Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Post "Yontif" Sloth

It has become my custom on the day or two (or ten?) following Yom Kippur to simply collapse. The energy expended during the months leading up to the Days of Awe (or is that awww as in a 5 year old whine?) is directly proportional to the depths of my exhaustion in the days that follow. Last year I gave a fairly accurate account of my "post-Yontif" sloth routine, so there is little need to rehash the experience, but yesterday as I remained immovable from my designated spot on the couch, I took the opportunity for the first time in weeks to give real thought to our community's worship experience over the past few weeks, and the enormous effort by many, both recognizable and faceless, that was needed to bring it all together. We are a small congregation and we lack permanency in our home. In order to accommodate everybody for the holidays, we need to move our services to another location in the area. The details required for this move comprise a list longer than my arm and include everything from the construction and deconstruction of a bimah and Aron Hakodesh, to setting up a temporary sound system that won't cause member's ears to ache, to the relocation of the Sifrei Torah and all of the other ritual objects necessary for the observance of the days. There was the coordination of babysitters, the training and overseeing of ushers, the distribution of tickets and other promotional materials, the coordination of social justice programs like collection of food on Kol Nidre for the local food bank, the organization of service participants (which has been described to me as a little like herding cats!) and just making certain that general details like matches to light the candles are taken care of. The scores of our member volunteers (yes-VOLUNTEERS!!!) that turned out this year to take on these tasks are too numerous to mention. It got me to thinking about volunteering and what drives people to do what they do. Before I delve too far into that realm, I need to make special note of a couple of remarkable groups of individuals who stepped forward and never once complained about the task. They just did what needed to be done.

It was made clear to us early on that Rosh Hashana falling on the weekend was going to be an issue for the banquet hall we were occupying. It seems that they had scheduled a wedding for the Saturday night and were not in any way willing to compromise a lucrative business opportunity for a bunch of Jews that won't use their bar. A deal was struck with the management that worked like this. We would complete our first day Rosh Hashana worship by 12:00 noon at the very latest. (In order to accomplish this task, we needed to begin at 9:00 am.) As the rabbi and I made our way back over to the day school we use as our regular home in order to conduct an afternoon children's service, our crew of dedicated builders and schleppers came in to dismantle the entire room at the banquet hall-bimah and all! They stored everything in a rented panel truck that they parked on site. The wedding family arrived later in the afternoon to discover that their required set-up was complete. It gets better! The next morning, before 6:00 am mind you, our group of eager beavers returned to the hall and reset the entire room-bimah and all-so that we as a congregation might resume our Rosh Hashana worship. Following that morning's worship, they then once again dismantled the entire thing and re-stored it until Yom Kippur, when they repeated the process one more time. The dedication of these men and women absolutely floored me, and I am relatively certain that few in the congregation knew what they did and how they did it with smiles and understanding.

Before the holidays, a question arose on one of the listserve groups to which I subscribe as to how to go about forming a volunteer synagogue choir. The discussion centred around expectations, Hebrew literacy, music literacy, rehearsal times and demands placed on members. I hesitated entering the fray because frankly, I have no idea how I came to be so blessed with the unbelievable group of people that comprise my synagogue's choir. These are individuals that come weekly to rehearse, (twice weekly in the summer) and with a shared purpose of making the music a true extension of our worship experience. They are of various musical levels and various Hebrew levels. They are men, women, young people and not so young people. Some of them pre-date me at the synagogue and some are relative newcomers. They sing every kind of Jewish music that we throw at them-from challenging Baroque choral pieces to contemporary rock-and they do it with a passion and a kavanah (intent) that is unparalleled. Our musicians include keyboard, cello, guitars, clarinet, oboe and the occasional tof, volunteers all! These people give up their weekends at the cottage, their Wednesday night Lost fix, holiday evening family dinners, early arrivals at break fasts, and sitting and worshipping with their loved ones, all in the name of the music and the prayer. They are soulful and spiritual and they do what they do because of their love and commitment to our synagogue and to Judaism. Believe me, there are trying times. There are occasions when we have all questioned our sanity and dedication, but I simply cannot imagine my synagogue without my choir family. I hope they know the depths of my gratitude.

We live in a world where it is not uncommon to have things done for you. Groceries are delivered to your front door, gardening and household chores can easily be contracted out, and child care is passed off to others. We pay a fee and we demand services in return. Occasionally though, we encounter a select few who recognize a void that needs filling and don't wait around for somebody else to fill it. They have vision. They do it because they want to give back, to help the collective and to enhance somebody else's experience. Volunteers are not unpaid employees, but rather they are caring souls who do what they do out of love. As we begin this new year, I urge you all to find a volunteer opportunity that suits you. Volunteers are the lifeblood of our society and there is nothing like the feeling one gets from a job well-done. And now, I return to my slothing.


  1. Hello Cantor Bernstein,

    I wanted to take this opportunity to commend you on leading the congregation to an outstanding display of music and song on these High Holidays. This was our second year attending the services at Kol Ami and the liturgy of the service is quite different from the ones I have experienced in past years. I was raised in a Conservative Jewish household and attended Beth Tzedec since I was 7 years old as a student and congregant. I was priveleged to have known and/or studied under Rabbis Rosenberg, Celniker, Friedberg and Frydman-Kohl as well as Cantors Soberman, Cooper and Kowarsky. After some 45 years at Beth Tzedec and having resided in Thornhill for the past 20 years, we decided to try other venues including Aish Hatorah, Westmount and Kol Ami. The Kol Ami experience has been most inspirational to us in large part because of the incredible energy and passion delivered in your voice and music. I plan to attend Shabbat services this New Year at your synagogue and hope to have the opportunity to meet you and thank you personally for making these High Holidays a very special one.

    Shana Tova,
    Steve Stanton

  2. Steve Stanton,
    I can't thank you enough for your kind words. I am convinced that it is the music that makes our congregation special and I am so happy that our visitors receive that feeling. Shana Tova to you and your family