Excerpted from President’s Erev Rosh HaShanah Speech
I’d like to take a minute to tell you a little about my personal Jewish journey.
I converted to Judaism in 2004, but my journey began in 2001, in the weeks right after 9/11. My sister’s husband was killed that day, while he was working at the top of the World Trade Center. In the weeks directly after, as my family and I were at my sister’s side, dealing with all that ensued, I had what others have called a crisis of faith. I felt seriously adrift. During my brother-in-law’s memorial service, on the bank of the Hudson River, with their friend Pete Seeger singing and playing his guitar, I heard person after person commit to making some significant change in their life to honor his life. I have to say that I felt kind of hopeless–that sounded so righteous and I wished I could say the same, but I had no idea what change could possibly be meaningful enough. What could fill that void?
That very day, someone brought me a couple of books. I had asked her if I could borrow something on the basic concepts of Judaism. We were bringing our boys up in the Jewish faith, we were attending family services here at Beth HaTephila, and I was more and more curious. And, as weeks passed and we struggled with the personal impact of 9/11 on our family, I started to read.
When I showed up at Rabbi Ratner’s door with my books in hand, I had one basic question. Is what Milton Steinberg wrote about Judaism back in 1947 true? I showed him Rabbi Hillel’s famous quote, totally new to me at the time. When he was asked to describe Judaism in the few moments he could stand on one foot, Hillel answered “That which is hurtful to thee do not do to thy neighbor. This is the whole doctrine. The rest is commentary”. It blew me away in its simplicity. It felt like a step forward.
I can’t describe how fortunate I felt to have all of those oneon-one meetings with Rabbi Ratner, as I studied for my conversion and I slowly learned some of the ‘commentary’ that Hillel referred to. But, the truth is that I was ‘in’ from the beginning. This was a religion that encouraged me to think on my own, and at the same time spoke to me, deep in my soul. It filled that void. I’ve heard others who have converted say this–there’s something inside me that feels like I was always a Jew. And, in fact, I have since found out that my family actually has some Jewish roots.
I’m not the first president who is a Jew by choice, and I’m not the first female president, but clearly, if it wasn’t for our movement’s and our temple’s ‘audacious hospitality’ – a central tenant of acceptance and welcoming – I would not be standing here today.
My sons grew up in our religious school and became bar mitzvot here. Rabbi Meiri married Ed and me under the Chuppah here. I take my commitment to this temple, which I call my home, very seriously.
I guess this is my way of telling you why I was prepared to do what had to be done, when I asked Larry Weiss to once again be our treasurer when I started my presidency, and he helped me understand the financial situation we were facing. It was clear that, even if it wasn’t going to be a popular move, even if it was going to cause some confusion and mistrust, it was the executive committee’s responsibility to make sure that the board of trustees and every one of you understood where things stand AND to ask you to step up and help. And, so many of you HAVE helped. Of course, you have, you also have so many reasons to love this community, as I do.
Last year’s special assessment raised much-needed cash, and as annual commitments started coming in for this year, it has been gratifying to see so many people increase their gift. One hundred and thirty households have increased their annual commitment by some amount for this year, and 37 households have given at our new ‘Enhanced Giving’ levels.
Looking ahead, I am both excited and challenged by what lies before us. There is still opportunity to help, both in your annual commitment and in upcoming fundraising events. Not only is HardLox nearly here, but a grassroots group is planning several special fundraising events whose goal is to ‘close the gap’.
I couldn’t be more proud to be a Jew. I couldn’t to be more proud to be among the leaders of this amazing congregation. I couldn’t be more inspired by Rabbi, our executive director Craig, the staff, the executive committee and the entire board for embracing this challenge. And I couldn’t be more grateful to all of you for listening, for asking hard questions, for offering suggestions and for taking action. Thank you
Karen Hyman, President