by Rabbi James Prosnit, August 2017/Av-Elul 5777
For many years my August Bulletin article has been a replay of the remarks I made at our Annual Meeting. As you may recall this past June our meeting focused on volunteerism at B’nai Israel and we asked a few people to share some thoughts on why they do what they do at the Temple. I asked Naomi Schaffer to be a “guest columnist” this month as her remarks from that meeting conveyed so eloquently what makes the congregation work as it does. (I’ve edited them a bit in the interest of space.)
Good evening. I was asked to speak about my volunteering at B’nai Israel, but first I have to tell you briefly about my experience at a congregation in another state. We were members there for 5 years and I tried to get involved but seemed to be shut out every time. We had lots of friends there, but the organizational side of the congregation seemed limited to a select click of members. So when I moved to Connecticut almost 20 years ago, I tried again, knowing that getting involved would be a good way to meet people, and it’s always good to help out in the community. My parents were active in our synagogue when I was growing up and I saw they got a lot of fulfillment from that, and I wanted to set an example for my 2 children who were in elementary school at the time.
I felt welcomed at B’nai Israel even before we joined, and it’s amazingly easy to get involved here. Within a year and a half of joining, I was singing in the choir, on the Adult Ed and Religious Practices Committees and a member of the board responsible for publicity. I first got involved in Religious Practices because I happened to meet Cantor Blum at the JCC gym one day shortly after we joined the synagogue, and she introduced me to the chairman of that committee who also happened to be at the gym, and I got an invitation to a meeting! Two decades later I’m still attending those meetings. We cover a wide range of topics and I find it extremely interesting to be involved in making decisions and learning other peoples’ opinions about topics as varied as whether to adopt new prayer books and music, what kind of holiday activities we should have, and a most controversial topic, whether we should have racks for hanging your tallit in the bathrooms.
The choir, I love being part of the choir. I like to sing but don’t have the powerful belt-it-out kind of voice you need to be a soloist, so being in the choir is perfect for me. I have a pretty limited singing range, so if I can’t hit a high note I don’t have to worry about it because someone else will. And this is not meant to insult the clergy, but the view from the bimah at high holiday services is much more interesting than the view of the bimah from the pews. If you sing in the choir you can see who’s falling asleep, who’s chit chatting during the sermons, and who’s wearing what.
After a few years here I took Cantor Blum’s cantillation class & became part of her pool of Torah chanters. I get extremely nervous every time I chant but I haven’t embarrassed myself yet by forgetting the tune or the words. And it’s very meaningful to be chanting the words of Torah that have been chanted for generations, and are being chanted on that same day around the world. !
One Saturday morning many years ago there was a snow storm. The cantor was on vacation, and the person who was supposed to fill in for her didn’t show up. My family were regulars at the 8 am service, and Rabbi Prosnit asked me, as the service was starting if I would fill in. I knew the prayers, but I was quite shy and certainly not confident of my singing abilities, but I said yes because you just don’t say no to the rabbi, right? Especially when he puts you on the spot like that! Now I fill in regularly when the cantor is away and even got up the courage after a few years to accompany myself on the guitar.
Over time I helped out with a couple of the gala fundraiser events, chaired the college committee hoping it would be a nice connection with my kids, when sisterhood was revived for a few years I was involved in that effort, and for the last several years I’ve organized the shoppers for Friday night onegs. In all these activities I worked with a small group of volunteers and got to know new people, some of whom became good friends. I coordinated a middle aged singles event many years ago when the synagogue was encouraging people to get together for Shabbat activities outside of the physical and organizational structure of this building. While no romances evolved from that event for anyone attending, I did make some really good women friends and we’ve been important parts of each other’s lives in the years since.
I’ve done volunteer work through the synagogue in the community around us, like serving breakfast at Homes for the Brave, working at the clothes pantry at UCC Church, and helping out with Tent of Abraham events. I’m not listing all these activities to brag about how wonderful I am, and for those of you who know me, you know that’s not my style. And believe me, there are plenty of people who volunteer a lot more than I do. I’m telling you this to show you how varied the opportunities are and how easy it is to get involved if you want to do so.
Over the 20 years I’ve been in this congregation I’ve had a few crises in my life, divorce, deaths in the family, illnesses, and the people of this congregation have been here for me and helped me get through the tough times. Of course they’ve also been here for the joyful times, like the bar mitzvahs of my sons. I think it’s only fair that if the synagogue is here for me, that I am here for the synagogue.
I feel like I’ve made a difference in a small way. Not everybody needs to make a big impact, lots of little impacts are also important. Volunteering definitely adds meaning to my life, it helps the community, it strengthens the congregation and my relationship with the clergy and lay people here, and it feels really good.