Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,
My name is Betsy Diamant-Cohen and I wish a happy new year and an easy fast to everyone.
The High Holiday season is time to reflect upon the past year, to see where we’ve been and to determine the path we want to follow for the coming year. In addition to our personal reflections, it is also a good time to reflect on where we have been as a congregation, and where we hope to go in the coming year.
Shortly before the High Holidays last year, Chevrei Tzedek faced a problem. The shul’s President’s term was ending, but for a variety of personal and professional reasons, neither the Vice President nor the others approached by the nominating committee were able to take on this role.
At a community meeting, in a moving and elegant speech, Mike Field appealed to everyone in the congregation, asking for a volunteer to become shul President for the coming year.
I started thinking. On one hand I weighed all the benefits my family and I had gotten out of shul until then.
The standard ones:
Friday night dinners. Chinese food on Christmas Eve. One bar and two bat mitzvahs. A memorial service for my dad. A funeral for my mom.
Friends. Hospital visits and phone calls by members of the congregation and the rabbi when someone from my family was hospitalized.
Meals when a hospitalized family member came home. A shiva minyan at my home.
Loans of vans when we needed a big vehicle to move things.
Volunteer opportunities to help improve the quality of life of others.
Whenever we had a difficult situation, if we let the shul know about it, someone turned up to help in some way.
It was a two way street. First, my family became involved with Chevrei, met people, and pitched in to help at various shul events. Then in our times of need, shul members pitched in to help us. Chevrei Tzedek had indeed become our community.
Just like the shul mobilized into action when we let them know we were in a difficult situation, now the shul was letting us know that it was in a difficult situation. It needed help. What should I do?
I looked long and hard at the things I was doing (working part time at a salaried job as well as running my own business and travelling a lot) but also recognized the free time I had (my kids were all living in Israel, so there were few day-to-day parental responsibilities.) I decided it was time to give back, but knew I did not have enough time to be the shul president. Still, I wanted to help. So I called Mike and offered to serve on the coordinating committee with others.
Apparently 5 other women came to the same conclusions that I had. Yes, that’s right. 5 other women called Mike and said exactly the same thing.
Mike and Elissa, the then president, were smart. They invited all six of us to a meeting. We sat together right here in the Myerberg and were told “You all volunteered to take leadership roles. Figure out among yourselves what to do.”
The six of us, Barbara Baum, Sally Grobani, Debbie Steinig, Elaine Weiner, Veronica Weiss and myself, sat in a circle and each shared our skills, the things we like to do, and things we did not want to do. We discovered that some people liked making phone calls while others hated it. Some people thrived on organization while others were befuddled by it. Some were Web-savvy and others were web-phobic. Some people found public speaking fun (like me!) while others shied from the lime light. A clear picture began to emerge of the available talent in the pool of people volunteering to be on the coordinating committee.
We decided to roll several positions together and divide them up according to our interests and skills rather than according to titles and responsibilities. One position remained separate, that of treasurer. Last year, that was Peter Evans. He was focused on his treasurer responsibilities and executed them fabulously. This year’s treasurer, Stan Rowen, is continuing along in the same way.
Meanwhile, Veronica, Sally, Elaine, Debbie, Barbara and I became the mazkirut, a Hebrew word taken from my Young Judaea days that means (loosely translated) Secretariat.
We did not all know each other well. In our first meetings, we focused on dividing up responsibilities. Elissa Hozore, the outgoing president, generously attended some of those early meetings to share her wisdom and help make a smooth transition. We also focused on getting to know each other so that we could work effectively together.
We started by talking about why we loved Chevrei Tzedek enough to volunteer to serve in this way. Each person had a different answer but there were certainly recurring themes:
For the most part, the mazkirut has operated quite smoothly. Open communication and mutual respect have helped us capitalize on our strengths and work together well. Of course, since we are human, there were occasional glitches. There was not always unanimous agreement among mazkirut members. Sometimes a thought was expressed in a way that unintentionally offended or hurt another mazkirut member. I was guilty of that. And I apologized afterward. We moved on. We confronted issues rather than sweeping them under the table. But we did everything with care and concern. We modeled the way we wanted our fellow congregants to act. With respect, with kindness, and with a chance for every voice to be heard.
We learned to forgive mistakes, to regard all cases of “rubbing someone the wrong way” as unintentional. And we talked. Boy, did we talk! And emailed. And conference called.
We communicated. We addressed problems full on. We agreed that what was said in our mazkirut meetings would remain confidential in order for us to be able to discuss difficult issues and specific problems.
But we also worked closely with the rest of the Coordinating Committee, the shul Board, composed of the Heads of all of the shul committees and former officers. We had open meetings and promoted a policy of transparency for all shul Coordinating committee meetings. We wanted shul members to know what was going on, to feel involved as members.
So now that a year is up, you may ask, “How did our experiment go?” And I can answer, “Remarkably well!”
The mazkirut members know each other – and the congregation -- fairly well by now.
We know who to turn to for which type of task, whether a fellow mazkirut member or any other congregant. We know who, when called upon, will jump at the chance to help, whether by pinch-hitting in services, communicating with the Myerberg about a sensitive issue, fixing a pesky bug on the web page, or helping the Congregational Activities committee pull off wonderful events
We have not learned how to look beyond the differences.
We have learned to see what people’s differences are and to appreciate them.
To build upon them. What is one person’s weakness is another’s strength. When we combine forces, we can do great things!
This has been a great lesson for me.
It’s amazing how much easier it is to get things done when you are able to say what you need and then work together as part of a respectful hard-working team to make things happen.
I have grown to have such respect for the coordinating committee and for all our volunteers and the role they play in our shul. A year and a half ago, there was a leadership vacuum. This year, we have a strong coordinating committee. New members have joined Chevrei Tzedek. We’ve had spectacular programs with even more exciting programs coming up (I’m personally looking forward to the screening of the film “Blazing Saddles” on Christmas, accompanied by a kosher, Chinese meal.)
The mazkirut is a social experiment that didn’t just work, it excelled. It has been and continues to be an honor to serve on the mazkirut with these 5 amazing women. So I’d like to ask my fellow mazkirut members to rise now so I can publically thank them for all the time and effort they put into the mazkirut this past year. Barbara Baum, Debbie Steinig, Elaine Weiner, and Veronica Weiss. Sally Grobani is in Annapolis, but she is with us in spirit, Thank you, fellow mazkirut members. (you can sit down)
On behalf of the mazkirut, I would also like to acknowledge the wider leadership of our shul. The coordinating committee is made up of all the heads of the rest of the shul committees. These are the people who come on a regular basis to meetings in the shul, who turn up to do what has to be done… IN ADDITION TO whatever they are doing with their own committees. Could all members of the coordinating committee please stand? Thank you.
And we have other active members, with or without titles, who are integral parts of helping Chevrei. I want to thank the people who often run services and read Torah for us, the shofar blowers, the congregants who help the treasurer deal with finances, those who sponsor kiddush or help clean up after kiddush, and those people who help with childcare, making sure there are services for our youngest attendees. If you have volunteered at Chevrei Tzedek in any capacity in the past year, please stand so we can acknowledge your contributions and say, “Thank you.”
Change cannot happen without community. We have shown that a mazkirut made of different personalities can work smoothly, comfortably, and ethically together. We have learned that if one person says, “I cannot do that” someone else will volunteer and say, “I’ve got it.” The support of the entire group helps each of us individually to keep from feeling this is too much work. And what has happened in the mazkirut is just a microcosm of what happens in the broader Chevrei Tzedek community every day.
Take a look around you. We are the Chevrei Community. All of us in this room contribute something to Chevrei. Men, women, and children. We come from diverse backgrounds and have different levels of knowledge and observance. Yet we all share a sense of Jewish identity and allegiance. Why else would we be here tonight? And if our goal is to have a strong, welcoming egalitarian community here in Baltimore, we must become even better at working together to see that it happens.
Here is my formula, based on what has worked for me, my family, and the mazkirut.
My last request of you for this coming year?
If you are not already involved, please come more often.
If you are not a member, consider becoming one.
If there is something you don’t like, help us find ways to change it. If you need help with something, let us know.
If you can help us, do so! And, by the way, while the current mazkirut have all agreed to serve for another year, we are also looking for new people to phase in. You’ve heard what a great group the mazkirut is – did I mention that we also have a lot of fun together? If you think you might be interested or want more information about what’s involved, please contact me or any mazkirut member after the holiday.
Thank you for joining us here tonight. Shana Tova and G’mar Hatima Tova to everyone.