April 2021 Bulletin Ref1

From Our President…

 This month’s Bulletin arrives in the period between Passover and Shavuot, when observant Jews count the Omer. In our holiday cycle, these days mark our transition from the escape from slavery and our bare life of freedom in the trackless desert to the moment of lawgiving at Sinai that constituted us as a people.

As someone who studies and teaches about constitutional law, I am intrigued by this transition. Like the Israelites, in American history “we the people” did not move immediately from freedom to a sustainable constitutional order. During the Revolutionary Era, the United States achieved independence from Great Britain, but independence generated conflicts over sovereignty and order. The unity finally embodied through the implementation of the Constitution in 1789 was difficult to reach, required deep compromises and came at great moral cost. The main accomplishment of a successful constitutional moment is to look ahead, building a broad commitment to a shared set of values and practices that can bind a people together to build a collective future.

As a congregation over the last year, we too have been through something of a revolution.  Unlike the Israelites and the rebellious American colonists, we did not flee from or overthrow our former regime. Rather, we said a fond and sorrowful farewell after 35 years of superb stewardship (and felt even more saddened by having to scale back our plans for that farewell). Still, we entered a period of unprecedented disruption and change that amplified our break with the past. And as we continue to wander through the desert, while we can see our crowning transformative moment ahead looming like Sinai, we aren’t there yet.

My students, who are generally political science majors, sometimes get frustrated when I assign the Articles of Confederation and spend some time discussing the period between the Declaration of Independence and the writing of the Constitution. What’s the point of learning about a superseded governmental structure that even many people at the time recognized would not be sustainable for the long run? I encourage them to consider how the issues and struggles encountered during this period shaped the constitutional moment both by opening up possibilities and foreclosing them. Remembering and honoring this brief period in history helps to give them a much better fix on why certain decisions were made, and why some worked out and others didn’t.

Thrust as we were into the harsh and frightening environment of the pandemic, much as the Israelites were into the desert and the American colonists into a revolution, we have struggled to adapt and to build the structures that would carry us through. We too are eagerly anticipating a more stable time and the re-establishment of a firm foundation for us to grow and flourish as a congregation (if not precisely as a people or a nation!). But we may wish to take this moment and savor our sojourn in the desert.

While the Sinai of reopening and a new era in our congregation’s history beckon, there is sweetness in this moment. Rabbi Katz’s superb leadership has taught us that we can accommodate change and that change can be both healthy and refreshing. We have learned new ways of meeting each other together from our homes and have found that joyous events

can happen remotely. While the ways we interact have changed and some of our practices have changed, our identity as a warm, welcoming, creative and invested community has remained our guiding North Star. We have become both more comfortable and more confident with innovation. When the time comes to make all sorts of big and small decisions about what we want our future to look like, we’ll be ready – far more ready than we would have been a year ago.

I have encouraged us before to think about what we want to bring with us when we leave the desert. Three insights resonate particularly with me. One is that we can accommodate change gracefully. We are prepared to experiment generously, leaving room for both successes and failures. It is much easier to handle change and experimentation when we know that failure is just an opportunity to learn and grow.

The second is practical. We have learned a lot about using digital platforms and resources. This opens up new opportunities for us. If a committee has identified the perfect facilitator for an event but she’s in California, that is fine! We can learn how to cook new things together, but while working in the comfort and familiarity of our own kitchens. And who, a year ago, could have imagined hosting a special guest from Israel at a Torah study session without months of planning and possibly ruinous expenses?

Finally, we have learned a lot about accessibility. Our new format for services and events has made it much easier for some of our members to attend and participate. We have also become much more conscious of ways to lower the barriers to participation. While we don’t know what the new normal will look like once vaccination is widespread, we do know that we need to think about our vulnerable members and how we can make our services and events available in safe and convenient ways.

I hope the Bulletin is reaching you in a moment of anticipation and hope and not just before or after we’ve had to clear our driveways and paths after a spring snowstorm. Even if that is the case, let’s keep our eyes on Sinai, but take the time to observe and embrace the beauty of the desert.


Julie Novkov

B'nai Sholom Albany NY