One of my favorite parts of the weekly Shabbat service follows the Torah and haftarah readings where we bless the congregation. After reciting one prayer asking for “the blessings of heaven,” kindness, compassion, long life, ample sustenance, health and healthy children, we move on to what I fondly think of as “the donor prayer.”
Siddur Sim Shalom, the prayer book used by most Conservative congregations, refers to it as a prayer for the congregation. In it we ask that God bless those who provide for the community.
…them, their sons and daughters, their families and all that is theirs, along with those who unite to establish synagogues
for prayer, and those who enter them to pray, and those who give funds for heat and light, and wine for and Havdalah, bread
to the wayfairer and charity to the poor, and all who devotedly involve themselves with the needs of the community and the Land of Israel.
The prayer, a Hebrew echo of an Aramaic one that precedes it, was first added to the liturgy in “an 11th century French work from the school of Rashi,” according to Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, writing in My People’s Prayer Book, Vol. 4. And for some reason it has always stirred in me emotions balanced tentatively between amusement and poignancy. It transports me to some place back in time, beyond my shtetl forebears, into some cobblestoned alley of the Middle Ages, and connects me to the men and women worshipping in some tiny shteibel — that their concerns were so similar to the ones that preoccupy Jewish life today: keeping the lights on in institutions we care about and providing for those in need in the community. Or as the scholar Ellen Frankel writes in the same volume, “It is a list that Jewish federations would have no problem honoring today.”
What I like most about the blessing, however, is that it doesn’t just ask God to bless the shul-goer and donor; it also wants God to look favorably upon those who look outward, to the broader community. The prayer recognizes that while the synagogue is a central part of Jewish life, it is not the only player.
As a dues-paying synagogue member who attends shul regularly and volunteers there, a former Jewish Federation employee and a member of JCC Rockland’s board of directors, I’ve seen the push and pull that takes place between community organizations. Sometimes subtle, other times not so much, there can be strain when the various organizations that make up a community see themselves in competition with each other, rather than on complementary missions.
It’s a self-defeating anti-strategy, one that probably ensures the success of no one. The prayer recognizes that, connects the dots, and blesses us all for making a go of it no matter the organization we’re backing — because we are all part of the whole community.
I’m finding the words of the donor prayer weighing more these days as the Rockland Jewish Community Campus begins another capital campaign. The campus — which houses the JCC, the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, Rockland Jewish Family Service, the Rockland Jewish Academy, and the local branches of Hadassah and the State of Israel Bonds — provides a central Jewish address and should be seen as a thing of pride and accomplishment by the entire community.
The capital campaign seeks to address debt remaining from the initial move to the building in 2007. The goal is to raise $5 million, and is being spurred by a $2 million match from two generous donors who have long been connected to the community.
Debt is not sexy like building something new, but without creating some semblance of security, the campus will fold. And while some of the organizations might be able to find office space elsewhere, others would have a rough go of it. The RJA would be forced to wander as its predecessor, Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School did for many years, subject to tentative space agreements and sometimes spurious rent practices. But the JCC, which has grown into a real presence in this community since the move, would in all likelihood cease to exist.
The idea of broad community support seems all the more pressing now in the wake of the YJCC of Washington Township closing. Located only about 18 minutes south of our own JCC (according to Google maps, of course), the YJCC had a long history in Bergen County, starting out more than 90 years ago in Hackensack, before becoming a “Y without walls,” much like our JCC when it began. In 1987, the Y moved into the its space on Pascack Road; and on Aug. 5, announced that it would close as of the next business day.
The YJCC faced a $1 million operational shortfall and extensive capital repairs on an aging building. Our JCC has done a great deal to make itself operationally sound by adding a full-day early childhood program and expanding camp, two of the three revenue streams, along with fitness, that a JCC needs to survive. But the campus is still bedeviled by its debt, and without the campus — well, I’d rather not think about that. Sure, you could retrench, if you want to call it that, like the YJCC has, going back to a wall-less Y model. But it would feel like such a defeat in a county that has seen several synagogue closings and the demise of its Conservative Jewish day school.
So there’s a reason for that “donor prayer.” On one hand, it seems like such a contemporary notion — making nice-nice to the big machers in the community. But it’s really a timeless one. There in 11th century France, Jews were asking God to look kindly on those making things happen in the community at large, somehow speaking across those centuries to us today to do the same.
But if you look at that prayer closely, you realize that it isn’t talking about just the big donors with the lead gifts. That blessing is intended for each one of us, because as fundraising pros like to say, all gifts matter. And that’s because all the parts of the community need to work as a whole if Jewish life is going to work at all.