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Diane Altkorn and her familyThose of us who have been parents or grandparents since the VCR was invented are familiar with children’s seemingly unlimited capacity to watch the same movie over and over.  Of course, we adults like to do this, too, although perhaps to a lesser extent.  There are certain movies that inspire us, comfort us, or make us laugh even when we can recite all of the funny lines.  One of my favorites is Frank Capra’s It's a Wonderful Life.  As you probably know, it is the story of George Bailey, who finally understands at the end of the film that he is the “richest man in town,” not because he has the most money, but because he is a mensch.  However, his path to this realization is somewhat bumpy, and at one point he finds himself facing financial and personal ruin due to his hapless uncle and the evil Mr. Potter.  He stands on a bridge, contemplating suicide.  And then he recites the key line: “It would have been better if I had never been born.”  Clarence, the angel-in-training, suddenly appears and shows George what the world would look like if he had not been born.  The people he had loved would not be the same.  The community he had nurtured would be very different:  instead of the light and life of Bedford Falls, there would be only the gloom of Potterville.  If George had not been there, his community would not exist. 

At Rodfei Zedek, we have dozens of George and Georgette Baileys, people without whom our vibrant and evolving community would not exist.  Now you may think I am going to start reading a list of names of those who contribute to our community, but I am not.  First, I would have to read a large portion of the membership directory.  Second, as Rabbi Minkus so eloquently told us last year, reading names without knowing the people behind the names is less than satisfactory.  So with profound gratitude to all who give their time, money, energy, ideas, and commitment to Rodfei Zedek, I am going to talk for a few minutes about just a few of our George and Georgette Baileys.  They are, in fact, the most important people in the synagogue on Shabbat morning. Now the rabbi and cantor are definitely important, but we do sometimes have services without them.  However, we never have a Shabbat morning service without a gabbai.  You may think their only job is to decide who gets an aliyah, but they do so much more.  They notice visitors and make sure to welcome them and offer them an opportunity to participate.  They keep track of who likes to participate, and encourage others to try something new.  They help regulars and newcomers alike to be comfortable with their honor or reading.  And when there is a bar or bat mitzvah, they really become choreographers, making sure those who are less familiar with our synagogue know what to do and when.  They make every family feel special and an important part of the Rodfei community, regardless of how long the family has been here.  And, they make all of this look easy—frankly, I had no idea how much is involved until I was gabbai at a couple of bar mitzvahs.

So who are our five Shabbat morning gabbais?  Bob Channon is a geriatric psychiatrist with practices at several sites in the city and suburbs.  Bob is a past president of Rodfei Zedek, and takes on the tremendous job of being chief gabbai on the High Holidays.  Margo Criscoula has devoted her career to improving literacy, through both curriculum development and teacher training; she has worked in a variety of settings including The Great Books Foundation and local schools.  Steven Loevy, with his wife Sara, advises organizations seeking help with fund raising and development; in the past he was a vice president at DePaul. Bob and his wife, Leslie; Margo, and Steven and Sara all share a hobby—spending time with their incredibly cute grandchildren.  Next, Lou Philipson is an endocrinologist; he directs the Kovler Diabetes Center at the U of C, and runs an active research lab.  Lou is an avid musician and plays the viola in a neighborhood string quartet.  He does not have grandchildren yet, but in just 60 short days he will start a brand new hobby—being Rodfei Zedek president.  Our newest gabbai, Max Hutchinson, is a physicist who works as a scientific software engineer; if you don’t know who Max is, on Shabbat mornings during football season just look for the man wearing the yellow and black Pittsburgh Steelers tallit. He and his wife Tracie are charter members of the Tippling Through the Torah group.  If you don’t know what that is, listen to the CRZ podcast, available through iTunes!

So perhaps you are thinking, “they seem like nice and interesting people; maybe I should be a gabbai.  What training would I need?”  Well, Bob has an MD; Margo, Steven, and Max all have PhDs; and Lou has an MD and a PhD!!  But don’t let this intimidate you—the primary qualification is that you be a nice person who wants to work with the rabbi and cantor to keep the service running smoothly and to make people feel comfortable and welcome at Rodfei Zedek.

Thinking about training to be a gabbai led me to think about what sort of training a person should have to become a synagogue president. It turns out that reading Torah is very good preparation for being president:  you feel really anxious and nervous before you start, you worry that you won’t know what to do when it is your turn, and you wonder why you agreed to do it in the first place. But, when you start reading, you realize that people help when you hesitate, and the congregation is always supportive.  So when I read, as the last verse approaches, I always think to myself, “Well, that was fun—too bad it’s almost over.”

When I became President, I did spend a lot of time feeling anxious and nervous, wondering what I should do, and resisting the urge to call Ed Hamburg every single day. Every decision, whether large or small, felt overwhelming, with the whole situation reminiscent of my days as a medical student and resident.  However, just as I have grown as a physician since then, I am certain, that if I could only practice being president for 30 years, I would feel much more confident!  Those darn by-laws….

Now my term is almost over, and it has been fun, and gratifying, and humbling, and insomnia-provoking, and definitely educational.  I will conclude by sharing just a couple of the things I have learned.  First, people here care deeply about Judaism and the sacred community that is Rodfei Zedek.  Just like George Bailey, each one of us creates our community—it does not exist without us.  Second, Rabbi Minkus and Cantor Rosenberg are truly exceptional people, and we are fortunate beyond words to have them at Rodfei Zedek.  Additionally, our devoted staff helps our community tremendously:  Sherry Gutman and Jacqui Lyda in the office, and Alejandro and Gerardo Martinez taking care of our building.  And what would the High Holidays be without Jonathan Miller and the choir? Finally, all of those jokes about 2 Jews and 3 opinions are not jokes—they are reality!  And, when those 2 Jews with 3 opinions hold a combination of 6 academic degrees—well, then you know you are at Rodfei Zedek!

Today is the last time I will have the honor of addressing the congregation as President.  Thank you for the privilege of serving the Rodfei Zedek community.  It is my fervent hope that in the coming year, and the years ahead, we will continue to grow as a sacred community, devoted to each other, and devoted to furthering our understanding of the many ways in which we can lead meaningful Jewish lives.  May we all be inscribed and sealed for good health, happiness, and peace.  Shanah Tovah.

—Diane Altkorn, M.D.
Yom Kippur 5777

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Tue, February 20 2024 11 Adar I 5784