Our JCP Stories from High Holidays 5774/2013

Our JCP Stories from High Holidays 5774/2013

What JCP Means to Me
Delivered by Andy Snyder, Rosh Hashanah Morning 5774 / 2013

Good morning everyone, l’shana tova.

When Susan [Silverstein, President of JCP] first called to ask me to say something today, I immediately accepted thinking, “Hey, I ask people for money all the time.”

But she quickly clarified: “We’re not doing an annual fundraising speech.  We just want you to get up and say what JCP means to you.”  So I went from asking 200 plus people for money to telling over 200 people how I feel; seems like a bit of a bait-and-switch!

But the truth is, I am honored to do this.

We do do things differently at JCP and nothing could be greater evidence of that than my speaking before you today.

We all have holiday traditions.  When I grew up, my family’s Rosh Hashanah tradition involved a trip from my hometown outside Washington, DC to New York City to visit my grandparents.  We got dressed up in our best clothes and looked like a lot of other Jews walking around the Upper East Side.  But that’s where my family’s traditions diverged from most.  Because no one in our family belonged to a synagogue in New York, we spent Rosh Hashanah just walking around the city.  “It’s a festive holiday,” my mother would say, “I’m sure it’s ok to do a little shopping….”

My wife Molly on the other hand grew up in a more traditional Jewish house. Her parents and grandparents were from a small town in the South: Osceola, Arkansas, and they used to drive 50 miles to the nearest synagogue every Friday night and again on Saturday morning.  So inevitably my wife’s upbringing in San Diego involved actually going to services on the High Holidays.

And yet here I am, giving this talk at JCP’s Rosh Hashanah service.  I’ve come a long way, and the fact that JCP is the kind of place that can appeal to both of us, has a lot to do with that.

Molly and I became involved in JCP because our daughter Sara went to the first preschool class eight years ago.  We hosted one of the early Friday night dinners that was nothing more than a group of families getting to know one another on a deeper level.  And it felt really good.

But the true impact for me came when my kids took to this place.  They wanted to celebrate Shabbat Friday night as a family, they shared a genuine desire to sing the songs and show us their projects, and they were proud to understand and retell the stories of the holidays.

Sara and Sam are 10 and 7 now, and while some of the naive/raw enthusiasm of their preschool years may be waning, what holds is a real foundation for my kids.  They have become attached to this community—and it is one that is shared by people with similar values of caring, love, and giving, one that can provide both guideposts for their values and a support network for inevitable hardships.

And in this crazy city—in which we can find ourselves racing too much—and living far from families, to have what feels like a broader family here at JCP and this small close-knit foundation it provides—where people get together on Friday nights—has been a very important part of not just our Jewish life, but of our family’s happiness in New York.

And so originally I thought I would be speaking about this theme of uniqueness: having someone with my religious background (or lack thereof) give this speech for one; and well, let’s admit it, we just think we’re a little different here at JCP anyway….

But then I did what every good Rabbi probably does this time of year, I began my prep for this talk by typing, “Rosh Hashanah Speech” into Google…

And, it turns out we’re actually not as different as we think we are.

What I found was speech after speech asking congregation after congregation for money—be thankful this isn’t a pitch because those guys are boring—and 9 out of 10 said something like:

“The truth is my connection to my religion and a search for a synagogue began with my kids; the need for a jewish community resonated with me as my kids entered pre-school years,” and so on….

My guess is this is actually what brings so many of us into this room.  It’s what attracted Molly and me to JCP initially.  But what gets us to stay here are these connections and this JCP family, and this is actually a very old phenomenon.  This idea, that for our families and for our kids we want, we need a community and connectedness goes back a lot longer than JCP.  It’s the same principle that had Molly’s grandparents driving 50 miles every Friday night and Saturday morning to a shul in Blytheville, Arkansas.  And it’s very powerful.

Okay, there is one big difference I’ll grant us.  We started it.  We didn’t actually start JCP, but it’s starting now.  This is not our parent’s synagogue or our grandparents’ synagogue.  It’s ours.  And as you introduced yourself to your neighbor a few minutes ago, the people in this community, we are building something new together.  Not different but new, special, and ours.

As I conclude this talk about feelings, I can only assume the pitch is coming sometime around the corner.  When it comes, I hope you will feel good about it and what we are building together.

L’shana tova.

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My Jewish Journey
Delivered by Steve Fineman, Kol Nidre Night, Yom Kippur 5774 /2013

I have always liked being a Jew.  I have always liked Jewish people, Jewish writers, Jewish stories, Jewish history, Jewish food, and most of our holidays.

As a child, I thrived living in the Jewish homes of my parents and grandparents.  And though I have never discovered God, I have always appreciated the teachings and principles of our faith.

But, when I stepped out into the larger world, first as a child and then as adult, I found my broader Jewish Community lacking.

I grew up in a certain kind of Jewish community—a commuter Jewish community.  There were only a handful of Jewish families in my Southern California neighborhood of Lakewood.  The closest Conservative Synagogue was a twenty-minute drive, in Long Beach.

Everyone drove to my Temple, from various parts of Southern Los Angeles County and Northwestern Orange County.  The parking lot was so large, and—except on High Holidays—mostly empty, that we often played touch football amidst the scattered cars.  This was my Jewish Community experience.

I was schlepped to the Temple on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for my burden of Hebrew School.  I was indifferent at best, rude and disruptive at worst.  I was like all the other good boys and girls who would never dream of behaving like cretins in our day schools.  My fellow commuters and I drove our third grade Hebrew School teacher to such distraction, she literally taped our mouths shut and was then summarily dismissed.

We attended Friday Night Services occasionally and High Holiday Services ritually.  Yom Kippur services were hours long, and pre-teens were excused from the main Sanctuary during the rabbi’s sermon, apparently so as not to disturb his mysterious musings about books of life and pleas for forgiveness for adult transgressions.  God was remote and irrelevant to us.

While I very much liked sitting with my father in the hour or so before the arrival of the masses, I never understood what I was supposed to do, or think, or feel.  And I resented that seating was not based on devotion, knowledge or even punctuality, but was determined by how much one’s parents paid for their tickets.  We did not sit in the front.

I learned my Torah portion and recited it well enough.  My parents’ pride and joy the day of my Bar Mitzvah is a lasting and vivid memory.  But after a hazy couple of years leading up to a confirmation most notable for my atrocious 1978 hairstyle, the drive to Temple became less and less frequent.  My connections to most of my Temple friends became distant and ended.

Then came twenty-five years of intermittent searching for meaningful participation in a Jewish world that would matter to me.  I tried connecting through a study of Hebrew (a brief experiment), then through a focus on Jewish history and literature.  Then politics.  A long trip to Israel.  Very occasionally, a visit to a synagogue.  All provided moments of intellectual satisfaction, but none brought me any sense of belonging or joy.

It was not until my wife, Lori, and I made the somewhat random decision to move to Tribeca in 2004 that things began to change.

Shortly after we moved downtown with our two young sons, Dylan and Spencer, we met a group of Jewish parents, led by Victoria Feder, who wanted to start a Jewish pre-school in Tribeca.  We began with some seed money, an indoor playground space, a brave educator—Sharon Shorofsky Mack—and a spirit of community-building unknown to me until then.

Though our future was uncertain, we were committed to the risk of trying to imagine and create a Jewish Community that, as my friend Andy Snyder said on Rosh Hashanah, belongs not to other generations, but to us and ours.  And we have.

In the years since its founding, JCP has become my family’s Jewish Community.  Dylan was in the first pre-school class at Sydney’s Playground, and he and Spencer are graduates of our Early Childhood Center.  Both are currently in the Hebrew School Project (HSP), and have enjoyed countless holiday celebrations with their JCP friends.  Dylan will soon start his bar mitzvah preparation and community service as part of JCP’s program.

Our little guy, Nathan, starts pre-school in the Orange Room on Monday.

Lori was not only the first Parents’ Association President and a past President of the Board, and current and long-standing member of the Board, but she was the original director, producer, and sometimes star of our Purim Spiel.

JCP has become our home for the Jewish Holidays, for life-cycle events, and for Jewish philanthropy.

Most importantly, Lori and I have made so many deep and lasting friendships that arise from the JCP Community, but also transcend it.

As for me, I still like being a Jew.  But, it is far better being a Jew in this community than any I have known before.  I see in my children’s deeds and hear in their words an enthusiasm for and a connection to their Jewish community that tells me my search has been worth it.

And, we can walk to JCP.

Shana tova.

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Power of Community — Our Community
Delivered by Adi Beltzman, Yom Kippur Morning 5774 / 2013

As JCP, we celebrate many joyous events together.  The High Holidays; the Sukkot, Hanukah and Purim Parties; Bar and Bat Mitzvot, and the Pre-School events are days we all look forward to.  But it is actually the days that we hope will never come that are the ones that truly test the strength and character of who we are as individuals and as a community.

JCP first emerged in the wake of 9/11 when a group of downtowners sought to create a connection with other Jews who shared similar values in a neighborhood that had been rocked by unimaginable tragedy.  And 11 years later, when Hurricane Sandy hit and we were faced with another trial, the energy and vitality of our community illuminated us in a time of emotional and literal darkness.  So when Susan [Silverstein, President of JCP] called me a few weeks ago and asked me to say a few words about the power of Community, our community, I was honored to have the opportunity to share our perspective with you.

A year ago, my husband Daniel and I attended this Yom Kippur service.  At the time, I was 7 months pregnant, and I came to pray.  I remember being so moved as I hummed to the melodies, praying that God would protect us as we were about to have our second child.

About a month later, after Yom Kippur, our daughter Eliana, was born unexpectedly and under dire and very dangerous circumstances.  To put it into Yom Kippur terms, for a while it seemed like our inscription into the book of life was, at best, a “maybe.”   Thankfully, and with the grace of God, Eliana and I survived her precarious birth.  Not a week later, just when we thought we were in the clear, Hurricane Sandy had other plans for us.  You see, Eliana was born at NYU Medical Center a few days before the storm, and she was one of those babies who was heroically rescued from the NICU when the Medical Center’s generators failed.  She was transported in the middle of the hurricane to Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, which, meant that there was, literally, no place in New York City that she could have been that would have been further from us.  I was just two days out of the hospital recuperating from a critical, lifesaving surgery, we had a 2½ year old son at home, and we had no way to get to our newborn baby girl, who would ultimately remain in the hospital for the next six weeks.  We were in the depths of our own crisis.

But it wasn’t just us.  All of you were in crisis too.  Our neighborhood was, literally, a disaster area—with no power, no heat, no indication of when things would improve. Things that we take for granted—like figuring out what to eat, where to bathe, how to get to work, and what to do with our kids—suddenly became major difficulties.   It is truly unbelievable to think that all of that happened less than a year ago, isn’t it?  The memories are still so vivid, and I hope that they will soon become a distant memory.

But there are also other, good, heartwarming memories that I embrace and that I know I will never forget. I remember so many of you reaching out to us.  Not just those of you who were already friends, but also those of you whom we barely knew.  Amidst all the chaos in everyone else’s lives, word spread about our situation and offers to help began pouring in.  The Pivnick and Benjamin families insisted on us using their cars, when gas was scarce, to get to and from the hospital.  The Bonderoffs, made sure to send food for us. The Roth and Evan families providing so much emotional and psychological support. The other Apple Room parents offering playdates and babysitting for Ariel.  The Silvers, Sidikaro, Swerdloff, and Shlecter families and basically anyone whose last name started with the letter S sending us their thoughts and prayers in well-wishing emails.  And I’m actually convinced Dan Senor would have sent me to the Bronx in one of Mitt Romney’s helicopters if I had said the word.

I also remember the other emails that came in- the emails from Susan and Eli [Kornreich, Executive Director of JCP] rounding people up to help those in need…to deliver food and supplies to people who were unable to leave their buildings and to do cleanups in the areas more badly devastated than our own.   I remember being so inspired by how members of this community, our community—who were all suffering themselves—not only supported my family, but also people outside of our JCP world who were less fortunate.  These were all remarkable demonstrations of character.

Neither Daniel nor I am from the NY Area and we have no family here.  As a first generation Israeli immigrant who also grew up with no relatives nearby, my parents always taught me that “friends are the family you choose for yourself.”  You have proven it.

So friends, I want to thank you for being there for us.  Seeing you on the playgrounds, on the streets, at drop-off or the coffee shop is what makes living here special.  It makes New York feel smaller, warmer, and more intimate.  It makes us feel connected to something greater than ourselves, just as any family is greater than the sum of its parts.  It is my hope that as we enter this New Year that we may all be inscribed in the Book of Life.  I pray today for all of us to enjoy good health, joy with friends and family, success in our pursuits, and that there be peace for us here and in Israel.  And when the tough times befall us, as they inevitably will, I pray that we continue to lean on and support each other, finding comfort in knowing that we are there for each other as individuals and as our extended family, our JCP Community.

Shana tova u’metuka, g’mar chatima tova.