A challenge to congregants: Make Jewish living a priority
by Rabbi Stephen F. Moch

     This week's Torah portion is a double portion: Acharei Mot/Kedoshim.
     The first, Acharei Mot, means after the death of two of Aaron's four sons. The second portion Kedoshim, begins "You shall be holy for I Adonai, Your God am holy." Here we find the real purpose of a Jewish Community and of a Sacred Congregation of people. After the tragic episodes of life, we learn together to lift each other up to purposes that transcend our personal pain and allow us to live on and grow as human beings again. That great purpose calls us all here and has done so since 1796, when our predecessors founded this Holy Congregation of Blessing and Peace and Loving Deeds.
     Tonight marks my second annual Report to you as Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas. Another month will mark my year and a half anniversary since assuming this historic pulpit. Whatever I have accomplished and taught, I have done so because we did it together. My list of achievements are ours and they have been conveyed to you in the form of committee reports. I will say that I feel as though I have a much better notion of how to be the Rabbi of this unique Congregation than I did at this time last year. I credit the fantastic leadership and guidance of Penny Feuerzeig and guidance of members of the Board of Trustees, and within the general membership, who were my counselors and advisors along the way. This is not only the oldest Synagogue in continuous use under the American flag, it is also as diverse and sophisticated a small congregation as any under the American Flag.
     I also want to thank the staff of the Hebrew Congregation: Mina Orenstein, for her devotion to the programs of the Congregation, often calling each member for their support, and for her dedication to successfully serving the public and our Congregation with a constantly improving Judaica Shop. Tina Bryan for her amazing organization and diligence in making our office run smoothly and to proactively keep us up with the demands of the High Holy Days and the annual Auction. Michael Fuertes for his constant diligence in caring for our two buildings and helping us to set up for and take down after all our programs. Diane Becker Krasnick has provided support and beautified our Synagogue music at Services and during other programs.
     I also owe – as do each of us – a great deal to those who have taken on important tasks in the Congregation, such as Marilyn Blackhall, who wears a number of hats but notably for her service as our Religious Practices Chair, and to Ella Ogden for her efforts as editor of the Bulletin, to Iris Horwitz and Mina Orenstein for keeping our ongei Shabbat, and holidays well stocked, to Alexandra Laing and Agnes Rampino for their efforts in keeping out Congregation involved in the community where needs must be met, to Jessica Rosenberg and Donald Pomeranz for helping us keep in touch with our 18-25 year old children out in the world. The list goes on and I cannot name you all, but I thank all of you who have helped with the many tasks that the Synagogue undertakes.
     Our strength as a congregation has come from the dedication with which a core of devoted individuals has approached their responsibilities in the Synagogue for all that must happen to keep the community vibrant. At times, such as for the auction, that group has widened to include much of the Congregation.
     I see our greatest challenge to invite a new generation of young people to take on those roles and assume their leadership and claim their part in our varied activities. Our challenge is to engage their interest in and devotion to our Congregation and what it tries to accomplish and to instill in them a love of Judaism.
     In the past our Congregation has gone from strength to weakness and then back to strength. Let us make sure that as we pass the torch of our Torah from one generation to an other, that it be passed from strength to strength.
     Our challenge will be to invite and entice and engage the new generation.
     You, the younger leaders, will have an important role in this. I and other members of the board and community will call upon you and you must call upon yourselves to push your Jewish living – both at Synagogue and at home -to the top of your personal priority list. That alone will ensure not only a strong Jewish Community in St. Thomas, but a Jewish spiritual life for you and your family and a Jewish future for your children and grandchildren.
     Do not wait until a tragedy spurs you to seek holy ground. Do it in celebration of life now. Expect of yourselves several things. First that you will be part of the Jewish Community. That means that you will support it financially to the degree you are able in accordance with its needs. It means that you will concern yourself with the well being of all the members of the Jewish Community, whether you like them personally or not. It means that you will call and visit and show support to those enduring difficulties. It means you will come to the occasional celebration of life and being together that we enjoy here on the Hebrew Congregation. Secondly, expect of yourselves that you will grow in your knowledge of Torah and Judaism. Make it a commitment to attend some aspect of our Continuing Adult Education offerings, or, if your struggle with a busy family and business life makes attending programs difficult, that you take a few minutes of each day or each week to do so on your own or with a friend. Lastly, expect of yourselves a spiritual life at home, at Synagogue, even at work. Make the time to do a small mitzvah regularly. Look at aspects of Jewish business ethics as you strategize how to run your company or office. Say the Shema with your spouse and/or children each evening and/or each morning. Those will become the decisions and the consequent acts that will make your personal Judaism vital and our community strong.
     We are in this wonderful Congregation together and if we can make it better than it is, it will be because we do it more and more together. Thank you all for your support of me and our leadership. Most of all, thank you for your support of each other.
     I want to conclude by telling you of some of the areas in which I would like to do better in the year ahead. They include:
     1) Working with our High School age youth. Though we will have only a couple, I want them to know that they are a priority for us.
     2) Organizing our Congregation's Caring Committee to increase the quantity of congregants visiting other congregants in distress and the quality of those caring visits.
     3) Organize a Life Long Learning Committee for Continuing Adult Education.
     4) Work with younger members to bring together those in their 20s and 30s.
     I am also interested in restoring connections to our Congregation's Spanish/Portuguese past and in renewing interfaith dialogue on St. Thomas as well as addressing our physical needs regarding a lack of parking, no handicapped accessibility and a lack of security in the neighborhood.
     Rabbi Stephen Fisher Moch
     April 19, 2010