President’s Blog

Our practice is for the president to communicate with the congregation about six times a year: the annual meeting, the high holidays and in our bulletin. We thought it would be useful to gather all these together.

Rosh Hashanah 2016

High Holiday Remarks – President Ellen Bensusan

This past summer, I was able to get together with a friend who I have known since we were teenagers. It was fun to reminisce about our teenage years and times gone by. Then he mentioned that he had recently been to the doctor because his shoulder was bothering him. The doctor examined him and his diagnosis was arthritis. My friend looked at the doctor incredulously and said, “How can I have arthritis? That’s what people get when they get old.” Well, honey, it happens to the best of us. Now, I have to be honest and share with you that if one more doctor tells me that my aches and pains are “part of the aging process” I may have to scream, but it does happen to all of us. And, you know what? Thank God that it does! The alternative to having another birthday is not all that appealing.

Why am I sharing this with you? Well, our beautiful building is celebrating her 100th birthday. We’ve had contractors, electricians, plumbers, and other workers in and out of here checking the old girl out and they have asked me why I refer to the building as a “she”, particularly when it’s called United Brothers Synagogue. I don’t really know the answer to that question, because it’s more a feeling than anything else, but it also helps to relate the buildings needs to our own as we get a bit older. The diagnosis for our beautiful space is, and I am hesitant to use the phrase, “part of her aging process. “ She’s managed to stand tall and proud for 100 years and has given us little to complain about but now needs our attention and care.

The news this year has been glum with regard to existing religious institutions. Churches and temples alike have been closed due to lack of funds and dwindling memberships. The front page of local papers recently highlighted the sale of religious artifacts at Temple Am David in Warwick. In addition, a friend shared with me that her church recently had an air conditioner fail and found that their funds could not support the $5,000 repair bill. It is truly a sad commentary, but perhaps the reality of modern religious life.

Two years ago, we had a very successful fundraising campaign with a challenge from an anonymous donor that raised enough funds to get some renovation at UBS started. Our building committee has been hard at work getting estimates and bids on the various tasks to be completed. If any of you have done home renovation, you know that nothing gets done in the time frame you might like and there are always surprises. With a 100 year old building, we have yet to uncover all the surprises that might be within these walls. Over the next year, we hope to accomplish some of the bigger tasks, like reinforcing the roof, modifying our heating and air conditioning system and taking care of our electrical system that sometimes presents ghosts who light up some of the sconces. I wish I could say that that would be the end of the work, but again, she’s 100 years old and, as you may know very well, getting old is not for the faint of heart!

In this 100th birthday year, I would like to invite all of you to give United Brothers Synagogue a birthday gift. While donated funds are always needed and appreciated, your gift can come in the form of continued attendance at services, host an Oneg Shabbat, bring a friend with you to our services, join our hard working Board of Directors, come to play Mah Jong on Tuesday nights or just share stories with friends and family about our warm congregation who can offer a tremendous amount of kindness and support to the community. Don’t forget that you can even donate by credit card through our website! By giving this gift, you make our temple stronger and more able to face the next 100 years with the same enduring pride that have held her up for this first century.

So, happy New Year to you all and a very Happy Birthday to United Brothers Synagogue. May it be a healthy and meaningful year full of wonderful life events. May you all have a room full of loved ones and look this good when you are 100 years old.

 

Rosh Hashanah 2015

High Holiday Remarks From President Ellen Bensusan

I would like to take a few minutes of your time today to share two stories.  They may seem somewhat unconnected, but given a few more moments, I hope you will see where I am going with this.  The first story involves a time honored tradition many kids go through…summer camp.  When I was young, I went to Camp Pembroke near Cape Cod.  It was a kosher, Jewish camp, all girls, with the best food anywhere!!  I went for the entire summer….8 weeks of fun.  Every Friday night, after Shabbat services, we had a great Friday night dinner complete with matzo ball soup.  Before eating however, there was the welcoming of the Sabbath Queen.  Each week, a different bunk was responsible for electing the Sabbath Queen and court and choreographing a dance to L’cha Dodi that would culminate with the Sabbath Queen presenting the director of the camp with the Shabbat candles.  This was a huge honor and responsibility.  I am proud to say that I was once the Sabbath Queen and to this day, when I hear the L’Cha Dodi sung, I can almost remember the steps to that dance.  It’s like piece of my muscle memory that continues to connect me to part of my Jewish upbringing.  Maybe you have a similar memory tucked away somewhere too?

Now, second story.  When I was 15/16, I was fortunate enough to meet someone extremely influential in the way I have approached my Judaism.  It was Cantor Jack Smith, who was the Cantor at my temple in Cranston.  I knew him from Bat Mitzvah class, but back then, girls were bat mitzvahed in groups of 3, so we didn’t have a lot of one on one time with the Cantor.  When I entered Hebrew high school, that all changed.  From the very beginning, Cantor Jack encouraged, no prodded us, to always ask questions.  He wanted us to explore what Judaism was to us as individuals, not necessarily from what was taught to us at Sunday School.  He challenged our thinking, gave us mature reading material and pushed us to become healthy skeptics of canned religion.  What a gift to give a 16 year old girl!!

Okay, connection.  Many of us sitting in the temple today have muscle memory of childhood experiences in Judaism similar to mine with L’cha Dodi.  Maybe that is what brings you here each month…to hear a favorite prayer or song that recollects younger times.  But, many people in our congregation don’t have those memories because they weren’t born and/or raised Jewish.  They come here because they have married someone who is Jewish or they are curious about what Judaism is about.  This is where Cantor Jack’s gift returns!  We need, as a congregation, to ask questions about our religion.  We need to poke and prod at liturgy to find the meaning for everyone who attends United Brothers Synagogue, regardless of background.  We do this in order to strengthen our connection to the temple and to each other.  We also help create a meaningful connection through understanding for those who don’t have the Jewish traditional memories.  I am truly hopeful, that with a congregation wide practice of questioning, we will learn from each other and consequently learn about who we are as a religious and spiritual home.  Every year, we, as Jews, take time to reflect on what we have done, try to make some course corrections if needed and look forward to another happy and healthy New Year.  I hope that this year, we will work together to make United Brothers Synagogue full of meaningful memories for everyone who walks through our doors.  Thank you and L’Shana Tova.

Annual Dinner

Annual Dinner,  May 3, 2015   Remarks made by incoming president Ellen Bensusan

First, I would like to thank Michael Feldman for his dedication and passion as president of our congregation for the past 2 ½ years.  I hope that I can fill the big shoes of Michael who has guided this Temple with wisdom and dignity.  Michael has led us through many changes and set the course for growth in the coming years.  As he articulated at the 40th rededication on Friday night, we have added wonderful social programming that has drawn a new vitality to the congregation. This has increased the warm, family atmosphere we all enjoy.  Michael has also set the stage for a new era at UBS with its first official rabbi.  We, as a congregation, can’t thank him enough for his strong leadership.  I know that he’s not going anywhere (right?), so I look forward to picking his brain as I move into this position of great responsibility. 

Rick and I moved to Bristol in the summer of 2008.  We had been unaffiliated with any temple for several years.  Our kids are grown and gone, so it wasn’t something that we thought we missed.  Two years later, I came across an article in the paper about a temple in Bristol having its 110th anniversary celebration.  Who knew??  I called Ronnee Wasserman to get information and we came to the service.  As they say, the rest is history!!  What drew us to this temple and affiliating once more, were the people we instantly connected with.  There was something about this temple that felt like coming home.  There was, and is, warmth of friendship that continues to draw people in.  There also is a sense of humor, understanding and acceptance that makes this temple unique from any other experience we have had.

So, where are we going from here?

First, we have a new rabbi.  How exciting is that!  If you have already met Rabbi Carolyn Glatstein, you know how warm and inviting she is. She captivated us from the very beginning and seems to be a perfect reflection of what this temple was looking for.  Rabbi Glatstein has a background that lends itself perfectly to our diverse congregation and she’s willing to listen to the direction this congregation wants to go. We look forward to working with her and growing together.  We hope that everyone will join us at the June service when we officially welcome Rabbi Glatstein as our rabbi.

Second, I’ll just say two words, Herb Sackett.  What a colossal job Herb has done this past year with our generous anonymous donor and the challenge fund.  Herb has insured that the financial health of our congregation and this building is taken care of.  As Rick has articulated in his report, we are looking forward to working with professionals to create a master plan with regard to our aging building.  As all of us understand (or will eventually) getting older brings with it the usual aches and pains and sometimes the need for a little nip and tuck. Our building is no different.  We hope to make announcements in the coming months of significant renovations to the building that will improve its efficiency and utilization.

Now, here’s the part where I ask you to do something. We all know that the temple doesn’t run by itself.  We need the money that is donated through dues and the generous voluntary contributions above and beyond that.  You have heard enough about that, although I guarantee that there will be more discussion of finances as we move forward.  What I want to ask of you though, is not about money.  It’s about your time and your interest.  A temple is only as strong as its membership. We have a solid core of wonderfully active people who put together great functions and programs.  They are fabulous, but it’s not enough.  If we are going to grow our membership and programming, we need every member to do at least one more thing.  If you haven’t joined a committee, please do that this year.  If you haven’t sponsored an Oneg, do that this year.  If you have a great idea about programming, speak up and take charge.  If you know some people in the community who might be interested in joining our congregation, invite them to come to a service to see what we are all about.  We need to have everyone involved if we are to become the Temple that represents this community.  It’s all possible, if you all do one more thing.

Having said that, I would like to thank all of the people who have worked so hard to get UBS to where it is today.  To the outgoing board members, thank you for your service.   To the board members remaining or just joining the board, welcome and I look forward to working with you. I would like to thank the Board for their faith in me as I step into this leadership role.

Thanks to everyone for coming today and making this another great success.

Ellen

Our Anniversary

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.

Anti-Semitism

Bulletin Article, February 2015

Anti-Semitism is on the rise.  We read daily of attacks on synagogues, cemeteries and Jewish neighborhoods.    This is in the context of religious intolerance in general.  Even in Rhode Island, a state founded on the principles of religious freedom, an Islamic school was recently a victim of a hate crime.

The question for us is how do we, as the only synagogue in Bristol, respond to this?     I think we need, both as individuals and as a congregation, to become more proactive in the fight against religious hatred.  As individuals, we should speak out and become more involved in groups such as the Anti-Defamation League.  As a congregation, we need to become far more vocal in condemning acts of religious intolerance and become more involved, with other faith organizations, in combatting this scourge.

To this end, we will be discussing this issue at our next board meeting and I hope we can come up with concrete and actionable items for United Brothers.   I truly believe we must stand up against hatred in our community and in the world.

B’Shalom,

Michael

The Case for United Brothers

High Holiday message, 2014

I’d like to make the case for United Brothers Synagogue.

It’s important to ask ourselves, “What is the value of UBS?”  “Why is it important for us to continue?”

United Brothers is important because it is a place where we come together to get in touch with our spiritual sides.   It provides a spot where we can connect with something bigger than ourselves as well as connecting to our past, present and future.

It forms the center of our Jewish community.   Judaism, by its nature, is a communal religion.   Traditionally we don’t even pray unless there is a minyan of ten people.    Being part of a congregation binds us together.   The Torah reading we just read talks about how we all gather together to be in the presence of God.

If you are Jewish, it is an obligation to be part of, and to support the Jewish community.   And that means supporting Jewish institutions like United Brothers Synagogue.  Because without UBS, Judaism in this area becomes greatly diminished.

So, United Brothers is important.   It is important because we need it to be Jewish and we need it to simply practice our religion.   We need it because we need a focal point for our community.   We need it as a place to celebrate our simchas and to mourn our loved ones who have passed.  Beyond these walls we are needed because having a Jewish presence enhances the entire larger community.

We now have a confluence of events that is going to give us generational opportunity to make sure that we continue and thrive into the future.

The first services that were ever held in this building happened exactly 98 years ago.   In September of 1916 this portion of the building was unfinished so services were held downstairs.     So two years from now,  we will be celebrating our building’s centennial.   The board has already started planning a 100 year rededication of the building.

As most of you know, a few months ago, a donor who wishes to remain anonymous generously pledged $15,000 to us help us maintain and improve our building.   This came to us as a matching grant which means we need to raise an equal amount.   As an incentive, the donor also pledged an additional $2,500 if we get a 100% participation in this challenge.   So far the results have been encouraging but we haven’t crossed the goal line yet.   So if you haven’t contributed, please, please do so.   And to those who have already given money,  thank you.

As per the donor’s wishes, we plan to spend the money improving the building.  So — and as my Grandmother would say, “kin a hora” — in 2016 we will be celebrating the start of year 5777 in a renovated building well positioned to last for another 100 years.

There is another anniversary we should note.    Although United Brothers was founded 114 years ago, in the year 1900, the congregation dwindled and in the 1960’s, for about a period of 10 years, there were no services held here.  In 1975, a group of families, led by Alton and Gloria Brody, brought this congregation back to life.    On April 4, 1975, they held their first services here and United Brothers Synagogue was back in business.   We will be marking the 40th anniversary of our revival this April.

We owe these people debt of gratitude and we also owe the generation that founded the congregation in 1900 and built this building in 1916 a debt of gratitude.

These are people who recognized the value and importance of having a place where we can gather together, form a community and practice our religion.   Hopefully we can live up to their example and continue into the future.

I wish all of you a happy and healthy New Year.

 

 

Our Building

Bulletin Article September 2014

Our building will be celebrating its centennial in 2016 and, like most 98 year-olds, it does have a few aches and pains.    Some of the wiring is original, there isn’t much insulation, the HVAC systems are pretty rickety and the plumbing is barely adequate.

Our building does play a central role in our congregation.   Its jewel box interior connects us palpably to our past.  It is easy to imagine our founders worshiping in the building and when we gather for our services we continue in their footsteps.    Other synagogues might be more imposing, others might inspire more awe, but our building gives us the connection with our past.

Rabbi Jonathan Blake writes that the purpose of a synagogue is to “make God’s presence noticeable” and I think our building does just that.

So maintaining our building is an extremely high priority for the congregation.   We are very fortunate in that a generous donor has given our United Brothers a challenge.   For every dollar we raise in donations, the donor will match it dollar for dollar up to $15,000.   The donor threw down an additional challenge:  if we get 100% of our members participating, another $2,500 will be donated.   All of the matching funds are designated for a capital fund that will help  protect and preserve our building for the future.

We need to rise to this challenge.   This is a generational opportunity for us to ensure that our building will be here for future generations.    It is my dream – and I think it shared by most of us – that in 100 years, our great grandchildren will be able to walk into 205 High Street and celebrate their simchas, their holidays and their shabbats.    Let’s help make this happen.

Growing Our Membership

Bulletin Article, May 2014

One of our goals this year is to build our membership.   At the annual meeting, I mentioned our goal of 60-65 memberships.   As I mentioned, going beyond that goal would strain our building capacity, but that would be a happy worry to have.

This is an achievable goal.   According to a study made a dozen years ago by the Jewish federation of Rhode Island (http://www.jewishdatabank.org/Studies/downloadFile.cfm?FileID=1868), there are 404 Jewish Households in Bristol, Warren, Portsmouth and Tiverton.     Although our membership comes from a much broader region, these four towns are the most natural area for us to draw new members.  But the fact is, only half our members come from these towns, so our “market share” is only around 7%.

Obviously, this is a big opportunity for us.

But, there are two other equally important elements to growing membership.   The first is that we must work hard to integrate new members and secondly we must work even harder to retain existing members.

Membership growth will be one of the board’s priorities this year but I want it to be a congregational priority.   Here is how you can help:

  • Get involved.  Encourage others to get involved.   Come to services, join a committee, sponsor an oneg.   The more this happens, the more vibrant we become.
  • Recruit new members.   Encourage your friends to come to our events and services.
  • When you see someone new at services, say hello to them.  Deuteronomy states, “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Although it might be somewhat crass to talk about the synagogue in marketing terms, we do have a great product.   We are a warm, hamische and loving congregation that has a tradition of welcoming all to worship with us.

Let’s get the word out.

Annual Meeting 2014

I would like to talk about the future of UBS but first, I thought it would be useful to talk about the prior year.

Last year, at this meeting, I outlined a few objectives for us.   We needed to revamp the committee structure and under the leadership of Rick Bensusan, we’ve accomplished that.   We needed to revamp our website and since October, we’ve had a much more attractive, and equally important, a much more maintainable website.   We also needed to bring UBS into compliance with Rhode Island’s rather strict fire codes.   As you can see by the ubiquitous red boxes all over the building, that task has just been accomplished.   I want to thank Barry for all his work in helping to get this done.

I want to thank the members of the board and the committees for all their hard work in accomplishing all of this.

More importantly, though, the congregation has become more vibrant and engaged.   We’ve had a number of very successful programs this year, ranging from a special program on Norway’s response to the holocaust arranged by Erik Skoag to our very active book club,  to our annual Latkepalooza celebration and our sold-out community seder.

There is one goal we didn’t achieve from last year:  we talked about increasing our membership to 60-65 membership units and although we had a very slight increase this year, we had hoped for more.   Membership growth needs to be a priority for the coming year.

When the board met a few weeks ago, we also discussed some long range planning goals.  Herb is chairing a committee to look at the synagogue’s finances to make sure we are able to continue our strong results.

We also have asked the building committee to look at the building and help come up with a long range plan for it.   We’re in a very old structure which has various aches and pains and we need to understand and plan for the inevitable problems.   They’ll be looking at things like our roof, the mechanical systems, electrical and plumbing and will bring in outside expertise to help them.

More immediately, we’ve set a goal for more programming and more participation by the members.

We have several events planned for the upcoming months to help meet these goals.

  • I’m working with Scott to organize a music Sabbath program.  We’ve had these in the past and they’ve been quite successful.
  • We also not that Scott will be conducting his 200th service with us in August.   He’s been our ba’al tefilah — our prayer leader – since 2002 and we’re planning a special service and oneg for him.  Ellen and Rick are chairing the event.
  • We will, of course, have our annual Chanukah Latkepalooza and Passover seder and this coming March, Purim corresponds pretty closely to our scheduled service so I’ve discussed with Scott doing a special Purim service.

As you can see, we’re going to have an active and exciting year.   But all these events require work to make them happen.   So this is an appeal to get more involved with UBS and help us achieve our goals.   I know I’m preaching to the choir here – if you didn’t care about UBS you wouldn’t come to the meeting – but consider joining a committee or volunteering for an event.   We are always looking for people to help out.   If you want to volunteer, see Rick or any member of the board.

I would like single out two people who exemplify that spirit of volunteerism and who have contributed an enormous amount of time, talent and energy to United Brothers.   Whenever we need something to be done, they are there.   Ellen and Rick, I’d like to present you this year’s president’s award.

In that vein, I would like to thank all of the people who have worked so hard to make UBS a thriving congregation.   To the outgoing board members, thank you for your service.   To the board members remaining or just joining the board, welcome and I look forward to working with you.

The work we do in maintaining this congregation is both sacred work and a mitzvah.   Having a thriving Jewish presence in this place and in this time is important for us and it’s important for the whole community.

Thank you for your help and support.

We were slaves…

Two blocks west of our synagogue is Bristol Harbor which, 80 years before the founding of United Brothers, was one of the most active ports participating in the slave trade in the United States.  Although most Africans were brought to Southern slave markets, Northern ports, including Bristol, served as points of entry.   Bristol served as one of the points of the triangular slave trade and our town flourished because of it.

Deuteronomy tells us the reason we celebrate Passover with the passage, “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt…” and we must remember our liberation.     Passover, to me, is not a holiday that only remembers events that occurred in the distant past over 3000 years ago.   It is a holiday that celebrates freedom and liberation in all contexts.

The fact that we are located in a spot where, less than 200 years ago, slaves were imported and traded, illustrates the fight for basic human rights did not end with the Passover liberation but is a battle that needs to be continually fought.

We, as Jews and as members of a Jewish congregation must always be a force for freedom.   Our history and tradition demands this.   During our Seders, we should remember not only we were slaves but others were slaves too.   We should take time at our Seders to remember all oppressed people and we should not view oppression and slavery as some ancient concepts from 3,500 years ago.   In Exodus, God said, “I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers and I am concerned about their suffering.”     If someone was standing on the very grounds of our synagogue 200 years ago, they would most likely have heard the same cries.

Have a Zissen Pesach,

Michael