Waving the Flags

Bulletin Article, November 2013

You may have noticed that we have a new American flag in the sanctuary.  It was donated by Amy and Bob Hirsch and we thank them for it.

But it got me to thinking about why we actually have a flag in such a prominent position flanking the Bimah.  We actually have three flags:  the American flag, the Israeli flag and the Rhode Island State flag.

We, of course, have the Israeli flag to show our solidarity with the Jewish state and the people of Israel.

But I think the American and Rhode Island flags serve two purposes.   First, we live in a country and a state where we’ve been able to practice our religion freely since the beginning.   We are reminded of this yearly as our neighbors in Newport celebrate their letter from George Washington that so eloquently enshrines the principal of freedom of worship.    We should never forget how blessed we are that we are able to enjoy the liberty that these flags symbolize.

The second purpose is to remind us that we are part of this country, not separate from it.   Our beliefs and values are fundamental to the founding of the nation.   The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia quotes Leviticus.   Our most iconic symbol, the Statue of Liberty displays the immortal words of Emma Lazarus, a Jewish poet.   When Martin Luther King Jr. wished for the time when “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream” he is quoting the prophet Amos.

The most visceral evidence of how United Brothers Synagogue is woven into the fabric of our community is the fourth flag we display.   As you enter our building, on the left, is a Gold Star Flag.   Each star represents a person who served in the armed forces.   One of the stars is gold, symbolizing a member of UBS who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedoms.

So the next time you visit our building, take a look at our flags and be both thankful to be part of this great country that gives us freedom to worship and be proud of our contribution to it.


Do we believe in miracles?

High Holiday message, 2013

Do we believe in miracles? Especially, do we believe in miracles from divine intervention?

Not so much, as Scott pointed out last month. The Chanukah miracle of the oil lasting eight days was a creation of the rabbis and isn’t referenced in the biblical texts. The Passover miracles also can be explained as natural phenomena.

But our history and tradition are full of very improbable events which we celebrate. The Purim story recounts an escape from a genocidal plot by Haman; The Chanukah story tells of the improbable victory of the Maccabees over Antiochus; Passover is the story of a successful slave revolt against the Egyptian Pharaoh.

What these stories all have in common is that an improbable event was made possible by a group of people who came together and achieved great things. Our holidays, to my mind, celebrate Esther and Mordecai, The Maccabees , The Israelites. So in my view, it is people who make the miracles.

United Brothers is also a miracle. That we’re still here in our small little shul in Bristol RI is truly amazing. Look around you. After 113 years – after 3000 years – after perhaps 5774 years we still gather to celebrate the new year. And like the “miracles” of our past, this miracle was made by a group of people, coming together to do extraordinary things.

So help continue our little miracle here by helping us out in any way you can. Financial support is, of course, always welcome but the gift of your time is what makes the miracle happen.
Volunteers are more than the core of UBS. They are UBS. We have no administrators, secretaries or office staffs. When you walked into the building and found that the lights were on, there were flowers on the bimah, the prayer books were out you may not have thought much about it but it was because of a dedicated group of volunteers who made it possible and we owe them our thanks and gratitude.

So to our members, please think about volunteering. It’s easy to do – just give us a call or send us an email and say, “I’d like to help out”. If someone calls you and asks you to help out, please say, “Yes.” To those of you who are our guests and with us for the first time, welcome and think about joining UBS to be part of this miracle.

And to all of you, have a wonderful, sweet and health New Year. L’Shana Tovah.


Bulletin Article, August 2013

I’m writing this a few days before the Bristol 4th of July celebration and watching the preparations for it started me thinking about our concept of community. The people of the town have, together, decorated, shined and polished their streets and houses. They have all come together to create an outstanding event that is unique in the country. United Brothers Synagogue’s home town has never looked better. Bristol exemplifies what a community truly is: People coming together to do something great.

In our more connected age, we no longer have to be living close together to form a community. In fact, only about a quarter of UBS members actually live in Bristol. But we all share common values, beliefs and backgrounds and we come together not only to fill our individual spiritual needs but to help sustain our congregation.

Ours is a community oriented religion. The covenant was between God and the people of Israel, not to individuals. As Exodus puts it, “All the people answered as one”. We’re not even supposed to have a prayer service without a minyan of ten people.

Communities need to have a purpose and a goal. The UBS community is here to help us individually to find meaning in our teachings and practices and to help others when there is a time of need. We’re here to help educate our children about our traditions. We’re here to be a “light unto the nations” and help make the world better.

It’s truly a mitzvah to participate and help strengthen our community. Please consider volunteering and joining us for all our activities. Rabbi Hillel put it best: “Do not separate yourself from the community”.

Have a great summer,

Annual Meeting 2013

This is the blessing for communal leadership.

It emphasizes the responsibility we all have to work and strengthen our community. What we do today is, in Judaism, a sacred task. Elie Wiesel says, “To be part of a community, to shape it, and to strengthen is the most urgent and the most vital obligation facing the Jewish individual.”

I think all of us our here today for that very reason. We recognize our obligation to strengthen the United Brothers community and to make sure that we continue to thrive for the next 113 years.

By virtue of attending the annual meeting, I think everyone here understands this and UBS is blessed by your support and commitment. As a member of this congregation, I want to thank everyone here for demonstrating this commitment.

I became president of UBS rather abruptly earlier this year when Beth Rabin moved to Colorado. It was a little disorienting at first, but members of the board stepped forward to help advise and mentor me. I want to thank the board as a whole for their help but especially want to thank Herb Sackett and Steve Krohn who were enormously generous with their time. Every synagogue has its own “minhag” or ways of doing things and these two helped this “new kid on the block” to come up to speed quickly.

One of the first questions I had for them was “How does everything get done? Who sends the emails, who picks up the mail, who answers the phone. Who organizes the onegs, this potluck dinner, the newsletter? It was then I realized how fortunate this congregation was to have a dedicated – and I mean truly dedicated — group of volunteers who labor tirelessly on behalf of all of us. So, thank you, thank you, thank you.

But I’d like to recognize someone in particular for their dedicated and inspired work done on our behalf. Brenda Stahl has been everywhere. She has been responsible for both organizing and conceiving our book club and this year’s wonderful and sold-out seder – both of which truly strengthen us as a community. And beyond those activities she’s helped organize, with Harriet, today’s dinners, the onegs and I’m sure I’m leaving stuff out. In recognition of this work, I’d like to present Brenda with this President’s Award.

Our congregation, thanks to all of you, is in pretty good shape. Our finances are in order, membership is up a bit, attendance at services is also up and more people are participating in our programing. But the board needs to work hard this year to sustain this momentum.
• Membership is always the key to the future success of the congregation. We need to continue to attract new members, not to simply replace those lost through normal attrition but to keep growing. It’s not unreasonable for us to have a goal of 60-65 memberships. Beyond that we might start straining this building’s capacity but that would be happy worry to have.
o To help attract new members, this year we are going to revamp our website. It needs to be updated and made more attractive. Erik Skoug has volunteered to help with this in addition to his work on the bulletin. The website is truly the main mechanism people use to learn about us these days. Just last Friday I met a visiting couple – and potential members — who walked by our building and “looked us up on the web”. They liked what they learned there and decided to join us for services.
o We are working to make sure that when people attend our worship services, they view the experience as meaningful and worthwhile. To that end, I’ve started to have regular offsite meetings with Scott so that he has a better idea of congregational expectations. These meetings have all been extremely positive and Scott and absolutely committed to working closely in partnership with the board.
o The purchase of the new cushions helps too. Having a sore tush should not be one of the take-aways from our services.
o But there is something you all can do to help. When you see someone new at our services, introduce yourselves and welcome them. It was that welcoming experience that attracted Faye and me UBS and we all have a part to play.
• We will be spending time on our physical plant this year. Most immediate is that the Rhode Island fire code mandates that, by the end of 2014, we upgrade our fire detection systems to the new standard. This will be a somewhat expensive task. We’ve received two preliminary bids and the cost will probably be between 5 and 10 thousand dollars. This is not a discretionary expenditure – we’ll have to do it.
o The building will also continue to have various aches and pains. Just last month we needed some moderately expensive plumbing work to replace a crushed drainpipe.
• Organizationally we need to revamp our committee structure. The formal committee structure outlined in our bylaws is totally unrelated to our needs. Herb Sackett has done some excellent preliminary work in this area and this will be an early priority of the board.
• Lastly, I want to continue to formalize our “IT” infrastructure. This is something I started last year and we subscribed to a cloud based synagogue management system called Chai Track. The jury is still out on whether or not this was a good decision, but we’ll continue to evaluate it.

So, to the board members who were just elected, welcome aboard. Remember, the work we do is sacred work and a mitzvah. To the congregation, thank you for your support and help.


Bulletin Article, March 2013

As many of you already know, Beth Rabin relocated to the Denver area and resigned as president of UBS. I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing her luck as she starts the next chapter of her life and we thank her for her service to this congregation.

So, this is probably a good place to formally introduce myself. I’m a fairly new Rhode Island resident. My wife Faye and I moved to Portsmouth three years ago and shortly after that we joined UBS. We have two grown daughters and one grandchild with another one on the way.

We joined UBS because we found a hamische congregation that welcomed us warmly and we enjoyed the meaningful and intelligent services. We also fell in love with our historic building which evokes a palpable connection to our grandparents and great grandparents and generations before them.

I joined the board at UBS because I consider it both a mitzvah and honor to do so. I believe it is our sacred responsibility to our community to ensure the continuation of our institutions.
United Brothers had a near death experience a generation ago and I stand in awe of the drive, commitment, dedication and hard work of those who brought it back to become the vibrant congregation that we have today. These folks are a tough act to follow and every member of the board strives to be worthy of them.

But it is not the responsibility of the board alone. We all must contribute to our congregation’s positive direction and momentum. Even little things, like greeting a stranger at a Shabbat Oneg helps strengthen us. Please participate in our services and activities and please volunteer whenever possible.

If you have any suggestions, comments, questions or ideas please send them to me. You can always reach me via email (michael@mafeldman.com) or call me (401-264-0623). I’d love to hear from all of you.

Have a wonderful Passover,

What’s in a name?

Bulletin Article, December 2012

What’s in a name?

The official name of our congregation is “Chevra Agudas Achim” which we translate to “United Brothers Synagogue.”

Although I’m not a Hebrew scholar by any means, this has always struck me as a pretty poor translation. The word Chevra is better translated as “society” or “fellowship”. It has the same root as the Hebrew word for friend . The word “Agudas” can be translated as “union” or “gathering”. Interestingly, it also means “knot”. Achim means “brothers”.

Taken together, our Hebrew name has overtones of friendship, that we’re all connected and intertwined (“knotted” if you will), and that we support each other. The use of the word “brothers” implies that we are all family.

This, I think, better describes our congregation better than our English moniker. After all, a synagogue is just a building and we are much more than that. We are friends; we care for one another; we are connected and we are a community. You know this the moment you walk into any of our services and feel the hamishe atmosphere.

I don’t know why our founders chose a name with so much redundancy in it. After all, we can perhaps more accurately translate the name as “The Brothers Fellowship Society”. Scott Tepper, who helped me with article, suggests the translation could be the “Fellowship of Union of Brothers.”

But I would like to think that they knew they wanted to emphasize the friendship and love that they felt for each other. They knew their purpose was not to build a building but to create a long lasting community. And they succeeded.

Many thanks to Scott for his help in filling in my Hebrew knowledge gaps.