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September 27, 2020

Yom Kippur Appeal 5781

Jeremy Fielding

This past year, all of us have been acutely aware of having to face new challenges, and doing so by drawing strength from the past. For me, that has meant thinking a lot about my Nana. Anne Shulman was a 21-year old Londoner when World War Two broke out. Britain declared war on Nazi Germany on September 1, 1939; three days later, she and Sid – Papa - got married. He was duly enlisted in the Royal Air Force and sent to the Mediterranean. So, when the blitz started, here was this newlywed, who every evening for eight months and five days grabbed some belongings to make a bed, descended into the subway, slept on a platform through the bombs dropping…and then every morning had to come out, and survey the damage, not knowing whether her home and possessions had been obliterated in the night. 
And the bombers came back the next night. 
And the next. 
And the next.

After a time in 1941, it was clear the worst was past. And yet then there was….a “second wave”…for four months in 1944. Nana continued with life after the war. Got back to a normal. The Nana I knew many years later laughed. Hugged. Ate too slowly for the rest of the family. Absolutely burnt to a cinder a leg of lamb for Sunday lunch. But as we went through this past Spring, one question kept coming up for me to which I will never know the answer…to what and whom did Nana hold onto for support in those lonely, isolating and trying times? Friends? Family? Her community?

In recent months, we have each had to find answers for ourselves to that very same question. Standing here, in this virtual and physical sanctuary, I would like to think about the role that this community has played for all of us over these past months. 
For sure, I don’t want to gloss over the joyous times we had when we were all physically together. The 180th Celebration at Carnegie Hall. The second annual Shabbat is Central. The smiling faces of our LCLJ religious school students as they created projects that demonstrated their Jewish learning in action.

But it is when the chips are down that we ask more of our institutions. And Central Synagogue – its clergy, its professional team, and its members – rose to meet that challenge. We saw it with our online weekly worship, engaging literally tens of thousands of Shabbat goers from all over the city, country and the world, as well as our Zoom seder and lifecycle events; Our virtual programming, allowing us to connect with even more congregants than would have joined us in person; And we formed a Sixty-Five person task force in the early days of the isolating stay-at-home period, to call every member and ensure they were in good health and had everything they needed.

We were an anchor for our members. And for the wider Jewish community. For the un-Synagogued. Those Jews literally around the world who needed weekly bursts of reassurance, hope, brightness. When we needed our Synagogue, it was there. And now the Synagogue needs you, and your support.

Let me return to wartime Britain for a moment. The Synagogue in which I grew up, West London Synagogue, has a beautiful sanctuary. In its prayerbook is a depiction of the same building from the early 20th Century, before the war. The picture on the page showed a roof that was magnificent in detail. It was certainly very different from the starkly plain painted roof that…when attending excruciatingly long Yom Kippur afternoon services…I may or may not have stared up at for way too long. 
I would wonder why someone had painted over such gorgeous and intricate decorations. Well, apparently, during the Blitz, the sanctuary and a good chunk of the roof was damaged. After the war, the community decided that, in light of the economic difficulties of the nation, the money needed to be spent on other things. And so a plain coat of paint was applied to the repaired roof, as it remains today.

That can be done to a building. To bricks, mortar, and plaster. But when it comes to the things our members need from us: programming, worship, education, pastoral care… and everything else we provide our community… Well, these things can get the equivalent of a quick coat of paint. But I would submit doing just that…it’s not who we are. We rightly expect and want those things to be deeply meaningful, engaging, connecting. We know instinctively they need to be. And to do them right, we need to have the resources.

From every President who has stood before you, you have heard that our Yom Kippur Appeal accounts for approximately at least one-third of our operating budget. That’s true this year too – at a time when so many other areas of our budget are pressured and stressed. Your support is crucial. It enables literally everything about our congregation to keep running – including tonight’s service, as well as countless other moments where we make Reform Judaism matter, despite the challenges of distance. 
So please consider giving to Central. I know this year, of all years, I am asking a lot. But this year, of all years, I need to ask.

We appreciate and cherish every single gift of whatever size, as it enables us to be there for all of our congregants and our broader community. So tonight, I’m asking our members…our guests…and those who only join us online. Thank you in advance for doing so. And thank you too if this year you consider increasing your commitment to us. I am proud and hugely appreciative to share that, for the first time in recent memory, as we enter this holiday, all of our Trustees have already made their commitments, and three-quarters of them have pledged a more generous gift.

Allow me please to end on a personal note. This is my final year as President of our congregation. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all of your support. I want to apologize for anytime I have inadvertently forgotten your name or been tardy in responding to your email. And I want to express my deep gratitude for allowing me to be a steward for this remarkable congregation as we go from strength to strength… stand as a true sanctuary in these troubling times…and a shining light for the world around us.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May you and yours be inscribed for a good – and healthy and safe – new year.  
Thank you.

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