Saturday, September 22, 2018

Rabbi Schwartz's Sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779




The year was 1871. Ulysses S. Grant was president. The Civil War had ended just 5 years before. The great Chicago Fire killed 300 and left 100,000 homeless. The first major league baseball game was played on May 4th and the first home run was hit on May 8th. Across the pond, Queen Victoria ruled England. Lord Stanley located a missing explorer in Africa and greeted him with the words, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume."

In Hoboken, a group of German Jews founded a congregation that they called Adas Emuno—the assembly of the faithful. Twelve years later, in 1883, they built a synagogue; a Gothic Revival building that still stands today and which the Hoboken Evening News called "a credit to the city". We have a yad, a Torah pointer, from that dedication that is kept right behind me in our Ark; and we still read from the Torah with the help of this 135-year-old yad

While most of our congregational records have been lost over the decades, the original minutes from our first years survive. They were hand written in German, in an old style few people can read today. But one person who can is our very own Kurt Roberg, whom many of you know. Kurt, a refugee from Nazi Germany, with a remarkable story that he has written a book about—and possibly our most senior member at age 94has been reading and transcribing those minutes.

At the first Annual Meeting of the congregation on Sunday, Oct. 20, 1872, the president praised the generosity of the members in acquiring a Torah and other sacred objects, of raising some $1385 against total expenses of $1088 for a cash-on-hand balance of $297. Two weddings were held that year, and two b’nai mitzvah. Two funerals were also held that year, the latter writes the president "for my little son." The president concludes his address to the congregation at the first annual meeting by saying, "I have now given you an overview of everything that concerns our congregation, and even though there are some things that we still wish to accomplish, we may be proud of the advances we made in one year. Don’t hesitate to sacrifice whether time or money to complete the task we have begun."

By the 1890s the congregation had tripled to a hundred families. The flourishing community included a religious school, a choir, and a benevolent association to aid the poor called the Hebrew Ladies’ Aid Society. At the turn of the century a Hanukkah menorah was dedicated to the congregation on December 13, 1900. Our 118 year old menorah is right here and we still light it every year.

On May 27, 1917, a teen named Esther Cohn was confirmed at the Temple. She must have misplaced her Confirmation Certificate because I found it behind some books in our vestry room a few years ago. It was signed by the rabbi, Moses Eckstein. and by the president, Samuel Neuberger. Evidently, each student picked a "motto" for their certificate. Esther chose a verse from the 23rd Psalm, "I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me." A hundred years later we still have a Confirmation Class, and each year I ask my students to pick a verse for their Confirmation essay.

Records grow scant as the 20th century progressed. We do know that in 1919 dues were set at $30 a year. They rose to $45 by 1924. But High Holy Day seats were extra, and the ones closest to the bimah cost another $15. We no longer sell seats. On October 4th, 1951, Milton Neuman, who was chair of the Eightieth Anniversary Committee of the congregation, received a congratulatory letter from President Harry Truman. I have a copy of that letter here. It reads, "Dear Mr. Neuman…." Milton Neuman’s nephew, Michael Levy, is an active third generation member of the congregation. His parents and grandparents were members, and two of his grandchildren became b’nai mitzvah here.

Every time we enter this synagogue, which became our home only after a century in Hoboken, we are reminded of our origins. We pass the dedication plaque at our entrance to the left most often without noticing it. Then we enter the sanctuary and see the memorial plaques from our original building. The names of our predecessors and their loved ones are not forgotten.

We are now just three years away from what our past president, Lance Strate, reminds us is our sesquicentennial. We will soon need to think about what kind of birthday party we will throw for our 150th . But I am not a party planner; I’ll leave that to others. However, I do want to weigh in with a suggestion, a big one, for our coming milestone.

Let me introduce this suggestion with a treasured story from our tradition. The Talmud records the life of an unusual and remarkable sage in ancient Israel named Honi the Circle Maker. Nobody knows why he received that name, but he is said to have gone around the land of Israel planting carob trees, a Jewish Johnny Appleseed, if you will. When asked why he took upon himself such an adventure, Honi responded that one day when he was still a young man he saw an old man planting a carob tree. Honi said, "Old man, why are you planting that tree. Don’t you know that it takes a carob tree seventy years to bear fruit?" The man paused, looked up at him, and said, "Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I will plant for my children."

That piece of wisdom changed Honi’s life. And it just might change ours. If we embrace the realization that we are not here solely for ourselves; if we stand in gratitude for what those before us have done for us and decide to pay it forward to the next generation.

When the founders first established this congregation in Hoboken, they were thinking about the next generation of Jewish life beyond New York. They were thinking about their children who would grow up in the new world, and speak English. They were thinking about the next generation when they established a religious school and and a youth group.

When the leaders of Adas Emuno made the difficult decision to move to Leonia, they were thinking about the next generation as well. They were thinking about how Jewish life was now growing beyond the first tier suburbs to the promising frontier of Bergen County. They knew that Congregation Adas Emuno was never big or rich and might not survive the move. But they also knew that Adas Emuno was a dedicated and down-to-earth assembly of the faithful. I call us "the little engine that could." We keep chugging along, even as larger congregations have come and gone.

So what does it mean for us to now think about our next generation? Let’s be honest. Our numbers are diminishing. The demographic tide in our little corner of the world is turning against us. Leonia is a community in transition. The largest group of students in our school district is Asian American. Jewish Americans are now statistically negligible. In this regard we are following in the footsteps of our neighbor Palisades Park and other nearby communities. It has been almost a decade since the only other synagogue in our community, Congregation Sons of Israel, closed its doors. To keep our doors open we will need help.

We are certainly grateful for young families that have recently joined our ranks, primarily from Fort Lee and Weehawken. They have sought out a progressive, inclusive Reform Jewish community. They have sought out a congregation that welcomes interfaith households and blended families. They have sought out a congregation that is haimish and humble. That is who we are. We still have a place; we still serve a need; we still fulfill our mission. 

But with diminished numbers, beyond a vigorous outreach effort, we will need another kind of help as well. Declines in membership means we will be even more dependent on non-dues income to stay afloat. Our congregation has always done a relatively good job of living within our means; compared to other places our expenses are very low. Up until now we have largely avoided ruinous deficits without the benefit of appreciable reserves. Up until now.

Congregation Adas Emuno needs and deserves a Heritage Fund. Living on the frontier of sweeping changes to Jewish life, it is now time to think about how we will secure the next generation of Jewish life given the realities of our future.

With the approval and support of our Board of Trustees, I am calling upon our congregation to formally establish a $150,000 Campaign for our 150th anniversary. By synagogue standards that is a modest goal that befits a small congregation. We hope it is more than attainable. Over the coming year we will speak to you about two ways you can make a pledge to our 150th Anniversary Fund. The first is an outright contribution, over a maximum of three years. For some of our older individuals, required minimum distributions from IRA accounts might be the ideal way to do this. For others it might be a charitable trust, appreciated securities, or an old-fashioned check. The other way of pledging is through a bequest. How fitting to remember our synagogue in our estate planning.

Mark Rosenberg and I are co-chairing this campaign. As Harry Truman said, "the buck stops with us." Or you might say, "the buck starts with us." Mark and Michelle have pledged $10,000 to this campaign. Debby and I are doing the same. We hope that above and beyond your support of this synagogue through dues, above and beyond your support of this synagogue through our annual appeal and other fundraisers, you will consider a generous contribution or bequest to Adas Emuno’s 150th Anniversary Fund. It will not be used for our operating budget at all, but as I mentioned, for the building of our reserves to be tapped only by decision of the full board.

And we will not be launching another heritage campaign like this for at least fifty years, until our bicentennial, in 2071.

Permit me to conclude with an understandable question. It is natural to ask: Why should I contribute to this synagogue campaign if I myself may not be here? Why plant this tree if I may not eat of its fruits? Long ago a sage in ancient Israel heard an answer that changed his life. Long ago a group of German Jewish immigrants thought about the next generation in America, their new promised land.

“Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I will plant for my children.”

So may it be.

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