Congregation B'nai Israel

2710 Park Avenue, Bridgeport, CT 06604 | (203) 336-1858 | |

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How Good Are Our Tents

by Rabbi Jim Prosnit, August 2018/Av-Elul 5778

(Edited version of Rabbi Prosnit’s remarks at the June Annual meeting)

Mah Tovu ohalecha Yaacov…….

We begin most every Shabbat morning service with those words – first found in the Torah portion Balak in the Book of Numbers.  According to the story, Balak the Moabite king hires the pagan soothsayer Balaam to curse the neighboring Israelite tribes. However, whenever he opens his mouth rather than a curse — a blessing comes out.

“How Good are your Tents O Jacob – Your Dwelling Places O Israel,” is perhaps the best known.  In Torah study we learn of parallelism and the potential for added meaning when two verses say pretty much the same thing. Your tents /your dwelling places; Jacob/Israel.  So the teaching becomes how do you turn curses into blessing? And the answer, by make your tents into sacred dwelling places  — and by helping Mr. Jacob become part of a holy community — the B’nai Yisrael – the Children of Israel.

For some of the rabbis in days of old – the tents weren’t just the things they bought at REI, they were the sanctuaries; and the dwelling places weren’t just homes, they were schools.  Providing places of prayer, education and communal responsibility became the mission of the buildings that would become the synagogue and the pillars on which sustaining principles stood.

So you can see why it is a blessing not only to be able to say each morning, but at this Annual Meeting —  Mah Tovu,  how good is this  tent, this dwelling place.  And how good it is to end the “programmatic/fiscal” year with really good news.  As you heard from Michael Blumenthal — a balanced budget! A successful Gala honoring 4 most deserving people! An amazing celebration once again of confirmation! A pre-school bursting at its seams!  And Oh yes – a thoughtful rabbinic planning process that led to a wise decision and a welcome outcome for everyone in our community. 

I’m not certain about this – but in 160 years, I may well be the first rabbi ever to retire from B’nai Israel.  My predecessor Rabbi Sher left for a fulltime position at the CCAR; Rabbi Martin I believe served as rabbi until his death and the couple of rabbis in between either left of the their own accord or were asked to leave! If I remember from some archival investigation a few years back I don’t think any of those rabbis from the 19th or early 20th century stuck around long enough to retire.

But despite some of those less than smooth transitions, one of the remarkable things about B’nai Israel is that in the main, over the last 80 years there have three senior rabbis of the congregation.  

From time to time I’ve been asked, “What accounts for this longevity of service?”  (And here I might add in fifty years, basically two Cantors and two Directors of Education as well.)

I believe it stems in no small part from a culture that fosters an incredible partnership among lay leadership, clergy and educators.  It is the civility of the place, the dedication of the many and the willingness not only to celebrate accomplishments, but strive each and every day to better the mission that makes this a place where people want to work and volunteer; worship, study and socialize.

It is no secret that in this area synagogues are closing.  Ahavas Achim has been torn down and I’m told that the Rodeph Sholom building is up for sale.  While both may continue in smaller venues there is a loss to what were once proud institutions.

I believe our continuity and success also comes from our commitment to the Reform movement.  Its encouragement of inclusion and flexible, creative response to modernity, its fostering of quality educational opportunities for children not only in congregations but in summer camps and Israel, it’s commitment to adults from Biennial gatherings to a vibrant web site of information and ideas all help lay a foundation on which we as a congregation can prosper. 

But let’s also not forget, too Reform Judaism’s commitment to social justice and pluralism here and in Israel. For me highlights of the past year included our sizable delegation to the URJ Biennial, our welcoming of Anat Hoffman, the outspoken voice and leader of the Israel Religious Action Center and our endorsement of a Brit Olam, a covenant encouraged by the RAC and signed by us and 187 other congregation committed to work for a world filled with justice compassion and peace. 

As we enter a new, historic chapter with Shari Nerreau as our new president and a new Rabbi Elect, I marvel that we have always managed to find the right leaders for the right time – and once again I am confident in their ability to move us in a direction of goodness and strength.

Mah Tovu ohalecha Yaacov!!