David Plass, Kol Nidre Appeal 5775/2014

Good Shabbos and Good Yontiff.  For those of you who still haven’t met me yet, I’m David Plass, president of Temple Beth Am.  I’d like to start this morning with a true story.  

One day a few years ago, I was walking from Penn Station to my office.  I had walked that same route literally hundreds of times before, but that day something unexpected happened.  That morning, a young woman, probably around 20 years old, approached me as I walked across the plaza outside Penn Station.

The girl asked me something, very quietly, but I had my iPod on so I couldn't hear her.  I stopped, because she kept trying to make eye contact with me. Something compelled me to ask her to repeat what she said.

The girl looked at me expectantly as I took off my iPod.  Instead of asking me for directions like I thought she was going to do, she told me that she needed some money — she had been stuck there outside Penn Station all night, and needed 16 dollars for a train ticket back to Pittsburgh.

I looked at her closely.  She looked exhausted and defeated, and her face was dirty — as if she really had spent the night sleeping on the street.  At first I just gave her a few cents from my pocket.  But then I said “I'll give you a buck” and while fumbling with my wallet, I accidentally fished out a five dollar bill instead.  It was obvious that I had more money in there, but she was still appreciative that I gave her something.

As I walked to my office I wondered: did I do the right thing?  If she was telling the truth and really did need 16 dollars, I felt badly that I only gave her 5, especially after she saw that I could've given her all the money she needed to get home.   I also realized I didn't even have to stop - it would have been SO easy to ignore her, to just walk past, but I didn't, so I felt comforted by that, a little.

This presumes that she was telling the truth in the first place.  It's entirely possible I was an unwitting participant in her performance art, or maybe she was a junkie or a con artist.  I had no way of knowing for sure but in the end gave her the benefit of the doubt.  I concluded that I felt guilty for not giving her everything she asked for, especially since I could have afforded it.

I think it’s obvious where I’m going with this Kol Nidre appeal by now.  I’ll condense it into two “golden rules” that I broke that day: First — I talked to a stranger.  And second — I opened my wallet in public.

Today the tables are turned: I’m the stranger standing here before you, and while I assure you I did not sleep on the street last night, I am asking you to break those two rules too.

First, like I did that day, ”talk to a stranger”.   What does that mean in this context?  It means — meet someone new here at the shul.   It means: Give your time, your energy, your expertise, your passion — to some committee here.  At Rosh Hashanah I described a few of the dozens of committees that are needed to help keep this place running smoothly. Pick one.  I’m not necessarily suggesting that you be on the board of trustees (though that would be awesome); I’m asking you to get involved — to at least participate in all the wonderful services, events and classes we have here at Temple Beth Am. 

At my Rosh Hashanah address you also heard about the Arms - Brotherhood, Sisterhood and Chai Society.  Give Brotherhood a try — they’re a very friendly group of guys.  I always get a warm welcome at meetings and everyone is very inclusive.  There’s always dinner there, and for some reason, meetings often start with a discussion of sports.  Go figure — men talk about sports when there are no women around.  

It’s not all fun and games and food though.  Brotherhood sponsors family events like the Purim Carnival and Spring BBQ, as well as raising money for Holocaust education through its Yom Hashoah candle fundraiser.

Or, perhaps you’d consider Sisterhood.  As I mentioned last week, Sisterhood sponsors onegs on Shabbat evenings, as well as our beloved Torah for Tots program.  They also provide food for Hebrew School holiday parties such as Sukkot, Hanukkah and Passover.  In fact, Sisterhood’s annual kickoff dinner is this coming Tuesday, October 7th — there will be a Mystery Entertainer.  (RSVP to Robin Levine).  It sounds intriguing, but alas, I don’t qualify for Sisterhood.

The members of Sisterhood are a compassionate, fun-loving, and, dare I say motherly group of women who are very generous giving their time, energy and, yes, money to the temple.  Allow me to point out that approximately half of everyone sitting here this morning is eligible to be members of Sisterhood and participate in or help with their events.  That’s fifty percent!  I hope you can guess which half.  If you don’t know which half, I’ll give you a hint: it’s the women.

Joining Chai Society is a bit more stringent than joining Brotherhood or Sisterhood.  Only those families who have been members here for 18 years can join Chai Society.  Also as I described last week, they sponsor a member brunch every year.  This year they will be organizing new programs, some of which will be open to the entire congregation.  Like the other Arms, they are always open to new suggestions, ideas, volunteers and participants in their activities.

By volunteering for or just participating in temple events, you will not only help the synagogue’s spirit stay alive, you can help it GROW through your ideas, your insights, and your energy.  You may just feel better about yourself, knowing that you are making a difference in the world - or at least our world here at Temple Beth Am.  Like Rabbi Brown suggested on Rosh Hashanah, maybe you can make this your ONE extra Mitzvah for this year, and as Rabbi Mickey said, do it really well and it would count as if you did all 613!

The second rule that I broke that day was opening my wallet in public.  When I helped that girl outside Penn Station, I had no idea if she was telling the truth — would she really use the money to get home?  Unlike that situation, I can say exactly where your Kol Nidre contributions will go. 

They’ll go to payroll and insurance for our office and custodial staff, and our temple organist.  They’ll go to equipment, paper, postage, and other office supplies.  They’ll go towards electric, phone, internet and heating bills (yes, we have heat), and to fixing the roof, the parking lot and myriad other projects in and around this 50-year-old building.  They’ll pay our clergy’s salaries as well as their benefits.  Your money will also go to help pay our Hebrew School teachers, even if you no longer have a child of school age. 

All of us help pay for all these expenses and more, through temple dues, the building fund, school fees, fundraisers, and of course, Kol Nidre appeal contributions.

This isn't to say that we only spend money.  We are coming up with creative ways to SAVE money as well.  I announced in the monthly newsletter that we will be reducing our paper mailings by sending newsletters and announcements electronically instead of through the US Mail.  Please sign up on the “EMAIL” page on our website.  We can potentially save thousands of dollars — maybe tens of thousands of dollars a year — through this program.  If you already receive my emails, you know that you can get up-to-date information much quicker by email and the website than through the venerable US Postal Service.

So here’s why I’m up here today.  I’m asking you to also break the second rule I broke that day, and “open your wallets.” Please fill out the Kol Nidre pledge card you received in the mail, or ask for one from an usher this morning.  You can give your completed pledge to any usher on the way out today, or send or bring it to the temple office.  Unlike me that day in my story, if there is a little extra in your wallet, please give us the benefit of the doubt — don’t hold back and give what you can to help us cover our costs.

For many years, our costs have exceeded our annual revenue.  So even though we raised a record $53,000 in last year’s Kol Nidre appeal, it wasn't enough to close the budget gap — it was still almost $100,000 last year.  This year, even though our projected deficit is only around $50,000 
due to a change in our dues structure, there’s still a long way to go.  In the past, unfortunately, only about 50 to 60% of Temple Beth Am families donate to the Kol Nidre appeal.  Just imagine how much we can raise if we get that percentage up to 100%!

If you made a Kol Nidre donation last year, thank you very much for your generosity.  I hope you will continue this year — and possibly increase your contribution.   Don’t forget that if you pay by credit card, you get to keep the miles or cash back — but the temple has to pay 3%, which add up to over $8000 a year in extra costs. So if you do use a credit card — this is for any bill, not just Kol Nidre —  please try to include 3 to 5 percent extra. This is a win/win — you get more miles or cash back and the temple doesn’t incur the extra costs of credit card fees.

I know everyone’s situation is different, and that circumstances change from year to year, but whether you can give a thousand dollars, two hundred dollars or just 18 dollars — chai — we will still be grateful for everyone’s contribution.  As the saying goes, “give till it hurts” — and just think about how much the temple is hurting at this moment.  With 50 to 100 thousand dollar yearly losses, we will exhaust our rainy day fund in less than 10 years.  It’s up to all of us to step up and help stem the bleeding.

Which finally brings me to the post script of my true story.  I didn't know how to come to terms with my encounter with that girl outside Penn Station, so I asked Rabbi Mickey.  He quoted Rabbi Tarfon who, as you might remember from last night, said “It is not our responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but we are not free to desist from it either."  This philosophy made me feel better and gave me something to ponder.

And also like Rabbi Mickey said last night, what this means is, if all of us give what we can, we can try to complete the work before us - to keep Temple Beth Am the vibrant, important place it is, and more critically, to sustain it, alive and well, for years to come.  We just have to remember that it is our responsibility to do it together.

Thank you, Good Shabbos and Good Yontiff.

Copyright 2014, David Plass