Divre Harav – November, 2015

Stuart Rapaport has given me permission to reprint the words he shared about our Endowment Campaign on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Since then, we have received additional gifts and promises so I have edited his remarks accordingly.

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How blessed our congregation has been in the over 125 years we have been in existence.  From a small group of 15 families we became a two orthodox congregation city. In 1936, under the leadership of rabbi Benjamin Emdin, Beth Israel and Ahavas Achim became Ahavas Israel. We moved into the post world war II years and moved to Conservative Judaism, built two synagogue buildings.  This facility is the culmination of the effort put into Ahavas Israel by so many of our past leaders and congregants.

We turn to you, our family and friends, for further consideration.  Our biggest problem today is that of operating funds.  We know that our membership is smaller, that we have very few business owners and we struggle to keep the financial ship upright.

We are asking you to consider a proposal that will help the future of Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids. We are asking you to consider remembering the shul in your wills and estates.  By leaving a small percentage of your estate, you are helping to keep Judaism, Conservative Judaism, alive and healthy in Grand Rapids.

We have had many people remember ahavas israel through their wills.  My grandfather, Philip Rapaport, who was not religious but rather a member of the socialist arbeter ring, the workmans circle, realized the importance of our congregation to future generations. He never came to Shul with the exception of his grandchildren’s b’nai mitzvah. Yet, when he died in 1963 he left $10,000 to the congregation for this building.  Think about how much that would be in today’s dollars. According to google, figuring 4% inflation, that would be over $77,000 today.  Believe me, my grandfather was far from a wealthy man.  He was a blue collar wood turner who worked for John Widdicomb furniture.

Or, how about our largest bequest to date.  That of Francis Rayden. That money came to us because of a good deed done for her by a member of Ahavas Israel. Abe Wolfson, member, promised Mrs. Rayden to recite kaddish for her parents and she said she would remember the shul.  He recited kaddish for the family for over three decades and just after Abe died, Francis Rayden died and left a bequest of $650,000 to our congregation. That money continues to keep our congregation in the black.

But we need to create a true endowment.  One that can be sustained and grow while still giving financial help to our beloved Ahavas Israel. Rabbi and I have been meeting with congregants to tell them of our ideas. Leon Ash has come forward and has pledged $2,000,000 through his estate. $2,000,000! He challenged us to match the $2 million.

Through our meetings with congregants, we have been promised $310,000 in gifts and estimated pledges based on current values.  This by seven families. Plus an additional five families who have pledged unspecified amounts.

Consider a percentage bequest.  A small percentage.  No matter how large or how small your estate will be, even a 5% gift would be a generous gift to the future of Ahavas Israel while leaving 95% to your family and charities you wish to help.

Obviously, we are not standing like the grim reaper, rubbing our palms in hopes of getting this money right away.  Our hope is that all of us live a long, happy and healthy life.  We just ask for your consideration to join the ranks of our congregation whose financial support span the past, continue today, as well as bringing Ahavas Israel into the future with financial strength to be able to continue serving our community.

If you have been contacted but not responded, we would love to hear from you and to speak to you.  Please understand that all information shared with us is private and will remain private.

Your participation will help insure a successful future for the Jewish people in Grand Rapids.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – Summer, 2015

In the almost 125 year history of Congregation Ahavas Israel, many individuals and families have been generous in their financial support of our synagogue. Approximately 25 years ago, Frances Rayden made a significant, unrestricted endowment gift to the synagogue. Recently, Leon Ash has generously offered to match future unrestricted endowment gifts or bequests up to $2 million. We are looking for the next individuals, couples, or families to contribute the next set of gifts to the congregation that will assure our future for the next 125 years. I am grateful to Leon for offering this gift, as well as his wisdom and support as we launch a major endowment campaign this summer.

A synagogue budget covers normal yearly expenses. A synagogue endowment both supports the operating budget (underwriting building, program, and staff expenses) and goes beyond the budget to cover long term support of the building and grounds of the congregation.

Ahavas Israel currently has unrestricted endowment funds totalling approximately $675,000. Our goal over the next ten years is to raise $2 million in endowment funds, matched by Leon Ash’s $2 million, and increase our endowment to $5 million.

Stuart Rapaport and I will be meeting with synagogue members to talk about endowment gifts and planning giving. If you would like to talk about a establishing a fund in memory or in honor of a loved one. Here’s how endowment giving will strengthen Ahavas Israel:

A gift of $1,000,000 could support the Building and Grounds committee, ensuring the long term upkeep of our sacred space. Half of the gift could help fund the maintenance portion of the annual budget, which covers the normal, expected day to day needs of the building and its property. The other half could be used for emergencies or saved for planned major projects.

This gift would strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Funding capital improvements and repairs, such as maintaining the parking lot and replacing the roof.

A gift of $1,000,000 could support the Membership and Religious Life Programming committees, enhancing and expanding our community-building programming. Most of the approximately $50,000 income per year could reduce our dependence of membership dues within the annual budget, thus reducing the cost of membership and making affiliation with Ahavas Israel more affordable. A portion of the income could be given to the Membership Programming Committee and the Religious Life Committee to help build community relationships.

The Membership Programming Committee could strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Arranging for bus trips for Passover Shopping or cultural events in Detroit or Chicago.
  • Enhancing annual meetings with dinners programs.
  • Planning annual dinner/dances with entertainment.

The Religious Life Committee could strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Arranging for an extended Kiddush and lunch every week, sitting at tables and extending Shabbat afternoon together.
  • Offering a small honorarium to authors, rabbis, cantors, and other scholars coming from outside of Grand Rapids for our Shabbat speaker series, expanding the pool of engaging speakers.
  • Offering a stipend to the GVSU Hillel for them to send students to join our Shabbat morning community to lead junior congregation, help with Shabbat preparation, or just enjoy Shabbat morning services.
  • Hiring a student rabbi for the summer to run extra programs and study groups and classes.

A gift of $1,000,000 could help to ensure that the congregation enjoys a professionally trained rabbi. The $50,000 a year income would underwrite approximately half of a typical full-time rabbinic package.

This gift would strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Ensuring religious guidance and clergy duties being filled by a Rabbi who knows the needs of the community.

A gift of $500,000 could ensure the long term stability of our Educational Program. The $25,000 annual income would support the United Jewish School, junior congregation, pay salaries for the adult education program, and fully subsidize the expenses for youth group retreats.

A gift of $1,000,000 would also allow us to subsidize or reimburse young families for tuition to the United Jewish School, thus making affiliation with Ahavas Israel more affordable.

This gift would strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Creating and sustaining educational and social opportunities for our young Jewish community members.
  • Providing financial stability to run the United Jewish School.

A gift of $400,000 could ensure that the congregation can hire a professional cantor for High Holidays and selected other special occasions. The $20,000 annual income would cover the cost of a High Holiday cantor and B’nai mitzvah tutors with a little bit left over for a special music program every couple of years.

This gift would strengthen the Ahavas Israel community by:

  • Ensuring clergy-led services for large holiday religious events.
  • Providing performance opportunities that could be open to the Grand Rapids public.

Psalm 68

… the father of orphans, the champion of widows, God restores the lonely to their homes, sets free the imprisoned, safe and sound (68:6-7)

Orphans and widows – in the Biblical paradigm, these categories represent society’s most vulnerable. The Psalmist pictures God as the great protector of those on the fringes of society. This contrasts with Exodus 22:21, in which we are warned against mistreating the vulnerable, “You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan,” and Deuteronomy 27:19, which curses one who does not uphold the rights of the widows and orphans. Three times in Deuteronomy 24 and 26, the Torah commands a special tzedakah obligation to take care of widows and orphans. If God is in charge of protecting the vulnerable, then clearly God has delegated the responsibility to us.

It is our obligation to watch out and protect those who live their lives on the economic or social margins of society. Single mothers are economically vulnerable. Children without fathers in their homes are vulnerable to fall prey to gang and other criminal activity. To expand the pool of the vulnerable – gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens; people with mental illnesses; people who have served time in prison, especially those whose crime labels them as a sexual offender; and those who are homeless. God may be in charge of restoring them to their homes, safe and sound, but it is our wallets, tax dollars, willing hearts and helping hands that will make it happen.

Psalm 49

Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich, when his household goods increase. (49:17)

The second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) speaks of material blessings, but typical of such Torah material, it speaks about the recipient of such blessings in the second person plural, rather than singular. The community is blessed with rain and fertility, not the individual. There might be many reasons that an individual may become wealthy: Intelligence, business acumen, hard work, family connections, and just plain good luck. An individual who fails to prosper might be making poor choices or business decisions, might not be working hard enough, or might simply have run into bad luck. It is not the case, nor should it be, that God micromanages the economy so that good people consistently accumulate more wealth than bad people.

Why, though, does the Psalmist say, “Do not be afraid …”? What is there to fear? The Psalmist is sharing with us a very useful tidbit of theology … do not be afraid that your relative lack of prosperity compared with your rich neighbor is a sign that God loves your neighbor and hates you. Individual prosperity or success is not in and of itself a sign of God’s blessing any more than individual poverty or failure is a sign of God’s curse. A world in which one could easily rank people’s relative worth in God’s eyes based on their pocketbooks would indeed be a world to fear. It would be no different than the Nazi’s ranking of people’s relative worth based on the color of their skin and eyes, with blond-haired, blue-eyed aryans on top.

When a person becomes rich, heavy with household goods, that is the time to rejoice in your neighbor’s good fortune and hope that the community, its cultural and religious and social institutions, its hospitals and libraries and schools, and its communal celebrations, are the recipients of tzedakah (charitable) contributions!

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – February, 2013

Over the past year or so we have heard two Sanctuary Shabbat presentations addressing the problem of homelessness in Grand Rapids. Both speakers, one from Family Promise of Grand Rapids, the other from the Salvation Army Booth Family Services program of the Salvation Army, spoke about programs in partnership with congregations. Family Promise organizes temporary shelters in congregations, as well as giving support, resources, training, and mentorship as families look for permanent housing and employment. The Booth Family Services places families in apartments with various kinds of support including financial, gradually decreasing over a six month period of time until they are entirely self-sufficient.

Both programs have been successful, and both are looking to build more partnerships with congregations. Family Promise needs Support Congregations to help the Host Congregations (who actually host families for a week at a time sleeping in their buildings). The Booth Family Services needs congregations to “adopt” and support specific families that would be assigned to them.

As a congregation, we might support either program financially, but my thinking right now is that we should participate in one of the program through our volunteer efforts. I am looking for one or two people to act as the point person(s), to help me decide which program we should volunteer with and be the contact person for the organization to identify a volunteer assignment and publicize that within the congregation. I also want to build a list of at least a dozen people who are willing to help the families, go to the shelter location, tutor children, take people to appointments, cook meals, or do any of the other tasks that are necessary to support the program.

If you would like to be the chair or co-chair of this project, or if you would like to be one of the volunteers should we as a congregation add this to our gemilut hasadim activities, please let me know.

Our responsibility as members of Congregation Ahavas Israel, as Jews, and as human beings goes beyond coming to Shabbat services, studying Torah, keeping kosher, and serving on committees (although these things are important). We have an obligation, a mitzvah, to help feed, cloth, and shelter another human being who is suffering. I am deeply discomforted by people who hold up signs at intersections reading, “hungry, homeless, jobless, please help.” I address the discomfort as I can, by giving money, usually to organizations that work in effective and lasting ways to end problems of hunger and homelessness. Sometimes, though, giving money is not enough. Giving of ourselves, our time, is also needed. Please join me as a Congregation to address the problem of homelessness.

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I do a variety of things in addition to writing sermons and bulletin articles, answering questions by phone or email, going to Board and Committee meetings, teaching religious school classes, leading study groups, and visiting members of the congregation. Here are some of my activities of the past month:

  • • I have been working on planning spring activities, including lining up Sanctuary Shabbat speakers, planning a series of educational workshops, and working on the Purimsheil.
  • • I have been working on recruiting teens and middle school students for the upcoming Kinnusim in Columbus, Dayton, and at Camp Tamarack, and accompanied two Kadima (Middle School) age students to Columbus as their advisor.