Rabbi Hillel Skolnik
Kol Nidrei Sermon 5774
Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation

This past June, I had the exciting opportunity to attend what is called the Rabbis of Small Congregations Conference, a relatively new and relatively small gathering that is exactly as it advertises – a gathering of rabbis of small congregations.  Since it is now sponsored by the Rabbinical Assembly, those in attendance were all rabbis of what are called A-size Conservative congregations meaning under 250 family units just like us, many of the rabbis my friends previously from Rabbinical School and life. I had heard other colleagues speak about the overwhelmingly positive experience they had at this conference last year, even so I hadn’t planned on attending.  But at the urging of several members of our congregation and with the support and assistance of our lay leadership, I left on June 2nd for three days in Wilmette, IL – the former hometown of a mother and son who just recently joined our ranks here at SOJC.  It was, as it turned out, a fantastic three days and I’d like to spend a few moments sharing with you some of what I took away from that experience.

First of all, I was reminded just how useful it is on a personal and professional level to gather with other rabbis, just as I imagine it would be for any of us to meet with others in our own fields.  Not only is there a natural exchange of ideas that takes place, but it does so under an almost magical umbrella of mutual appreciation and respect for the jobs that we all do and the challenges we all face.  What made it better was that this was not rabbis of small congregations trying to vie for attention with others who are charged with leading the mega-shuls of our country.  This was men and women, who in my humble opinion are largely underappreciated in the greater Jewish world, coming together to learn, pick each other’s brains, share programs, and of course eat.  It is, in effect, a room full of fellow rabbis gathering together to say a collective “How are you?” to each other and then really caring about the answer.    We were able to share and to hear each other in a variety of settings including going out to dinner at one of Chicago’s new and dare I say “hip” Kosher restaurants.  With apologies to the vegetarians out there, it was a meat restaurant and it was good.

I was not at all surprised, nor do I think anyone here tonight would be, to learn that the other A-size congregations out there in the country face many of the same obstacles that we do.  While it would be easy to think that every other synagogue other than SOJC has everything they could possibly need – things like a building that doesn’t face structural issues or as much classroom space as they could ever need to name a couple – it would simply not be the case.  I came away from that conference reminded that we are not the only synagogue out there in the world that relies on its congregants to do more than just pay dues.  All of the rabbis who were there rely on their congregants to help make their synagogues run by volunteering, by giving of their time and of themselves to do many of the things that our members do – like staying for a few extra minutes after Hebrew School starts on a Sunday morning to core and cut apples so that every student can have apples dipped in honey for Rosh HaShanah, coming in on a weekday evening to move the pews out of the sanctuary so that new carpet can be installed, or helping other families when they choose to self cater a family simcha like a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  It is synagogues like this one, where families are involved in each other’s lives and are willing to get their hands dirty to help the congregation, where true community is built.  It was beautiful to see the incredible pride and caring that each rabbi has for his or her synagogue and to be sure, my love for SOJC was on full display.

I was also reminded that in the realm of synagogues of our size, we are an example of incredible success.  During our three days together, it became clear to me that the major issue facing many if not most of the other synagogues represented is for us one of our greatest strengths.  Without breaking confidences that were shared in our sessions, I can tell you that perhaps the biggest challenge for small congregations out there is dwindling religious school enrollment.  What I heard described over and over is that small synagogues are either considering combining with other area synagogues to have a community wide religious school, or have done so already.  The difficulty that comes along with this seemingly elegant solution is that the synagogues they might combine with do not always share the same religious ideals and educational goals.  One rabbi bemoaned how the director of the community-wide religious school in his area arranged a field trip to a baseball game on a Saturday afternoon.  Another spoke of her struggle to implement any policy at all for keeping kosher in the religious school.

But as I mentioned, what for others might be a challenge, for us is one of our greatest strengths.  As you may already know, our religious school enrollment is higher than it was at end of last year and boasts the addition of a Pre-K and Hebrew High School class.  It is but one of numerous signs of the fact that we are indeed a growing congregation with an expanding membership.   Our future is bright because we invest time and energy in our children and they feel valued in our midst.  We welcome their presence and we teach them to honor their elders in our community, to listen to their stories and to learn from them.  We are blessed to be in this position and I was probably too happy to share that with my friends in Wilmette.

The stated focus, of this particular Rabbis of Small Congregations Conference was fundraising.  We were treated to two presentations, one by an experienced fundraiser in the Chicago area and the second by Marilyn Kohn a Vice Chancellor and the chief development officer of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where Sharon and I were both ordained.  She presented us many useful tidbits including her top ten rules for fundraising.  Now is not the time to mention them all, but there are two that are particularly appropriate for this evening.  The first is that in fundraising, you have to ask. And tonight in our annual Yom Kippur Appeal we ask for your support.  As you know, our synagogue is doing incredible things, reaching new families, engaging returning members, and is a place of marketable success and growing strength.  But of course for that to continue, we need your continued support.

The second, though really the most important of all, is to say thank you and so tonight we do that as well.  Thank you for every contribution of every size, all of which helps us keep a balanced budget and allows us to be a fiscally responsible synagogue. Thank you for your generosity of time and dedication that you show to making our congregation work.  Thank you Michele and the entire Board of Directors, whose leadership and dedication inspires us all.  And thank you all for providing my family a community where our children feel at home and a synagogue which is our home.

I certainly hope to return in the years to come to the Rabbis of Small Congregations Conference, if for no other reason than to have the chance to boast to more of my colleagues about the community that is SOJC.  I hope and pray that the year ahead brings our community good health and happiness, success in our endeavors, spirituality in our prayers and inspiration in our children.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah, May our inscription in the book of life be sealed for the year to come.