Too many times in our lives, we find ourselves dwelling on the negative experiences in our lives. We come to the end of a year and we hope that we will do better in the year ahead. Perhaps we should also consider the amazing opportunities that await us in the upcoming year. 5776 may be ending, but 5777 has, as the Carpenters told us, “Only just begun…” Yes – take a minute and sing that song – the rest of it – to yourselves! So, while some of us are dwelling in our feelings of anxiety, there are others, I hope many, many more, who are grasping at the chance to do more…to do better.
There was a beloved Rabbi – one of the great Hasidic masters – Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol. Many stories are told of his travels and his great abilities to help others. One story, “The Recipient,” delivers a message that is very apropos:
A man who lived in Hanipol saw that Rabbi Zusya was very poor. Each day, he put twenty pennies into his Tefillin bag, so that Zusya and his family might have the necessities of life. As he gave more and more money to Rav Zusya, he became richer and richer. The more that he gave to Rav Zusya, the more he had.
One day, though, when he realized that Rav Zusya was the disciple of a great, righteous man, he decided to give Rav Zusya’ master the presents originally given to Rav Zusya. When this man journeyed to and met with Rabbi Baer, he induced him to accept his gift. From this time on, though, his means shrank and shrank until he had lost all of the profits he had made before when he was giving gifts to Rav Zusya.
The man approached Rav Zusya to find out why his fortunes had turned drastically bad for him. Rav Zusya replied, “Look! As long as you gave and did not bother to whom, whether to Zusya or another, God gave to you and did not bother to whom. But when you began to seek out especially noble and distinguished recipients, God did exactly the same.”
We can certainly learn a lot from our Hasidic Masters, especially from Rav Zusya. In this particular story, we learn it is not only important to just give to our community. We should also make sure to care for those in our communities that have less or have fewer opportunities. Charity for the sake of charity is the best kind of charity… (PAUSE)
Temple Kol Emeth is so many things – a building, a place for spirituality, a place to learn, a home, a family – all in all, an amazing place. We love together; we cry together; we work together; we give together. Just a couple of months ago, many of our TKE family came together and prepared over 600 meals for those less fortunate. Over the summer, we began yet another Habitat for Humanity Build. Throughout the Holy Day period, we will be collecting donations for Operation Isaiah. Yes, we do so much as a congregation…as a community. Therefore, let me point out one other way that we give…and give, every year.
I am speaking about Camp Jenny. Founded in 1987, Camp Jenny is a camp for underprivileged children in Atlanta. This year, a staff of around 250 welcomed approximately 130 students from FL Stanton Elementary School to Camp Coleman on Memorial Day Weekend. These students work very hard all year on behavior and grades just to be able to have the opportunity to attend Camp Jenny. While at Camp Jenny, these young people from inner city Atlanta get to experience camp just like our TKE kids do while at Camp Barney or Camp Coleman, including 3 meals a day + snacks, sports, arts and crafts, science, ropes course and water play!
Every year, our youth groups, in particular our senior youth group, KEFTY (Kol Emeth Federation of Temple Youth), donate thousands and thousands of dollars to support Camp Jenny. However, it is about so much more than the money. We send a group of KEFTYites to be leaders and teachers at Camp Jenny. We also send adult volunteers to serve in a variety of capacities from photographer to sports specialist. How amazing it is to watch our high school students interact with these kids from FL Stanton. Seeing firsthand the transition from the campers skeptically holding their counselor's hand on the way to the cabins on Friday afternoon to not wanting to let go on Monday morning was truly a blessing and gave me a lot of hope for the future our children will live in.
The lessons learned while attending Camp Jenny are meant to connect our Jewish community to a community very different from our own. If you sit down and speak with one of our senior youth group members who have attended Camp Jenny, ask them to describe to you one or two things they have learned. Or, even better, ask them to tell you a story or two from Camp Jenny. Be prepared to spend some quality time with them!! As a matter of fact, 3 of the previous Camp Jenny Directors are a part of the TKE Story – Dr. Julie Worly in 1993, Jody Gansel in 2004 and Zoe Light in 2015. If my math is correct, that means that TKE will supply the director again in 2026 (11 years after Zoe Light)!
While Camp Jenny is a HUGE part of the TKE story, it is only one part. There are so many other wonderful aspects of our family here. One giant way that TKE has become a “major player” in the greater Marietta and Atlanta community has been our Ecumenical work. What comes to mind right away is our very successful yearly Ecumenical service – when we open our doors and welcome a variety of religious and spiritual groups to come together in prayer. Just 2 years ago, on November 20, 2014, we invited, Montaser, a Palestinian Muslim to speak about his experience with Kids4Peace, a youth movement for Christian, Jews and Muslims. Yes, here speaking from our Bimah was a Palestinian who spoke about peace and how important it is for all of us, no matter who we are or where we come from. Let us not forget the Ecumenical service begins every year with the Muslim call to prayer. I am pretty certain we are the first synagogue in the world to host the Muslim call to prayer!
Our Habitat for Humanity group is an interfaith group, which allows for clergy from all representative groups to give a prayer as the build begins and as the new home is dedicated at the conclusion. What about our work with MUST Ministries? This is also an outreach to not just Jewish members of our community, but all members of our community. And, there are many more examples of this important piece of the TKE pie. It is vital that our children and grandchildren learn the value of what it means to be a Jew and an American.
Just this summer 10 members of our TKE family journeyed to Israel – OUR homeland. While in Eretz Yisrael, we joined up with another Temple – Congregation Schaarai Zedek – and Palma Ceia, a Presbyterian Church, both from Tampa, Florida. It truly was awesome to watch as our 3 congregations became one family for 10 days. We joined together in prayer…in song session…and in fellowship at meals. Now, Temple Kol Emeth has made an Ecumenical imprint outside of Atlanta – all the way to Tampa.
At the closing dinner, Rabbi Richard Birnholz, Cantor Deborah Cannizzaro, Pastor John Debevoise, Pastor Nicole Abdnour and I joined together to recite and chant the Priestly Benediction. Pastors John and Nicole recited the English translation; Rabbi Birnholz and I recited the Hebrew text; Cantor Cannizzaro chanted the ancient Hebrew blessings. In a room filled with around 100 Jews and Christians, we joined together as one large group in prayer. The love and emotion in that room was contagious and overwhelming. This was a true ecumenical moment shared by TKE and the members of Schaarai Zedek and Palma Ceia.
When 7 families came together so many years ago to create Temple Kol Emeth, they were looking for a Jewish experience that would be open and welcome to all kinds of Jews in East Cobb. 30 + years later, we have become such an important part of the East Cobb community – and really the greater Atlanta community as well. Through our youth groups and their work with Camp Jenny (as well as their participation in local, regional and national events) we have created safe places for our future generations to be Jewish and proud. Camp Jenny is of course only one aspect of the work that KEFTY does – but what an important aspect it is. Our interfaith/ecumenical efforts have given us the opportunity to show leadership to other congregations in Atlanta. And, of course, it is our adult lay leadership that provides an example for our young leaders who will eventually become the adult lay leadership.
We have all heard the expression – “it takes a village…” This is usually in reference to the upbringing of our little ones. While this is true, at least for our sake, this also refers to anything and everything that happens here at TKE. Do not get me wrong – we have a great staff. Denise is the backbone of our staff – often times keeping us going forward when we get curved in the wrong directions. Evy is the “keeper of the rabbis,” as they say. Her work enables both rabbis to do what we need to do. Pam keeps up with our books – not an easy task, I assure you. She works diligently to make sure our bills are paid and our heads are above water, at least financially. Besides keeping the coffee company in business, Carol does an amazing job with our religious school records and of course her work with the Voice is immeasurable. Becca is helping TKE to become the Religious School of the future. Her ideas and leadership are second to none. And, of course, Ezra – the youth and family director dude…his fresh and new ideas are really helping to bring in young couples who are looking for a spiritual home.
There is one other group that deserves a huge amount of thanks – that is our beloved and devoted maintenance staff: Marc, Diego, Richard, Nick and Godolfredo. These gentlemen are not only great at keeping TKE running, but they also work with our youth serving as amazing role models. It is impossible to see one of these guys without at least one member of KEFTY hanging out with them. They really do care about TKE, our image and our future. Our maintenance staff are beloved members of the TKE family.
So, yes, our office and maintenance staff is amazing. However, those who never get enough credit are our lay leadership and our office volunteers. What you may not know is that everyone who comes to TKE (except for the paid staff) are volunteers. Whether you serve on our board or you work in the office – your volunteer hours and dedication to TKE are extremely valuable. The value cannot be measured…and I speak for both Rabbi Lebow and myself when I say thank you so much for all that you do. You truly do allow us to be rabbis…and that is an amazing and holy feat.
In my sermon this evening, we have touched upon three of the most important aspects of the TKE experience – KEFTY and the work it does with Camp Jenny, our Ecumenical work here and abroad, and the leadership and volunteerism of our members. Rabbi Lebow taught recently that Judaism is a religion of the head, a religion of the heart and a religion of the hand. At TKE, there are opportunities in abundance to get involved in many different ways. Religion of the mind – get out there and learn, think, teach. Religion of the heart – work with someone who is suffering or just needs comfort or support. Religion of the hand – join our Habitat for Humanity build, go to Camp Jenny as an adult volunteer, or teach in our religious school. Trust me when I tell you that if you want to do something or you want to do more – we will find a place for you.
It is my hope that in 5777, each of us will find a way to connect to Temple Kol Emeth and our Jewish community in a different way. If you need help learning how or where to begin, come to my office, and let’s have a chat. I am sure I can help you find something. I pray we are all able to wake up sometime very soon and see that the leadership we have taken in our community leads others to enjoying the same success as we have – not just here in Atlanta, but everywhere that there is a child learning about the ways of the world. May God bless each and every soul that sits here this evening. May we walk together, humbly before God…L’Shanah Tovah