Annual Meeting Address

As I was preparing my remarks for this annual meeting, the words of one of my favorite poems kept ringing in my ears.
I share it with you here.

“A person in their life,” Yehuda Amichai
A person in their life has no time to have
Time for everything.
They have no room to have room
For every desire. Ecclesiastes was wrong to claim that.

A person has to hate and love all at once,
With the same eyes to cry and to laugh
With the same hands to throw stones
And to gather them,
Make love in war and war in love.

And hate and forgive and remember and forget
And order and confuse and eat and digest
What long history does
In so many years.

A person in their life has no time.
When they lose they seek
When they find they forget
When they forget they love
When they love they begin forgetting.

And their soul is knowing
And very professional,
Only their body remains an amateur
Always. It tries and fumbles.
It doesn’t learn and gets confused,
Drunk and blind in their pleasures and pains.

In autumn, they will die like a fig,
Shriveled, sweet, full of themselves.
The leaves dry out on the ground,
And the naked branches point
To the place where there is time for everything.

Why is this poem speaking to me so strongly today? Living with a pandemic over the last two years has brought into stark relief Amichai’s prescient contention that good and bad, joy and sorrow, love and pain exist simultaneously. We worried about ourselves and our loved ones and fretted about the state of our world, AND we celebrated kabbalat mitzvah ceremonies and new babies being born. We mourned losses, AND we marveled at how we could attend funerals and shivas through the blessing of technology. We felt isolated and alone, AND we appreciated the slower pace in our frenetic lives.

During Friday night during worship we recite Mi Sheberach for those who are ill and then we share joyful moments in our lives and express our gratitude to God. We do this, as I often say from the bima, to acknowledge that the synagogue is the place to bring the fullness of our lives—to make space for our whole selves and for all of our experiences. At Beth Emet we strive to be a place where we support each other when we are struggling and rejoice in each other’s good fortune. We try to find the silver linings without ignoring the clouds in which they reside.

I was acutely aware of our need to hold joy and sorrow simultaneously when we celebrated Purim last week. I haven’t had that much fun in two years and did I ever need it. Thank you to Barb Wertico and Susan Forte for leading our incredible Purim shpielers and creating such a joyful Purim. Our celebration of Purim, however, was in the midst of a hard week in our community in which two beloved members died. I’m grateful to this community that gave us the space to both mourn and rejoice in a loving environment.

The power and possibility of congregational life is to be a safe and nurturing place where we can grow, a place filled with joy and where sorrow can be expressed openly in a supportive and caring environment.

Karen, Lee, Stephen Reiches, Jeff Mann, Geoff Prass, and Bekki Kaplan have already expressed so beautifully what we have done and what we are doing to make this kind of holy place a reality. What I would like to do is thank everyone who makes this congregation the special place it is—soulful, caring, and dynamic. A place where we respect Jewish tradition by allowing it to challenge us and where we probe it to respond to our lives today.

I would first like to acknowledge the amazing people with whom I’m blessed to work, our Klei Kodesh. I’m grateful every day to work with such loving, hardworking, and creative people who are committed to working as a team to educate, support, and uplift our community. Kathy Kaberon cares for our youngest members and their families by teaching our Sunday school class Gam Yom Rishon, developing and implementing excellent holiday programs, connecting young families with each other, and providing them with guidance and support. Marci Dickman leads an educational department for students of all ages that does more than inform and instill skills; Marci and the staff under her guidance create educational experiences that nurture hearts, minds, and souls. During the pandemic, Marci’s skills at providing soulful education were evident. Beit Sefer was a safe and nurturing place for our students that prioritized their mental and spiritual health. Cantor Cotler and Rabbi Memis-Foler have been tremendous clergy partners, continually finding creative and engaging ways to adapt our worship, care for our community, and officiate at life-cycle events. We will miss Rabbi Memis-Foler as she moves on to her next rabbinic position this summer. We know she will be successful wherever she goes because she is a deeply caring, knowledgeable, hardworking, and warm rabbi. Bekki Kaplan has started her new position as director of congregational engagement and is bringing her superpowers of energy, creativity, and tremendous warmth to help everyone in the community feel cared for and connected to Beth Emet. I’m deeply impressed by and grateful to our newest members of the Klei Kodesh –Geoff Prass and Sam Rose. Geoff is technologically savvy, can juggle many tasks at once, and does it all with a deep understanding, commitment, and love for Jewish communal life. Sam Rose is a dynamic youth leader who has a real gift for teaching and communicating with our teens. Sam knows how to make them feel seen and understood while challenging them to grow in a nurturing environment.

I also want to point out how multi-talented our Klei Kodesh is. I think that many of you are familiar with our Tikkun Middot program in which groups of people work on their soul traits through study, contemplation, and personal sharing. Groups are led jointly by a member of the Klei Kodesh and a lay person who have all been trained by the Institute of Jewish Spirituality. In addition to Marci, both Kathy and Bekki facilitate Tikkun Middot groups. What a testament to Beth Emet and Bekki and Kathy that our director of engagement and our early childhood director lead spiritual growth groups. This doesn’t happen in many congregations and is an indication of the depth and talent of our staff.

I’d also like to give a shout out to the rest of our staff. Butch Mayer is the face of Beth Emet who we rely on to keep us safe, who greets everyone with a smile and knows our names, and cares about us. Marshall Gray and Rony St. Victor have had a particularly hard job keeping the building clean because we’ve been understaffed and the JCC Early Childhood program has grown. I also want to thank Rony for helping with the sound system and providing additional support when we are livestreaming services and events. I’d like to thank Aviva Schwartz for doing a beautiful job on our weekly emails and other communications and for her tremendous assistance in the website creation. And Rachel Silvert has stepped in to be a part-time administrator for our kabbalat mitzvah program and keep us organized for Shabbat. She is a quick study and has been an amazing support to the clergy and our kabbalat mitzvah families. We have a new temp person in our front office, Akbar, who we welcome to the Beth Emet family. Finally, I’d like to thank Debbie Gilbert, our bookkeeper who has been keeping our office going despite the fact that we are so short staffed. Debbie is a real mensch who does her job with skill and with great kindness and respect. You are a real gem, Debbie.

As Lee spoke about, we are co-creating Beth Emet. It’s not just staff who makes this community; equally important, if not more so, is our talented lay leadership. Before I thank our officers, I’d like to acknowledge a few other key lay leaders. I know I can’t mention everyone, but I’d like to highlight a key leadership transition that took place in the soup kitchen this year. Donna Wolf and Lizzie Graham led the soup kitchen for many years and decided a few months ago to hand the reins over to Beth Tucker and Traci Denlow. Donna and Lizzie have been outstanding leaders who oversaw the regular weekly operations of the soup kitchen, including expertly shifting how we serve meals during a pandemic when we could no longer cook or host people in our building. Thank you, Lizzie and Donna for your exemplary service. A mark of a good leader is to pave the way for excellent new leaders to emerge and that is who we have in the energetic duo of Beth Tucker and Traci Denlow. Thank you for stepping up and lending your time and leadership abilities to this important endeavor.

As we dealt with a second year of the pandemic, we once again had to figure out how to handle the High Holy Days in this new environment where some of us could be in the sanctuary and others would be joining worship remotely—what we are calling fusion worship, worship that merges an in-person and remote experience. I want to thank Ellen Feldman for leading our High Holy Day committee. The congregation is indebted to you for the countless hours you spent thinking about every detail and keeping the committee on task to make sure we made thoughtful and timely decisions in an environment that was ever-changing. Your project management skills and good humor are second to none.

Over these past few years, the depth and breadth of our social justice efforts have increased exponentially. I can’t thank everyone here now who is involved in each of these initiatives, but I’m blown away by your commitment and passion to help all of us live our values—from distributing tzedakah, advocating for protecting the environment, adopting an Afghan family, supporting housing rights through our work with the Religious Action Center, Illinois Chapter (RAC-IL), racial justice work including supporting local reparations and making sure that everyone in our community, regardless of their race, feels like a valued and respected member. And the list goes on. Thank you to Lisa Levine, our social justice chair, who keeps all these plates spinning so adeptly.

And I’d be remiss not to give a shout out to all the adult programming that happens—our adult education offerings are top-notch, and our Israel committee continues to provide diverse and thoughtful monthly Israel programming. If you haven’t participated in these programs, I encourage you to do so. One of the blessings of technology is being able to bring top scholars and experts from around the world to Beth Emet which we have done.

The lay leadership at Beth Emet is the best. I love working with all of you and appreciate what you provide to the congregation and how much you help all of us grow and expand our reach.

Stephen Reiches, our outgoing treasurer, has kept us apprised of our financial situation and done an excellent job of helping us to increase revenues and manage expenses. Caryn Etkin, our outgoing vice-president, has done so much to enhance the experience of board members and has done a superb job of leading the nominating committee. Caryn instituted that at each board meeting a trustee introduces themselves to the board. These creative presentations through video, pictures, and song have become a highlight of every meeting and a chance to get to know each other better. Barry Miller has kept us safe and healthy through the pandemic with his deft and wise leadership of the COVID taskforce and safety committee—a task that has required tremendous skill and a willingness to make decisions that are not always popular but are always thoughtful and well-reasoned with Barry at the helm.

Suki Fisher is continuing in her role as secretary but needs to be recognized for the superb job she did at leading the effort to build our new website. We are all enjoying its beauty, how well it reads, and how easy it is to navigate.

Karen, there really aren’t enough words to thank you or perhaps none are needed. Why do I say that? Because everyone at Beth Emet already knows what an amazing and tireless leader she is. The energizer bunny has nothing on Karen! Her abundant skills and talents have been on display to the congregation during her entire tenure. She made herself available on Sunday mornings for anyone who wanted to talk with her, showing respect and interest for the thoughts and concerns of people in our community. Her regular communication to the congregation through town hall meetings, letters, and from the bima was articulate, clear and reassuring. And her power point skills? Better than anyone. She has assured us she will continue to be our power point maven. Karen is an amazing strategist and problem solver, an invaluable skill set we needed during these challenging times. I could always count on her to ask the hard questions and provide incisive insights. She challenged me and supported me to be a better leader through her example and with her guidance. If this wasn’t enough, she is also creative and a great artist. Through her artistry and organizational skills, the Friday night Challah Midrash has become a fun and enriching part of our Shabbat worship. I know we will continue to benefit from your many skills as you transition to past president. A grateful congregation thanks you for not merely sustaining us but strengthening us during your tenure. On Friday as I blessed the outgoing officers, I quoted the Book of Esther in which Mordechai urged Esther to use her position of power for good. Mi yodea, im l’et c’zot higat l’malchut – who knows, perhaps it was a time such as this that you arose to power (Esther 4:14), Mordechai said to Esther. Karen, it was a time like this that we needed you as our leader and you rose to the challenge with skill, tenacity, and a deep love and commitment to this congregation and the Jewish people.

Lee, the congregation is blessed to have you step up to be president. You come well prepared to help us face the challenges of the future because you know the issues intimately and you’ve been in leadership for so many years. You also approach leadership with an infectious joy and love for Jewish practice and Beth Emet. I appreciate and respect your openness and how deeply you care about others and their opinions and feelings, and thinking creatively and expansively is part of your DNA. We are all so excited to work with you!

At this time of the year, we are reading from the Book of Leviticus which is concerned about making distinctions between what is pure and impure, what is ordinary and what is holy, and, in this week’s Torah portion, what is kosher and what is treif, not kosher. Although some of these categories are hard to relate to in our modern world, one of the purposes of the laws and practices found in the Book of Leviticus was to help people grapple with the perennial issue of how to create order in a chaotic world. The Book of Leviticus clearly understands what Yehuda Amichai captured in his poem about the complexity and messiness of life. At Beth Emet we can’t make life simpler or neater, but we can be an anchor of stability in which Jewish tradition moors and guides us. We must strive together to be a safe place where we can acknowledge life’s challenges and be a sanctuary in which we can express the multitude of emotions we feel, grow in wisdom and understanding, live our values, and be loved and supported along the way. This is our challenge, and this is our opportunity. It’s needed now more than ever.