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September 24, 2023

Yom Kippur Appeal 5784

Shonni Silverberg

Yom Kippur Appeal 5784
President Shonni Silverberg

Good evening. 

Welcome to our “Jews in the Pews” in our sanctuary, to our Neighbors, to those joining on livestream or JBS; whether you are the 6th generation of your family at Central, or you are with us for the first time.

This is my 3rd and final Yom Kippur Appeal as President, and I really wanted to end on a high note. I planned to speak about the pandemic as something in our rearview mirror. And it is. COVID, not so much.

You know in your car where it says: Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear? Well, it turns out that so are viruses… 

As soon as I completed writing my speech, I promptly got COVID for the very 1st time. And as you can see, with both your Senior Rabbi and President recently out of isolation, the joke is on us.

As my mother used to say, “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht.” We plan, and God laughs. 

Despite that unfortunate blip in our narrative, I would like to take us back to spring of 2020, when Coronavirus swept the nation and New York shut down. We were able to immediately move all synagogue activities online, because a decade earlier, Rabbi Rubinstein made the prescient commitment to offer an online alternative to serve homebound congregants. 

Thanks to our nimble staff and clergy team, we watched Shabbat services that kept us connected; we had top-flight education for all ages; restorative meditation with Rabbi Buchdahl; invaluable pickle-making with Rabbi Lorge and joyful singing with Cantor Mutlu – and often his adorable, talented family. 

While this transition appeared seamless, it required significant resources: the unwavering commitment of our remarkable team –  on this bimah and behind the scenes; and the generosity of you, our members. 

COVID receded and you gradually returned. We chose “the DUAL option” offering high-quality services and programs both in person and online. This again required significant additional financial and staff resources, and YOU stepped up.

Now, I’m so happy to say, we are “BACK.” Shabbat attendance has grown to pre-pandemic levels with hundreds of worshippers filling the pews. The uplifting music of our services is augmented by members celebrating milestones, visiting youth groups, speakers and choirs, and mourners marking Yartzheits. Our schools serve over 800 children from nursery to high school; thousands of adults attend classes and presentations on topics with which we all wrestle: antisemitism, end-of-life planning, the fractures in Israel. 

We live our Jewish values by feeding our neighbors, resettling refugee families, and helping those transitioning out of incarceration. Our Center for Exploring Judaism serves nearly 200 and we welcomed 75 new Jews after conversion.

But upon reflection, it is clear to me that we are not simply BACK: instead, we have moved BEYOND where we were before.  

WE ARE NOT WHO WE WERE BEFORE THE PANDEMIC: with tens of thousands joining on Shabbat, and hundreds of thousands joining on the High Holidays, we are now a community that never existed anywhere before the pandemic. We are a local congregation with a worldwide community, building Jewish connection across borders. 

We will always prioritize our congregants here in the city, but now we more nimbly serve members who cannot be with us because of physical limitations or because they are outside of our area.  And just as every b’nei mitzvah and wedding at Central strengthens Jewish tradition in our membership, so too our global participants reinforce Jewish values and traditions in their own homes and communities. 

In this way, Central is living up to our belief that a life with Judaism is more meaningful than life without it; that Reform Judaism affirms that faith and modernity can walk hand in hand.  

I want to direct some comments first to our members, and then to our livestreamers.

First, I want to welcome our members back to our sanctuary. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be together. You are our families, our neighbors, our dinner companions, our friends.  Over this period when we were apart, many of you actually became more engaged with Central. More of you joined the synagogue.  And in 2022, despite several years absence from our sanctuary, 86% of members attended three or more High Holiday services, in-person or virtually, up from 42% in 2019.

Are our members more engaged simply due to the availability of online options?  Or has the experience of COVID somehow changed our connection to Judaism, Central Synagogue and each other? Perhaps Central’s brand of joyful worship and learning just feels more important to us now?  And maybe, consciously or not, the rise in anti-Semitism in the world and in our surrounding community has focused our minds on what is at stake when we choose, publicly and proudly, a Jewish identity.
Whatever your reasons, Central’s ability to offer our members the Jewish experience we cherish depends very literally on you. 

Our Yom Kippur Appeal funds over one-third of our operating budget: allowing us to attract and retain the best clergy and staff, supporting our education and programs, providing dues and tuition assistance for 1 in 5 members of our own community. None of this can happen without your decision to contribute. 

I also want to briefly address our livestream and global community. 

You are a wildly diverse group, joining us from across the United States and over 100 countries around the globe: Yael from Mumbai, Mona from Johannesburg, Luccia from Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

We created the online-only Neighborhood, over 700 households strong, who worship together but never enter our physical space.  It is run by Rabbi Andrew Mandel, who has joined our clergy team full-time to work on growing the online Jewish experience for members, Neighbors and livestreamers alike.  

Last year, I asked you, our online community, for your support and you responded in ways that frankly knocked our socks off. Nearly 7000 non-member livestreamers donated to our Yom Kippur Appeal.  Tonight, I ask that you consider a gift not only in recognition of what these services mean to you, but also to enable us to continue providing the highest quality livestream to all – regardless of financial capacity. 

As Rabbi Buchdahl said recently, Rabbis are in the AWE business. As a physician for over 40 years, I would say doctors are in the HEALING business. But as an institution, Central is in both – what I might call the WHOLENESS business. That means powerful worship, educating our children in what Judaism actually stands for, providing them with tools to respond to antisemitism, holding us up in the face of unspeakable grief, providing a lifeline to the lonely, and offering us all opportunities to participate in repairing the world.  

How has Central made YOU whole this year? When might you need it in the future? 

I want to close my final Yom Kippur Appeal with a few personal thank you’s: to Rabbi Buchdahl and Executive Director Caban, for your wisdom and leadership; to Central’s clergy and staff for your tireless work on our behalf; and to all of you, for the honor, privilege and pleasure of serving this great congregation. 

Finally, I want to thank you for your past support, and to ask each of you to join me in this crucial project once again, or for the first time. As a great mentor taught me: don’t give until it hurts, give until it feels great. 

Your contribution will assure that Central Synagogue has the resources to help make each of us WHOLE in this New Year of 5784.  

Thank you and Shana Tova.

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