A Rabbi and his wife were cleaning up the house. The Rabbi came across a box he didn’t recognize. His wife told him to leave it alone, it was personal. One day she was out and his curiosity got the best of him. He opened the box, and inside he found three eggs and $2000. When his wife came home, he admitted that he opened the box, and he asked her to explain the contents to him. She told him that every time he had a bad sermon, she would put an egg in the box. He interrupted: “In twenty years, only three bad sermons? That’s not bad.” His wife continued: “And every time I got a dozen eggs I would sell them for one dollar.”
Dear colleagues, guests, family and friends: I humbly stand before you today honored to assume the pulpit as the 10th Rabbi of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha. It is also a propitious day in our history, for while the American Civil War raged, fifteen men met in the house of Gustav Grafner at 80 Second Avenue, on June 26, 1864, and formed Tree of Life. They soon received a charter in court, and then petitioned the court to obtain a plot of land in Sharpsburg for a cemetery. Josiah Cohen represented the congregation and appeared before Judge Thomas Mellon – yes, the same one who was to leave the bench and enter the world of finance. Josiah related this story as he approached Judge Mellon:
Judge Mellon: What did you say this petition is for?
Josiah Cohen: For a charter, your Honor, for a Jewish burial ground.
Judge Mellon: A place to bury Jews? With pleasure, with pleasure.
The first High Holy Day service was in Lafayette Hall at the corner of Fourth and Wood, where eighteen months later, the National Republican Party will be organized. The first clergy of the new congregation, interestingly enough, was not a Rabbi, but a Hazzan. Imagine that! His name was Isaac Wolf, and he was the Hazzan, Schochet (ritual slaughterer), Shammes(caretaker) and Baal Koreh (Torah reader). I won’t share what he was paid, because I don’t want to give any bad ideas to the Personnel Committee. Another interesting piece of history is that on April 14, 1865, a day that might be familiar to some of you, as that was the day President Abraham Lincoln was shot, the board of Tree of Life passed a resolution that any officer of the congregation who failed to attend Shabbat services would be fined one dollar. One member behaved so badly that he was fined five dollars. Taking into account the rate of inflation, and the fact that the resolution was never rescinded, if we uphold it as we are required, we will either have overflowing coffers or overflowing attendance. It’s a win-win! And later, when The Jewish Theological Seminary was founded in 1886, of which I and a number of others present today are alumni, Tree of Life supported it immediately, and later engaged a graduate as their first full-time Rabbi.
While it is always dangerous to extend thanks to people for fear of omitting someone unintentionally, I will gently put my toe into the waters anyway, apologizing in advance for any oversight.
Thank you to our honored guests for your warm words of welcome. I look forward to finding new and engaging ways to partner to benefit the community. Thank you to my dear friend Hazzan Stephen Stein. What serendipity brought me to your home town, plus the opportunity to gather three generations of Steins. Thank you to Rabbi Emeritus Alvin Berkun for your kind words. You honor me with your presence.
Thank you to Rabbi Aaron Gaber for your friendship and moving installation. I am speechless.
Thank you to the Rabbinic Search committee for their work and brilliant choice, and for remaining as the Rabbinic Transition Committee.
Thank you to our immediate past president, Michael Eisenberg, for your continued support during my rookie year.
Thank you to Joel Goldstein for your friendship, vast institutional and communal memory and resources, and continued sage advice. You more than anyone have helped me adapt to my role at Tree of Life during my first year, and I will be forever grateful to you for your mentoring, and for untold acts of chesed that I will never forget.
Thank you to Alex Speck for the myriad of things that you do.
Thank you to Karen Morris for your five years of leadership in TLC.
Thank you to Janet Mernagh, our comptroller, for your continuing support and assistance.
Thank you to Dave and Augie, our maintenance staff, for all that you do every day.
Thank you to Suzanne Schreiber, the installation chair, for that first telephone call that started everything, for assuming the chair of this beautiful weekend, and for your continuing support and encouragement.
Thank you to Dorian Skirbol Levine and Andrea Schachner, the co-chairs, for the many things both of you have done this weekend to create such a beautiful and memorable slice of time. [Call up all three for flowers]
Thank you to Joel Coslov for undertaking the initial underwriting campaign that enable us to move forward, and for your confidence in me and support.
Thank you to the committee, and I ask that as I call your name, you rise in your place so that we can recognize you for your time and contributions: Joyce Fienberg, Rose Gerson, Irwin Harris, Marlene Haus, Sarah Pfeffer, and Kara Spodek
Lastly, to my wife Janice, daughter Rachel and son Aaron. This has been a very challenging year for all of us, with you three in New Jersey and me here. Thank goodness, but actually, thank the Israelis, for Facetime. Thank you for your love; it keeps me going.
I’m mindful of two important people in my life who passed away within four months of each other in 2017, my father-in-law, Leonard Siegel, and my dad, Donald Myers. I know how elated they would have been to be here today. I imagine them seated in the heavenly audience in the front row, because my father-in-law would have flashed his NYS Narcotics badge, and my dad his judge’s badge, so of course they would be in prime seats, observing like Statler and Waldorf of Muppet fame, with a heckle here and there. May their memories be for a blessing.
Here I stand in the city of Andrew Carnegie, Barney Dreyfuss, Henry Clay Frick, Henry John Heinz, Philander Knox, Henry Phipps, Charles Schwab and George Westinghouse, just to name drop a few. Pittsburgh has a rich history, and Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha has been an integral part of that history for 154 years. I will endeavor to continue to steer a course for us into a bright and bold future, but that cannot be accomplished alone. I have used this metaphor previously that we are a ship on a voyage. Uncharted waters lay before us as we will navigate through many challenges. I prefer to think of them as opportunities, where we can collectively embrace what is before us and think out of the box. The operational model of the baby boomer synagogue that was created post World War II no longer works in the 21st Century. We must upgrade to a new operating system that is nimble and responsive as we learn how to serve the needs of a very diverse community. This voyage may indeed be treacherous, with storms along the way, but it also holds the promise of clear, calm waters and beautiful vistas. I offer a boarding pass to all who are up for this journey – not just those who are present today nor all of our current members – but those who are ready for life-changing adventures. There are unlimited ports of call on the horizon, with the only limitation your imagination. The ship has left the port, and by the time it returns it might not be recognizable. Are you up for the challenge? You can still come on board, and are most warmly welcomed as there is plenty of room and our doors welcome all. I don’t want people to stand on the pier with their poppers yelling “Bon Voyage” when they were invited to join me. I want everyone who can to be on board, so that years later, we can collectively say: Wow! That was some voyage. I’m glad I went. Thank you all, and (put on captain’s cap) anchors aweigh!