior director, Livia Thompson, and her crack staff, it occurred to me that, if the parasites invaded us in droves, there was one surefire way to make them scatter as fast as they came: turn up our public address system, and start delivering my Yom Kippur Appeal.

When I see study after study about how people are abandoning religious institutions and how Jews are forgoing Judaism, I look at Central Synagogue and think, why are we one of the few that have defied the trends? Why are we an outlier?

Why, when so many Jews report being detached from synagogue life, do we have a waiting list, and do so many of us want to invite our friends to Friday night services to get a taste of something special?

Why, when so few children choose to continue Jewish education after their b’nei mitzvah, did we have 35 Confirmation students last year?

Why, when the majority of American Jews are content with their lack of basic Jewish knowledge, do we have 155 congregants enrolled in our Melton adult education classes?

How would we explain the reason so many of us are connected in a time of disconnection?  Why are all of us here tonight?  It’s not just habit. It’s not just tradition. It’s not just guilt. 

We choose to have a Jewish home outside of our family’s four walls—because we know the power of belonging.  And because we don’t know when we’re going to need each other.

I would never have anticipated, six years ago, that my son, Benjamin, then twelve years old, would refuse to go through with his bar mitzvah after his ten-year-old friend Jacob died of brain cancer.  To Ben, it simply made no sense to honor a God who could let that happen.

But somehow Rabbi Rubinstein managed to slowly, gently talk Ben through every one of his doubts, and encourage him to take his place on the bimah for what turned out to be one of the most meaningful days of my son’s life.

I would never have predicted, during the Israel trip with Central, that I’d get choked up on the tour bus, as we ascended to the holy city and I heard Rabbi Buchdahl start singing “Jerusalem of Gold.”

I did not expect, when we lost my father-in-law, Milton, last February, that my family would feel so profoundly supported by so many Central friends, who kept checking in when Milt was sick and sent lox and bagels to the shivah in Chicago.

None of us know when we’ll need each other. 

Whatever our individual paths here at Central—to prayer, to learning, to giving back—this Jewish home-base is vibrant everywhere we turn.

Just look at the number of toddlers waddling into the elevators for nursery school every morning.

Look at the conversions—140 in three years—which our rabbis have shepherded through our Exploring Judaism program for interfaith couples.

Look at the 200 volunteers who are in rotation serving a hot breakfast to our homeless guests every Thursday and Friday at dawn, or making sandwiches for the lunches we distribute.

The teen choir keeps our songs alive; the Hebrew classes keep our language alive; the Torah seminars keep our stories alive.

I don’t have to tell any of you what it feels like to know you have a greater Jewish home, or why, with everything that’s happening in the world, it feels more crucial than ever to keep one.

Maybe you’ve felt your Jewish family when you climbed Masada with Central, attended the community seder last spring, or one of last year’s cocktail parties with the clergy.  Maybe you’ve sat in Central’s sukkah, paid a shivah call, watched your children get blessed at the ark, or simply heard the rousing blast of the shofar last week.

If you’re like me, you’ve felt our Jewish home on a Friday night, when you sit by yourself and the stresses of the week fall away as you turn to the east during L’chah Dodi or notice the powerful unison of the Sh’ma, or stand for all the mourners in our midst during Kaddish.

Everything here that’s comforting, excellent, and durable can only stay that way if we all hold up this place. This synagogue cannot survive thanks to a few major donors, however grateful we are for their generosity. Every contribution of every size represents our solidarity of purpose, our appreciation for our extraordinary clergy, staff, teachers, and security team, for this spiritual anchor in our lives and precious outlier in the Jewish world. 

We recognize that our dues only cover a third of our costs, and that focuses the mind: it means that everything falters without this once-a-year effort.  Central doesn’t hold fancy fundraisers or galas.  This is the only time we are asked to do our part.

If there is any goal I have personally, it is for our rabbis to marvel that this year, every member became a donor.  What a powerful, unequivocal message that would send.  And if you are already giving, I want to thank you wholeheartedly—and nudge you a little Jewishly—to consider giving a little more than you originally planned.

We atone together and we hold up this house together. We buck the trends and defy the odds together. Not by accident, but because we believe in belonging, we believe in the power of a larger Jewish family—one that sustains us before we know we need sustenance. 

I’m proud to say Central stands apart, but I know it can’t stand alone.  We all hold a pole in the chuppah that protects it.  And no matter what happens—in the world, or in our own lives—we will always be each other’s Jewish home.