One of my favorite midrashim (rabbinic stories) describes the Israelites standing at the shore of the Reed Sea panicking. The water before them was deep and the Egyptian army was rapidly approaching. They were trapped. Moses, for his part, stood at the edge of the waters praying, but nothing happened. Finally, a man named Nachshon stepped into the water. And because he did, because he took that leap of faith, the waters parted and the Israelites were able to cross to freedom.
Forty years ago, members of Temple Sharey Tefilo and Temple Israel took a leap of faith. In the mid-1940s, Temple Israel broke off from Sharey Tefilo. And for many years after, the two congregations thrived. They each developed their own personality. Each had its own way of doing things. They were two vibrant communities with distinct styles.
But times changed, and soon it made sense for the two congregations to merge. But this was a daunting task. Many congregations have attempted to merge, but only a rarified few actually succeeded.
The leaders of the two congregations jumped into the water, which, according to most accounts, was exceptionally turbulent waters. It wasn’t easy. I know this because even when I arrived nine years later, the waters were still anything but calm.
But they stuck with it.
At the time many took the opportunity of the merger as an invitation to leave organized Jewish life. Rather than support the newly merged TSTI, they simply quit. Thankfully, many were committed to the success of the endeavor and stuck it out. They put in the work. They dealt with differences in ritual practice. They dealt with differences in policy. They dealt with people’s disappointment and their sense of loss—understandable loss. They dealt with major financial challenges. They did all of that because they knew this community was worth it.
It still is.
The first rabbi elected to serve the merged congregation was here for only two years. So even as the merger was ongoing, the members at the time had to deal with another loss and transition. But they did. They remembered the past, but kept their eyes on the future.
Forty years later, we are one congregation. And forty years later, each and every day, these leaders continue to set the tone for who we are as a community. They are the ones to whom we continue to turn for wisdom, insight and perspective.
We are here today because these visionaries believed in this congregation.
We are here today because they were willing to do the work of this congregation.
And for that we owe them all a debt of gratitude.
For those of you who became part of the TSTI community after the merger, I hope you will take a few minutes to watch this brief video retrospective. It captures just a bit of the rich history we celebrate as we mark this 40 year milestone. We are here today because of the work and dedication of those who came before us. And now the responsibility to maintain and build this sacred community is ours. I am grateful for your partnership as we continue this holy work.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen