Asking for Sacred Community

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The following is the installation speech of Steve Croft, incoming President of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, Texas, the largest synagogue in the Conservative movement.

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I want to start by telling you a story---

A long time ago there was a young man, in his early 30's, very shy, who was ASKED to join the new Beth Yeshurun Young Leadership Group.

He didn't know much about it, he thought he would enjoy it, so he said "yes."

Next, this young man was ASKED to join the membership committee.

He didn't know much about it, he thought he would enjoy it, so he said "yes."

After several years he was ASKED to serve on the Board of Trustees.

He was a bit intimidated but nevertheless felt honored to serve.

He didn't know much about it, he thought he would enjoy it, so he said "yes."

Next, he gets a call from the President, Joe Rice, and Joe ASKED him to serve as Chairman of the High Holy Days Committee.

He didn't know much about it, he thought he would enjoy it, so he said "yes."

A few years go by and he gets a call from the Past President, Bob Komorn the chairman of the nominating committee, Bob ASKED him to serve as Vice President on the Executive Committee.

He didn't know much about it, he thought he would enjoy it, so he said "yes."

I'm sure you have figured out by now, that shy young man was me. Now I am standing before you as your President. I was ASKED to get involved.

I'd bet that there are many others like me.

They want to get involved, they think they would enjoy it, but they hesitate. 

Maybe they don't know what will be expected of them or they don't know the time commitment, or they don't know if they will fit in. They are waiting to be ASKED.  If you are waiting to be ASKED, well, I am personally ASKING you to get involved. I want to make sure that it is easy for you to get involved here at Beth Yeshurun by defining what will be expected of you, and providing the support and encouragement you need.  We are fortunate to have great volunteers here at Beth Yeshurun like tonight's honorees Vicky and Michael Richker. Volunteering at Beth Yeshurun is meaningful and if you are like me and many others you will enjoy it!

In this week's Torah portion, T'rumah God says: Ve'asu li mikdash veshachanti betocham.  "Build me a Sanctuary that I may Dwell among them." You may recognize these words. They are inscribed on the wall of the Freedman-Levit Sanctuary. Listen carefully: "Build me a Sanctuary that I may dwell AMONG THEM". Not "that I may dwell IN IT" but "AMONG THEM." I interpret this to mean God's presence is not found in a building. It is found in the hearts and souls of the people who fill the building with prayers and hopes, joys and sorrows. In other words, Beth Yeshurun is a "Kehillah Kedosha," a sacred community. During my term as president, I would like to build on the efforts initiated by our immediate past President, Stuart Wilson, by strengthening Beth Yeshurun as a Kehillah Kedosha: a warm, caring, sacred community. To some, Beth Yeshurun may appear too big or cold.

Throughout the past 2 years, Stuart has made strengthening relationships and creating a warm and caring environment here at Beth Yeshurun a high priority.  Last year, Stuart invited Dr. Ron Wolfson to speak at Beth Yeshurun.  Ron is a Professor at American Jewish University and Author of "The Spirituality of Welcoming." Ron served as Rubenfeld Scholar in Residence, spoke to the congregation, to the ATID Leadership group and led a Board retreat. As a result of Ron's visit, Stuart formed the Kehillah Committee to enhance Beth Yeshurun's warm and caring environment. Mark Hochstein and Sheryl Androphy have done a wonderful job as founding chairs of this committee. We have Shabbat Greeters, a welcoming table, board members are identified with name tags. We are off to a wonderful start thanks to Stuart's leadership. I hope you help us by joining us on the Kehillah Committee. I am ASKING you to volunteer. We have many new initiatives planned to strengthen the relationships among our members and between our members and Beth Yeshurun.

As the largest synagogue in the Conservative movement, Beth Yeshurun is truly a leader.  When you look around, you see a dynamic, lively, vibrant community thanks to our wonderful clergy, lay leaders, staff, and members. 

However, I want to share with you my concern regarding the future of the Conservative movement and our synagogue.  Nationwide, the Conservative movement is in a state of decline while Orthodox and Reform Judaism are growing.  This decline is due to:

  • Greater acceptance of interfaith families by the Reform Movement.
  • Aging of our membership-less than 10% are young adults
  • Through our low key approach to young adult learning and outreach, we've, in effect, allowed other groups, especially Orthodox, to fill the void and create opportunities in which our young adults participate. We should be maximizing our activities in these areas both as a natural part of our synagogue's programs and as a statement about the vibrancy of Conservative Judaism.

In terms of our children, the fact is, we, as parents can do everything-send our kids to Jewish Preschool, Day School, or Religious School, Jewish camps and Israel-and yet, when our children come back as 20-30 year olds, we fail to meet their needs.  Young people often comment, "The synagogue doesn't have enough programming for people my age." 

Likewise, I've heard comments from parents and older members-"Don't worry, they will join when they have children and need a preschool or a religious school."  The fact is that young adults are marrying later and later.  By the time they have children and find the need to join, they may be in their mid 30's or even 40's.  Think about it-a period of 10 to 20 years may elapse after college before they find the need to affiliate. In the meantime, they may become uncomfortable with synagogue life or Judaism as a whole, and choose not to affiliate at all.

Another comment I've heard is that young people just aren't interested.  Do you really believe that?  The young people I've spoken with are looking for ways to make Jewish friends, are eager to expand their knowledge of Judaism, and they want to feel part of a Jewish Community.

We must accept the challenge of developing outreach and additional programming for these young adults to assure continuity of our movement.  We must follow the example set by several model programs around the country, including Ron Wolfson's "Next Dor."  I am ASKING for your help, support, and input to accomplish this goal.

Please give me a few moments to express my appreciation to some deserving people:

First, to the Annual Dinner and Meeting chairs Linda and Gordon Franklin and Mark and Mardi Kunik: Thank you! You have put together a wonderful evening and I appreciate all of your hard work.

Second, to Judy Yambra and the nominating committee: Thank you! I know it was challenging making selections with so many qualified candidates from which to choose.  Great Job!

In closing, I would like to take a few more moments to recognize my family.  Many of you knew my parents, Louis and Ida Croft, of blessed memory.  They were a unique couple-born on the same day, in the same year, and in the same hospital!  They were married at Adath Yeshurun, the forerunner of Beth Yeshurun, and were married for 51 years.  I remember my dad was very active in B'nai B'rith. Both of my parents volunteered numerous hours in the Ben Taub hospital gift shop.  My mom made sure we had Shabbat dinner every week, and celebrated all of the holidays. It was important to her that we remain close with both immediate and extended family.

I don't think either one of my parents would have believed that their shy baby boy would be here tonight being installed as president of Beth Yeshurun. Yet, I am here because of them and the values they instilled in me: Judaism, Community, and Family.  I think of them often and know how proud they would be.

I'm grateful to have my family here with me tonight, including:

  • My brother and sister in law Harry and Benay Croft from San Antonio
  • My sister and brother in law Rochelle and Lee Wunsch, themselves members of Beth Yeshurun
  • Aunt Lynn and Uncle Allan Minsky from Dallas
  • My brother in law and sister in law Jerald and Jennifer Goldstein also from Dallas
  • Aunt Florence Levinson and Cousin Ilene Levinson from Austin
  • My brother in law and sister in law Bobby and Suzanne Goldstein, also members of Beth Yeshurun
  • And, numerous other cousins and relatives from the Houston area.

I am so happy that all 3 of my children are here to share this special evening:

  • My daughter Robyn, a 10th grader at EWS
  • Jeffrey, a sophomore at UT Austin
  • And, Joel, a senior at American University in D.C.

 Adele and I are so lucky to have such incredible, wonderful children. We are so proud of you and love you very much.

Last, but not least, Adele. I cannot believe that it has been almost a quarter of a century we were married in the Sanctuary just yards away. Although I may not say it as often as I should, I love you very, very much. Thank you so much for your love and support and for letting me take on this responsibility.

 

"Build ME a sanctuary that I may dwell among them."

 

Tonight, I hope we all feel the presence of the Almighty AMONG US in THIS sacred place and in THIS sacred community. My hope and prayer is that God will grant good health, wisdom and strength to all of us, the officers, the Board of Trustees, the clergy, the staff and the congregants so that we may be able to attain our goals and fulfill our mission as a Kehillah Kedosha.