June 2021 – Tammuz 5781
Dear PCS Community,
The pandemic has brought dislocation and change to many, including some of our Jewish organizations. About a year ago I learned that due to continued decline in membership and revenues exacerbated by the pandemic, my position at Pleasantville Community Synagogue would end this month. I was sad about that, but still look back on the last six years with satisfaction and gratitude.
As I prepare to leave the synagogue, I’d like to thank everyone who has been so supportive and giving over the past six years: the presidents who served by my side (including our current co-presidents Robert and Roberta), our officers, board members, committee chairs, dedicated volunteers, generous donors, loyal minyanaires, supportive gabbais, volunteer musicians, enthusiastic Hebrew School families, and of course our amazing staff. A small congregation like PCS needs a community to make it work, and your generosity with your time and resources have been and will continue to be crucial to the future of the synagogue. If I try to name everyone it will be a book and not a blog post, but I must thank our dedicated administrator Marcy and wonderful Hebrew School director Galit for all your support day by day.
As I look back, there are many special memories, too numerous to recount, but here are a few. Together with many of you, I led hundreds of services, and celebrated many holidays. Our Days of Awe were always a highlight, with a special theme each year. It was wonderful to lead together with Cantor Abbe Lyons, to teach with the late Rabbi Dr. Sarah Tauber, and lead with so many of our congregational singers, prayers leaders, Torah and haftarah and meditation readers, and musicians.
The rest of the year we brought in new ways to experience Shabbat and holidays, including Prime Time Shabbat with musicians, visiting scholars and story-tellers, Shabbat dinners, Tu Bishvat Seders, Purim shpils and over-the-top Simchat Torahs, fun Hanukkah parties and wonderful Pride Shabbats. Our Passover Seder at Jean Jacques will always be a great memory. Singing, dancing, and discussions made our services lively and participatory.
Adult Education has an honored place at PCS, whether facilitated by the rabbi, guest speakers, or members. For example, our recent series on Israel brought wonderful dialogue and perspectives to participants.
I was honored by those who invited me into your lives for life cycle events, whether joyful or sad. Connecting behind the scenes with you or your families, was equally important, and one of the privileges of being a rabbi. I’m honored that we could provide enhanced pastoral care, our wonderful caring committee, and Partners in Caring social services to support our members. It was an honor to be able to visit the sick, support those in mourning, or to explore personal spiritual questions with our members.
I loved working with the wonderful children, teachers, and director of our amazing Hebrew School. One treasured memory is the Maimouna celebration that we did and sharing my husband’s Moroccan customs and costumes with the kids. The joys of Tot Shabbats and Shabbat dinners were highlights for young and old, and being partners with PJ Library enhanced our offerings. B’nei Mitzvah were always a highlight, including dancing in the aisles as our kids led and taught everyone Torah, thanks to Ed and his patient and skilled teaching, and to many volunteers. We also offered many programs for teens over the years; I wish they could have become more established but I’m sure that they planted seeds that will flourish for some young adults in the future.
I’m glad that Avraham and I could open our home to members of PCS, for our annual Sukkot reception as well as Shabbat and holidays potlucks and gatherings. I appreciate those of you who opened your homes to the community, too. I especially loved leading an expanding repertoire of outdoor programs, from Shabbat, family, and school hikes, to the “13 Bridges” program with our B’nei Mitzvah, to a spiritual photo hike - and I greatly appreciate those who co-led with me.
It was gratifying to receive grants from UJA Federation that enabled us to do special programing, including “Growing Jewish Naturally,” “Death and Dessert,” and partnering on the current Open Tent Grant, that allowed us to offer so many welcoming programs for all ages. Too many to recall here … but I remember puppets, live animals, and bubbles for the kids, and I particularly remember our teen/parent field trip to the Lower East Side and Tenement house and learning about immigration. Thank you to board members and volunteers who did so much to bring these amazing programs to fruition.
Social Action and Tikkun Olam have always been a priority, whether getting involved with local refugee resettlement, our annual party at Cottage School, or collections for those in need. Benefit concerts supported people as far away as Jews in Uganda and as close as local communities. During times of national and local crisis we created programs and services of support and comfort for members.
My personal work with CLAL, LEAP, AJC, Rabbis Without Borders, the Executive Committee of the Westchester Board of Rabbis and the board of OHALAH (Rabbis for Jewish Renewal), as well as our local interfaith council have helped me to connect PCS members to the broader community in numerous creative ways.
Even during the pandemic we found creative ways to be together outdoors (remember our church parking lot Simchat Torah?), to support members in their times of need, and to bring holiday simchah (joy) to everyone. Thanks to staff and volunteers who served tirelessly to keep the community active and connected over the past 15 months.
Finally, our building has seen lovely improvements thanks to volunteers and donors, including the rabbi’s office, the social hall room, and the bimah, and enhanced technology and security. And the garden and sukkah! Our sanctuary is still a special space where people feel peaceful and inspired just by walking in the door.
I could go on and on (that’s how rabbis are...) This is just a sampling of what I have experienced with you, our wonderful community, for the past half dozen years. I bless everyone at PCS to be flexible and hopeful as you explore new paths and new part-time rabbinic leadership. PCS truly offers a warm and welcoming home to a diverse community. Recent programs have shown the power of being ambassadors, making personal connections and inviting friends and neighbors to experience the community. I wish everyone the best and pray that PCS will continue to flourish for many years to come.
With love and blessings,
Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan
The Power of Ritual in Times of Crisis
What a roller coaster this month has been! Worn out by the Pandemic, battered by social distress and political turmoil, Americans watched in horror on January 6th, as our Capitol building, the sacred halls of our democracy, were trampled by a mob of violent insurrectionists, riled up by a president who couldn't accept or admit election loss. In Jewish tradition, we know the power of words. The Hebrew word for "word," devar, is also the word for thing. Words have real substance and can lead to real consequences.
But this week, the healing began. The rituals and ceremonies of Inauguration week were a balm, even as our capital was secured like a war zone to prevent further violence. Inauguration week began with a day of national service that has become a great tradition for Martin Luther King Day. Citizens were encouraged to sign up to volunteer, not only for the day, but for the year ahead. Personally, I chose to volunteer (from home) for Neighbors for Refugees, a Westchester based non-profit. (Our Tikkun Olam chair Leslie Mack will offer ways for PCS members to get involved in supporting their wonderful work.)
The next day, on the "Erev" (eve) of their Inauguration, President Biden and Vice-President Harris participated in a solemn ceremony to commemorate the 400,000 Americans who have lost their lives to Covid. Four hundred lights lined the reflecting pool on the National Mall, reminding us of the verse from Proverbs 20:27, "for a person's spirit is the lamp of Adonai." The simple but overdue act of acknowledging our pandemic losses with public ritual and compassionate words helped our nation begin to heal.
Today was the Inauguration. As a rabbi I try to steer clear of partisan politics from the bimah and keep my focus on Jewish values. (Note: It doesn't matter how I try to keep that balance. Some people complain that I'm not outspoken enough, while others complain that I'm partisan and political. Oh well.) But an American inauguration should not be partisan; it should be a celebration of our great democracy and the peaceful transition of power. Dignitaries and past presidents of both parties should be together on the capital steps. In the words of President Ronal Reagan in his first inaugural address, the inauguration is
"...a solemn and most momentous occasion; and yet, in the history of our Nation, it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle."
Surely it is no longer commonplace for us. In recent days, we gazed over the precipice of an abyss that threatened the future of the democracy. But thanks to courageous individuals from both parties, and to true heroics by people like Sgt. Eugene Goodman of the Capitol police, democracy held firm.
Deeds spoke loudest, but ritual was also important. The soaring notes of our national anthem, sung by Lady Gaga, and the soul-elevating poetry of 22 year old Amanda Gorman, as well as the words of healing and inspiration from our new President Joe Biden, showed us the power of speech and ritual.
Jewish tradition teaches us of the power of words, of rituals, of healthy norms of behavior. It also teaches the importance of truth and respect, and that we will ultimately be judged for our deed above our creed. We have been through so much the past year, and the work ahead is daunting. But let us take heart, for the Torah assures us that we always have the choice to renew our days (teshuvah). With wise leaders and engaged citizens, with courage and compassion as our touchstones, we can begin the Tikkun, the healing and repair that we need: Tikkun Olam (healing our world), and Tikkun Halev (healing our hearts).
A Prayer for Our Country:
May You give to all the peoples of this country
the strength and will
to pursue righteousness and to seek peace
as a unified force
to uproot racism and violence from our hearts
and to make healing, good life, and peace flourish,
here and throughout the world.
May I merit to do good works
and repair the world
through all my efforts,
and through the act of… [add your pledge]…
which I pledge to do
on behalf of all living creatures
(From an Inauguration Day prayer by Rabbi David Seidenberg, full text here).
Former PCS Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan shares her thoughts (and some original photos) and invites your comments.