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We Welcome Everyone, Without Exception

During Temple Beth Am’s Annual Meeting in June, Bruce Cohen (now the Board’s immediate past president), shared with those who attended that the board offered me a five year extension to my contract, and I humbly and excitedly accepted. I would like to thank the leadership and the congregation of TBA for your continuous support and trust.  

The signing of this contract coincided with the 13th anniversary of my ordination as a rabbi. The symbolism of a Bar Mitzvah and adulthood is not insignificant. As in many other professions, I spent the first few years learning the basic skills of how to be a rabbi. Then, with more experience and growing confidence, I began looking for a specific mission and direction. I spent a lot of time reading, thinking and talking to people, and finally I have the answer - making Judaism accessible.  

Several months ago I received a request from a local funeral director to officiate at a funeral of a relatively young woman who died of cancer. "Sarah (not her real name) was very proud of her Jewish heritage" the director told me, which I learned to decipher as, "Sarah had no affiliation with any Jewish institution, she didn't practice her religion, but she wanted to be buried the way she was born - as a Jew." I immediately agreed as it is one of the most important mitzvot.  

The next day I met with Sarah's husband and daughter. They told me about Sarah's life and how wonderful she was as a wife and a mother. At one point the bereaved husband looked at his daughter and said to me, "you know, when she was young she was also Jewish, like her mom." I was confused. "Did you convert to another religion?" I asked. "No, that's not it" her father answered before his daughter had a chance. And he continued to tell me that when he and Sarah first got married, Sarah insisted on raising their daughter Jewish and he supported that decision. They joined a synagogue and even sent their daughter to Religious School. But when they encountered some financial difficulties, they had to drop their temple's membership, and the way they saw it, their daughter's Jewish identity went away with it. Of course I explained to the beautiful young woman sitting across from me that she never stopped being Jewish and that she is always welcome in our synagogue. She politely thanked me and said she might come one day, but I knew that I would never see her again after the funeral.  

This is not an isolated story. You all have heard it in many different versions, and perhaps even experienced it with your own family. Merely 12 percent of the Jews in Palm Beach County are affiliated with a synagogue (9 out of 10 are not!). Among the unaffiliated, some want nothing to do with their heritage, and as sad as it is, I have to accept it. But as for the others, like Sarah's family, my personal mission (and I hope you will join me) is to do all that I can to bring down the barriers that separate so many from Jewish life and the Jewish community. In the movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner hears a voice telling him that "If you build it they will come". We, Jewish professionals and lay leaders, built spectacular institutions to which people came, but unwittingly we also built a wall that kept many others outside.    

At TBA we took a very brave step by replacing our membership dues system with a voluntary commitment, part of our KULANU message “all of us together”. But we can’t stop here. We realized that another barrier between Jews and the synagogue is lack of practical knowledge about participating in a Service. As a result we will have a monthly Service designed to make it easier for all to understand the structure, choreography and meaning of the prayers. This Service does not assume previous knowledge and all newcomers and regulars that are seeking better understanding of our Service and liturgies are welcome. In order to educate our youngest members and allow them to understand the fundamentals of our Services early on in their lives, our gifted Music Director, Brett Tancer, conducts a Children’s Service on a regular basis parallel to the main Service.   

These are only a few of the steps that we are taking, and more will follow.  If you have ideas or requests please share them with me or other members of the staff, as we are eager and excited to make you part of the process of making Judaism accessible to all.  As we approach the Jewish New Year, I look forward to celebrating the High Holy Days together. We welcome everyone, without exception – this is our core value and message. 

Rabbi Alon Levkovitz 

Fri, December 4 2020 18 Kislev 5781