Why Am I Here?

Remarks delivered by CBI President Jamey Potechin on Rosh Hashanah 2021/5782.

Today is a time of reflection and I’d like to offer four words as a guide that I am using this year. They are a play on the theme of our past president, Mariela Dybner’s, first speech, which was Hineni – Here I Am.

Turning this phrase around, my four words are “Why am I here?”. Let’s examine these four words together.

“Why” –is a Jewish way of looking at the world. As a people, we have over two millennia of studying and interpreting our ancient texts, and Judaism places a premium on asking good questions.

“Am” — in the words of Holocaust survivor and poet, Aba Kovner, “Remember the past, live the present and trust the future.” We should not be defined by our past, but neither should we forget it. We should focus on the “am”, our present, which we can change through our own actions. Then, guided by our past experience, we can build a better future.

“I” — this is a deeply personal time, and it is different for each of us. I can look at my own behavior and work on what I need to change in myself while recognizing that your perspective is unique to you.

“Here” — is also different for each of us. What brought me here today is the sum of my experiences. For some of us today, here means physically in this sanctuary. For others, here is on-line. In either case, I am glad that we are connected as a community and celebrating the new year together.

Now that I have introduced my four words, let me tell you my personal story of how I came to be here today. I grew up in Montreal just a mile or so from where Rabbi Isenberg grew up, and settled in the U.S. My wife Kathy and I joined CBI over 25 years ago when we decided to make Short Hills our home. We enrolled our son in the Hebrew school and would come to services on an occasional Shabbat and the High Holidays. Not having friends or family in the area and being busy with work and raising our son, we were slowly getting to know people in the community. Then, my father died in 1997 and I came to services every day for morning and evening minyan through his yahrzeit period. I consider this his gift to me, because the simple act of showing up every day brought me into the community. The minyan is an incredible institution, where you are guaranteed a welcome just for showing up. I discovered, after attending services religiously (pun intended) for a year, that I could make time for morning minyan and continued to attend for several years until my younger children were born and time became short again.

As a regular shul-goer today, I feel privileged to have gotten to know so many people over the years and to feel part of something bigger. Indeed, one of my proudest possessions is the kipah procured by Juan Katz and Joe Keselman, may their memories be a blessing, for the morning minyan regulars.

Once connected to life at CBI, I had other opportunities to get involved. I joined the choir and re-learned how to read Torah. After tactfully being asked by Cantor Goller where I got the melodies I had been making up to lead prayer services, I even learned the proper melodies. Mostly, I just showed up.

With this long-winded introduction, let me start to answer the question of “Why am I here?” What purpose can I serve and what can I do for this institution that I have come to know and love?

I want to help CBI bring a little more Judaism into all our lives. I worry that my children are drifting away and that the larger community is as well. Edgar Bronfman, the noted Jewish philanthropist from Montreal, tried to address this question with his book “Why be a Jew?” As he points out, Judaism suffuses our lives, even if we are not religious. We are the people that brought the Torah to the world, our source of inspiration and guidance but also for so many non-Jews. Our prophets teach us about what makes a just society. Our rabbinic tradition modifies the literal translation of the texts and creates new interpretations even to this day, not to mention the Talmud that shows us how to look at all sides of an argument. Even if we don’t study the texts directly, we bring a Jewish sensibility to the world. We gave the world Shabbat and the weekly cycle and the concept of a day of rest for everyone. Our rituals have withstood the test of time and sustain us in times of need. Our devotion to cantorial singing lifts our spirits. We have the State of Israel, its amazing story of resurrection and its unparalleled record of restraint in a hostile world. I could go on and on…

Whatever your level of Jewish education or observance, there is something of value for you personally and that is worth passing on to your children. By being your gateway to all that Judaism has to offer, I hope to see CBI grow and prosper and attract new families both young and old to our community.

As we learned through this year of Covid where physical connection has been difficult, CBI is much more than this physical facility.

CBI is a group of dedicated professionals who work tirelessly to develop new programming, lead our services, educate our children and support families in lifecycle events both happy and sad. Led by Rabbi Isenberg, Cantor Wallach and Rabbi Schwarzwald, it includes our office staff, the staff supporting our youth and all our maintenance staff.

CBI is also an awesome group of volunteers who have given so much of themselves to serve the community. Sunday, we put out a call for volunteers in the middle of the afternoon to help us move our preschool classrooms, concerned that the volunteers in the building would be working late into the evening. We had so many people respond that all the work was done by five o’clock. It’s not just in extraordinary times. Our volunteers allowed us to offer programs and events throughout the year, upgrading our building and technology, making home deliveries for holidays, helping to run services day in and day out, organizing fundraising events like our Wine & Magic program and the high holiday appeal, providing musical programs and running major gatherings with take-out or in-person meals.

CBI is a place of prayer where we can be transported to spiritual heights through the power of ritual and music. We are graced with a cantor who makes this experience extraordinary.

CBI is a place of learning and growing.

CBI is a community of caring and connection, where we are called upon to look after each other. Again, we have seen a tremendous outpouring of support this past week to take care of families in need, anything from preparing meals to finding a way to finish pumping out and drying a basement for an elderly couple.

CBI is a web of networks, connections you have made whether through services you attend, participation in the preschool or religious school, adult ed classes you have taken together, Sisterhood and Men’s Club events or volunteer activities.

Most importantly, CBI means you, the members of our congregation, who have continued to support us through these difficult times with your generous financial contributions and by participating in life at CBI.

While this year of Covid has been a challenging one, we have held Shabbat services in the sanctuary under the leadership of Rabbi Isenberg and Cantor Wallach throughout the year while being careful of the safety of our congregants. At the same time, we have connected to congregants on-line who have not been able to come to the sanctuary, either because they are homebound, are too far away or are concerned with Covid. We have had robust attendance at on-line minyans during the week and for Kabbalat Shabbat. We have hosted in-person gatherings when we could do so with a reasonable level of safety and brought people together, fulfilling a need for physical interaction with each other. Under the leadership of Rabbi Schwarzwald and under trying conditions, we have run a successful and growing preschool program and a religious school program.

My hope is that we nurture our relationships, pray together, learn together and grow together, and look forward to a time when we do so without the need for masks or physical separation.

L’shanah tovah tikatevu — May we all be inscribed in the book of life for a happy and healthy new year.


Jamey Potechin can be reached at cbipresident@cbi-nj.org.