Remarks made by Michael Feldman at our celebration of the 40th anniversary of our revival and the 115th anniversary of our congregation
Shabbat shalom. I would like to welcome everybody to the celebration and recognition of our 115th anniversary as a congregation and the 40th anniversary of our revival.
Today is also a special personal anniversary for me. Exactly fifty years ago, on May 1, 1965, I was Bar Mitzvah’d. (I mentioned this to my mother and she told me that I did a very good job.) And, coincidentally, my Torah portion – Kedushim — and the Haftorah portion were the same as the ones we read on this Shabbat.
It wasn’t the practice of Congregation Agudath Israel of Caldwell, New Jersey to have the bar mitzvah kid make a speech, but, 50 years later, I find myself back in a synagogue, on a Bimah, so here goes.
Central to the idea of this week’s Torah portion Kedushim, is the idea of holiness and in fact, it’s called the “holiness code”. To me, holiness means how we separate ourselves and behave in a way that makes us a better person, parent, friend and member of the community. The 10 commandments are part of this section, the “golden rule” is here – all designed to help us become a better people and thus closer to God.
This synagogue is holy because it is the place we come to separate ourselves – especially on Shabbat – from the ordinary and secular to the spiritual. Having a “place” to worship and gather communally is at the very core of our beliefs. In the book of Exodus it says, “And they – it’s talking about the Israelites — shall make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them”.
This is our sanctuary, our holy place. This is where God comes to dwell among us and where we get to touch the spiritual. One hundred fifteen years ago the Jewish residents of Bristol understood this and forty years ago another generation also recognized this. And this is why we are honoring those who dedicated themselves to the building and rebuilding of this very special holy place.
As I was celebrating my Bar Mitzvah 50 years ago, United Brothers Synagogue, Congregation Chevra Agudas Achim, was literally in extremis and worship services were about to end here. No services were held here for a period of about 10 years but thanks to the efforts of the Leviten family, the building was cared for.
In the early 1970’s a group of families, led by Nancy Hillman and Al and Gloria Brody – and Gloria honors us with her presence tonight – revived the congregation and United Brothers reopened on April 4, 1975 – 40 years ago.
Since that time, we survived and we’ve grown. We’ll talk about things like finances and the building on Sunday at the annual meeting, but what we should emphasize tonight is how we’ve grown and matured as a congregation.
When Faye and I moved to the area we looked around for a synagogue to join. We came here to a Shabbat service and were immediately taken by how warm and welcoming everybody was. It was – and still is – a very hamishe place. We also were taken with the services here; they were intelligent, interesting and meaningful.
We now have services all year round and our programming has increased. Our community Seder has been a sold-out event the last few years and our annual Latkepalooza festival is always well attended. Our social activities have increased – ranging from Mah Jongg to the Pawsox — and we’ve become a more vibrant and more exciting place.
As part of this growth as a congregation, the board decided it was time to have our own Rabbi. I am pleased to report that Rabbi Carolan Glatstein will take over the religious and spiritual leadership of United Brothers next month. She will be the first Rabbi here in well over 50 years and maybe – our histories are not clear on this – the first permanent Rabbi ever.
But this is, of course, a little bittersweet for us because it does mean that this is Scott’s last service. We will be talking more about this downstairs at our oneg so I don’t want to give too much away. It goes without saying, though, that we are deeply appreciative of your service to the congregation. Without you, Scott, we would not be at this point in our history.
It may be a little bit presumptuous on my part, but I think if you had asked Gloria and her friends back in 1975, when the synagogue reopened, what they hoped to see in forty years, they would have described this: A sanctuary full of worshipers, a warm loving and vibrant congregation; a congregation whose very presence here greatly enriches this little corner of Rhode Island. A holy place; the place where we gather with our friends and neighbors to worship; and our spiritual home. So it is with profound gratitude that we thank our founders and that stalwart group from 40 years ago for making this day possible.