The Gift of Giving
Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins - Yom Kippur 2017
September 1983 saw me entering a synagogue for the Kol Nidrei service for the first time in my life, having grown up under the atheistic influence of my father and the assimilated influence of my mother, both of whom were children of parents who had been born in the USA in the 1890s. Distant were our memories of European Jewish shtetls as we embraced the welcome provided in post-World War II growing suburbs. Still, out of some nascent connection, my father fasted every Yom Kippur (while sitting outside in our warm and sunny backyard working on his legal documents) and my mother sang in the choir for the Yamim Noraim at the large, established and local Conservative synagogue, Valley Beth Shalom.
None of us attended services though. Except for the occasional invitation for the bar mitzvah celebration of a friend or cousin. Like my father, I began fasting when I became 13 years old. I still do. 14 years later, in 1983, I found myself in synagogue listening to the rabbi speaking on Yom Kippur. I did not know it that night, but six years later I would be that person speaking, and since that time, I have learned a lot about Judaism and synagogues and thought a lot about the future of Jews and Judaism.
That first night though, Erev Yom Kippur, as a person entering synagogue life for the first time, I was a bit taken aback by the rabbi’s words. On that night, which many consider the most sacred and powerful in the year of the Jewish calendar, he spoke for money, he asked for money. Where the sense of spiritual community? After 28 years of helping lead Emanuel Synagogue as your rabbi, I know and understand more than I did then. Ultimately I understand why the rabbi spoke about funds for the community that night of all nights.
Alas, synagogues are living communities that need a steady source of income to employ rabbis and cantors, educators and youth directors, let alone all the other staff that helps support the community’s activities, many of which take place on a campus that has grounds and buildings that need to be maintained. Membership dues do not suffice to meet expenses. Because Emanuel Synagogue is pluralist and inclusive, we reach out to a broad range of individuals, many of whom cannot afford to pay dues, each of whom is equally welcomed, supported by generous donations of those who can afford to give throughout the year.
Looking toward the future we realise we need to be more clear about our needs and the ways those needs can be met. We all realise that the financial pressures on younger people - with rising costs of housing and school fees contrasting with decreasing opportunities for making large incomes - places extra burden on the older generations, the baby boomers like me and our parents. Our access to income and assets gives us the opportunity to secure their future in the Jewish community. The choices we make in these next few years will determine the future map of the Sydney Jewish community.
Unfortunately, while it should be at the top of the list for focused giving, the synagogue tends to drop toward the bottom. It is much easier to follow the natural pattern of giving to Israel (now so well established as a modern, wealthy, powerful state) and to our general community, including local Jewish day schools and to homes to provide for the elderly. Giving to Israel and the general community is necessary and an aspect of tzekakah, but not sufficient to sustain a multigenerational communal Jewish life.
The heart and soul of the community, its multi-generational, multi-perspectival inclusive centre for commemoration, contemplation and convocation is Emanuel Synagogue. Do children all move to Israel after their Jewish schooling for a sense of connection; do they have to wait until old age to find their place again? There is only one institution that looks after Jews from the time of birth to death, that provides a home for people to mark sacred occasions together; to learn together, exploring questions of ultimate meaning together and envisioning how to live as a community of purpose; and ultimately to implement our vision – and that is the synagogue. Unfortunately, without the commitment of our elders who have the means in assets and income to make those gifts now, the future of the synagogue will be at risk.
In the year ahead, together with my wonderful clergy team, along with our fabulous CEO, Suzanna Helia, and our talented board led by Louise Thurgood Phillips, we will be putting together a strategy to secure the financial well being of Emanuel Synagogue. Especially because we are so inclusive, especially because we welcome people no matter what their financial position, especially because we try to reach out and provide service to so many, we will need the help of those who have the unique means to provide sustenance.
34 years after my first Yom Kippur lived in the synagogue, in this season just after Yom Kippur, I atone for my misunderstandings of the rabbi on that night of the Kol Nidrei appeal. Now I realise he was not asking for money for anything other than the long term well being of his community. I, like the other rabbis on my team, have chosen to give sermons over the Yamim Noraim that speak of our spiritual values and potential purposeful direction in life. But now, I realise while that is necessary to maintain an inspirational spiritual community, it is not sufficient. “Man does not live by bread alone”, but without “bread,” a person cannot live. Our dream is to raise sufficient funds to finish the beautification of our campus with efficient use of all space and also to establish a $10,000,000 bequest and endowment program. I look forward to bringing this vision to reality with your engagement and support.
With focused giving from our wise and generous elders, I know that we can create Emanuel Synagogue as the most beautiful and inspirational spiritual community centre for the generations to come, a real gift for the Jews of Sydney seeking to enrich Judaism and life itself.