September 21, 2010

My Yom Kippur appeal

I was asked to give the fundraising appeal at Congregation Beth Shalom this year during erev Yom Kippur. I am pleased and proud to report that our community stepped up to pledge $75000, $10,000 more than I asked for. In these tough economic times, I am grateful to all those who were able to be so generous.

In addition to the financial success, we received more than 162 volunteer card responses, a greater than 50% increase over last year. The commitment of our members to make our shul their Jewish home away from home humbles me.

Here's what I said:

My name is Jill Cohen, and it is my honor to be president of the Beth Shalom board.

Each year we chant, Berosh Hashanah yikateivun; uve’yom tzom kippur yichateimun: On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it? Who shall live and who shall die?

On Yom Kippur we are all the same. We are asked to face our mortality so that we can examine our lives. I’d like to share with you how belonging to Beth Shalom for me supports me in choosing a life of meaning, of spirituality, and of community.

You see, I have stage IV, metastatic breast cancer. Just over eight years ago, I learned that my cancer had come back and spread into my bones, and now my liver. I had to face the new normal of daily life with cancer. I had to face my own mortality every day.

I’m not alone in this. Many in our community live with cancer and many of us have lost loved ones to cancer. Many live with other life-shortening, chronic illnesses.

Many people have the luxury of pretending that they are in control, that life will always tick on the way it has. We who live with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses have been forced to realize that control is an illusion. We have to think every day about the hard questions: How long will we live? When will we die? And yet somehow we must also live a meaningful life.

When I retired on medical disability eight years ago, I lost my daily routine and the sense of self-worth that came from doing work I loved. At first I started coming to shul on Shabbat to give myself a new routine. Then I came for the sense of community, for the delight in singing together, because I love to sing. When I sing with my community, I feel joy and am connected to others. When leading services as the shlicha tzibur I feel even closer to that spiritual experience we call God. The more joy I found in the regular practice of prayer and song, in communal gathering, the more active I became at shul. The more I volunteered, the more connected I felt to Beth Shalom and our members. One thing led to another, until I stand here tonight as your president, living my life in community, with community and for community.

A few years ago, when I was asked to serve as president, my cancer was more or less under control. This year my cancer got noisy. Last September my ongoing battle with swelling in my left hand, called lymphedema, acted up. A year later it’s still not quite back to normal. In December and February I had surgery. On our way home after the first Pesach seder, I fell and dislocated my left elbow. A long, slow recovery left me with almost, but not quite, full extension of my left arm. And I’m left-handed! In May I began chemotherapy and was diagnosed with depression. A second chemotherapy drug caused me ten days of painful mouth sores and weeks of blistered, burned hands and feet. The third chemotherapy drug, which I began at the end of August, has been tolerable so far, and we hope it will be effective. To top it all off, on my husband Rik’s 50th birthday, we had to euthanize our beloved fifteen-year-old dog Pumpkin who worked for several years as my service animal.

Nu, why am I listing my sorrows for you? Whether I experienced surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, on any day that I needed to lift my spirits, I could count on members of Beth Shalom to be there for me and my family. When times were hard for Rik and I, in the past twelve months and over the years, Beth Shalom was there with meals, phone calls, visits and loving care. Surrounded by community, I have been able to mourn my father, grieve the loss of friends, and celebrate personal milestones.

Speaking of personal milestones: Rik and I both turned 50 this year, and as a woman living with advanced cancer, I wasn’t sure that would happen. How did I celebrate? Here in this community, with an aliyah to the Torah. I celebrated my eighth anniversary of living with metastatic cancer in August and stood on this bimah again, grateful to have another aliyah, to receive blessings from the Rabbi and the entire community. Rik and I also celebrated that milestone with plenty of chocolate, known in our home as “Vitamin CH.”

In the last six years of chairing our fundraising committee, I have been awed by our community’s response to appeals for a balanced budget. For a second year in a row our congregation ended the last fiscal year in the black. We are slowly beginning to repay to ourselves the money we borrowed six years ago.

Far from feeling burdened by the role of president, I have taken Rabbi Borodin’s advice to heart. She said not to serve because I think I’ll do a good job, or because I’m concerned no one else will take it on. “Serve because it will bring you joy.”

Meeting new faces, deepening my current relationships, praying communally, and serving you is joyful and life-affirming to me. I know that after hearing my story, some of you will want to help me by cooking a meal, offering a ride, or otherwise helping me personally. There has been, and there will be again, a time for that kind of help. Tonight, if you want to help me, you can do so by helping our synagogue community.

It is my goal, as president of our synagogue, to only ask for your financial support two times a year. Tonight is one of those times.

Tonight I have the privilege of asking you to invest and make a commitment in our community, our collective Jewish home. This year our goal is to raise $65,000. All the money you give tonight will support the general operations of the synagogue. Our dues cover only half of the synagogue’s operating expenses. Beth Shalom has taught me that Jews take care of community in good times and in bad. In this time of continued economic uncertainty, it’s more important than ever to give of your financial resources and of your time.

When you decide how much to give tonight, please picture the following:

• Imagine your donation as an investment in children beginning a lifetime of Jewish experiences. Although cancer prevented Rik and I from becoming parents, we still believe in the value of a strong Jewish education for our community’s youth.

• Think of the singles, couples and families living their Jewish life as part of our synagogue. Many of us at Beth Shalom are new to Seattle and have no family here. The next time you come to pray, chat at a communal meal, or volunteer to serve, you might begin a lifelong friendship with someone and create a “family of the heart” for yourself.

• Imagine how our members face the loss of a loved one or the challenge of a serious illness. Our community can give you the same comfort and strength that Rik and I received.

Here is how we’re going to make the pledges. Some of you brought your appeal cards with your ticket tonight. As you entered the building, others were given an envelope. Inside it are two cards. If you did not get an envelope, please raise your hand and a volunteer will bring one to you.

The white card is for your financial contribution. Fold over the tab on the dollar amount you want to give. Feel free to use several tabs to add up to the amount you want.

The blue card is for your spiritual contribution as a volunteer. Fold the tabs to choose how you want to be involved in our community.

The pink card is for Project Kesher: Connecting Beth Shalom. We want to know, “How connected do you feel to other people at Beth Shalom?” My goal for this year is to deepen our connections to one another through Project Kesher, bringing members closer together through special interests and activities. If you haven’t already marked the spot that most closely matches your answer, please do so after Yom Kippur and return the card to the shul office. A Project Kesher volunteer will contact you to follow up.

You make me proud to serve you, a community that is spiritually uplifting, generous, and nurturing of us all.

The Torah instructs us to choose life. For me, Jewish service was my choice of career and is my choice of life, meaning and joy. Gmar hatimah tovah, may we all be be sealed in the book of life for a good and healthy new year.

If this moves you as well, and you would like to make a donation to Congregation Beth Shalom, mail a check to 6800 35th Avenue NE, Seattle WA 98115, or click on our web site to donate online via credit card.

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