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Bobby Lapin  President's Rosh Hashanah 5774 Message
September 4, 2013
1 Tishrei 5774


Shanah Tova, and welcome.

Welcome to the vast majority of you who are our returning members and who are settling into your seats with that comforting blend of eagerness and confidence that the penetrating beauty of the familiar words and music we are about to hear will be up to the task of aligning our focus onto the meaning of these days of awe.

To those of you who are joining us for the first time as new members of our congregation, or who may be away from your loved ones and here as guests, or even who may be joining us from distant places through our live streaming link on the internet, a special and warm welcome to you as well. My name is Bobby Lapin and I have the privilege of serving as the President of our congregation’s Board of Trustees, members of which greeted you on your way in this evening and who will grace our bimah tonight and throughout the High Holy Days. It is for me equal measures of joy and inspiration to serve with them and, like me, you should feel very comfortable and proud that the fiduciary stewardship of our congregation rests in their capable hands.

Although the time for more formal confession is ten days hence, let me nonetheless make a confession to each of you. I am an unapologetic history buff… Frankly, it would have been impossible to grow up around my parents’ dinner table and turn out otherwise, but I have always been fascinated not only by the results of human achievement, but particularly at what the late Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story,” and by that he meant the confluence of vision, determination and circumstances which underlie the story. And it is through that lens that I cannot help but marvel at the fact that, in 1854, seven years before the Civil War began, 22 Jewish residents of Houston gathered in a small room downtown on Austin Street and conducted the first services of the newly formed Hebrew Congregation of the City of Houston, soon thereafter to be called Congregation Beth Israel. And what to me is nothing short of astounding is the fact that, in the 159 years since that first service, this congregation has continued to gather for services or Torah study every single week – notwithstanding the exigencies and threats brought on by a civil war, a world war, the Great Depression, a second world war, the Holocaust, an internal schism over Zionism, the Cold War, the war on terror, the great Recession and, most recently, the 2013 Astros baseball season.

Lightheartedness aside, it is, to me, not hyperbole to suggest that any number of those calamities could have meant the end of the line for our congregation… but it didn’t happen. Indeed, to the contrary, Congregation Beth Israel has not only endured those collosal challenges – it has managed to inexorably move from strength-to-strength notwithstanding them.

So, as we approach our 160th anniversary in the coming Jewish year, I have to ask: How is it that, in the span of 8 generations and with all those existential challenges, we are able to gather here in such numbers and in elegant and sacred spaces that those 22 founders – and most of their successors – could not have imagined in their fondest dreams? I’ll offer my answer. It is because at every stage of our congregation’s history, our predecessors have deemed Beth Israel’s continued existence and institutional strength worthy not only of sustaining, but of strengthening. Those who came before us who sat on this bimah and in those seats appreciated what they inherited from their forebears, and they resolved in their day to give of their time, talents and treasure to protect and nurture this precious asset so as to ensure they too could pass it on to their children and community.

But there’s something else to which credit is due. As I’ve studied Beth Israel’s history, I’ve come to appreciate and admire one other consistent link between the generations of our congregants – and that is the trust and faith which each existing generation has placed in the next. What I mean by this is that, even as recently as 25 or 50 years ago, Beth Israel’s leadership could not possibly have imagined a congregation 1700 members strong, a $4 million budget, four full-time clergy members, a thriving congregational Jewish day school co-existing with our religious school, or live streaming of every service reaching the four corners of the globe. Yet, the membership trusted that the next generation would have the vision to know how best to serve the Jewish needs of our younger families who are, after all, our future. And our membership at every stage enabled and empowered that future by positioning Beth Israel structurally and financially to be able to meet those needs.

That, perhaps more than anything else, is Beth Israel’s enduring legacy, and what a gift that has been to us all.

And so, as we enter our 160th year, we are going to celebrate this remarkable achievement, and we are going to celebrate together as a congregational family.

We will celebrate how collectively blessed we are to have access to the excellence of our spiritual leadership. In Rabbis Lyon, Scott and Miller and Cantor Mutlu we have a clergy team ready, willing and most able to deliver precisely what we need and want from our spiritual leaders – resources for our Jewish educational hunger, accessibility in those moments when we need a dose of guidance or counsel… or simply a joyful blessing. Button all of that up into individuals with truly good and compassionate hearts who have dedicated themselves to jobs for which the characterization of “24/7” almost understates the required commitment, and we quickly come to understand how our cup runneth over with regard to our clergy team here.

We will celebrate our professional staff upon whom the same platitudes can, without reservation, rightly be visited and who, though somewhat less visible, take no less pride in ensuring that this campus and its magnificent spaces and offerings remain a source of pride for we who are its members and its users.

We will celebrate what we as a congregation do for our members and our community – our rich adult education, symposia and Torah study, our Tikkun Olam outreach to our greater Houston community, our youth and family activities – the list goes on and on. It’s all on our website, and it’s all no further away than a click at your computer or even a tap on your smart phone. If you haven’t been to our website in a while, I urge you to take a fresh look – you’ll be amazed by what’s offered.

Most importantly, we will celebrate that we are each linked to this place, that periodically we gather to share in each other’s penultimate joys and in our hours of inconsolable grief. Since we are no longer a congregation of 22, we cannot know all of each other’s names or life stories, but we know so many of the faces, we share familiar greetings and well wishes, and we know what compels each of us to gather together, as a congregation, whether weekly for Shabbat, or annually for our High Holy Days. And, as we pass our days here, we appreciate that we are all trustees, that we are all stewards in a long line of those who have decided that this is a special place worth not only preserving but strengthening, and so they did, and so must we.

Our rabbis teach that the coming days are times of reflection, of introspection, and of resolve. With that direction and in that spirit, as we embark on an anniversary year worthy of celebrating, and as you hear in the coming days and weeks about a very special project we will be taking on to mark this seminal moment in the life of our congregation, I would like to make a simple request of each of you. If this place has touched you and remains relevant and meaningful to you, please look into your hearts and, in the coming year as we celebrate a wonderful milestone together, think about how you can do your part to help sustain our viability as a congregation. If we each resolve to give back to our congregation in that fashion, then we will give honor to those who came before us and, in their memory, we too will pass a sustained and strengthened Beth Israel on to our younger families and trust their capacity and vision to position our congregation to continue to thrive for the generations yet to come.

On behalf of my wife, Eve, and my sons, Elliott and Alec, let me wish for each of you, for your families and for your loved ones near and far, a Shanah Tovah – a year of much good health, happiness and peace.

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