September 2020 Bulletin Ref1

From Our President

            As we shift from summer to fall, I, like many of you, find myself going back and forth between hope and fear. Our local leaders have worked hard to manage the COVID-19 crisis and have done an admirable job of keeping us informed. We are among the fortunate few who can rely on contact tracing and relatively quick and widespread testing, and our infection rates have been low. Yet in many states with uncontrolled spread, as I write, children are going back to school with minimal precautions and young people are being strongly encouraged to return to their colleges and universities for in-person instruction.

In politics, it’s the same dichotomy. On the bright side again, many members of our congregation likely felt inspiration from the messages of unity, progress, restoration and reconciliation from late summer political events. These messages, however, share space with hateful and divisive rhetoric that emphasizes some of the worst values that the United States has held: xenophobia, paranoia and racism.

            As Jews, while we acknowledge a change of seasons, the beginning of a fresh educational cycle for some of us and the anticipation of a consequential election, we also approach our moment of renewal as we prepare to greet the new year. We wish each other a sweet new year and take the focused time to reflect on what we have done for good and ill over the course of 5780. We look ahead to 5781, perhaps with hope, but also with uncertainty about the future.

            During the holiday season, we recite the Unetanah Tokef, a prayer dating back centuries (an early fragment was located in the Cairo Genizah). This powerful prayer envisions Adonai judging and inscribing the fate of every living creature, though we are advised that t’shuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah can “avert the severe decree.” The idea that individual good deeds might wheedle an interventionist G-d into holding back on the bad stuff has echoes in other religious traditions, but it probably isn’t much comfort to most Reform Jews today. Rather, the prayer is a reminder that we don’t know what’s coming. The bad stuff may come like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky. Not the wild beast, but the lost job. Not martyrdom by fire, but a struggle with cancer. Not the sword, but the anxiety and disruption, and possibly physical effects, of a global pandemic that almost certainly none of us had in mind when we stood together within the comforting walls of B’nai Sholom last September.

            But grim as this is, it’s not the full message either of the prayer or the holidays. Yes, we should reflect and repent, but we should also look forward with hope and open our hearts to the possibility of unexpected blessings. And we should remember that the prayer and our holidays are communal, drawing us together to share our strengths as well as our weaknesses and misfortunes.

            Rosh Hashanah invokes the imagery of birth. It thereby invites us to dream possibilities and futures as expansive as the sky above our heads, a future that might tug at our heartstrings the way the first sight of a new baby does. As we clear our slates and begin anew, we can focus on where we can go as individuals and as a congregation. What unexpected blessings might come to us? Will we be open enough to see them? And how can we work together to make our best dreams a reality?


Julie Novkov

B'nai Sholom Albany NY