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Don's 5779 (2018) Kol Nidre Speech

09/13/2018 06:13:20 PM


Good evening, and welcome to The Shul of New York. 

Before I begin, I must thank Angel Orensanz for once again inviting us to celebrate Yom Kippur in this magnificently beautiful place.  The Orensanz Foundation will always feel like home to us and we are very grateful to be here tonight.

I know I speak for everyone when I say that this year, more than any other, it is an incredible pleasure to acknowledge our founder and Rabbi Emeritus, Burt Aaron Siegel.  

Rabbi Burt, you gave us quite a scare this year, and we are all impressed and thrilled by your recovery.  Now, I have a request.  While I still have a few hairs that are not white, please don’t ever do that again. 

I want to thank Rabbi Eva Sax-Bolder for sharing with us her wisdom and her seemingly endless energy, and for another wonderful year filled with moving services and exciting programs.  We are now in Rabbi Eva’s third year with the Shul, and at this point I think it’s probably safe to say, she likes us, she really likes us.  I know that we like her and we love having her as our Rabbi. 

And I could not possibly begin without acknowledging our stupendously talented Director of Music and Development, Adam Feder.  In addition to being the Shul’s resident muse, Adam is the driving force behind the Shul’s exciting new children’s education program, Club Ruach. 

Club Ruach is based on learning through self-expression of the arts.  If you know of anyone who might be interested in this innovative and exciting new program, please send them to the Shul’s website for more information.

The Shul of New York would not be The Shul of New York without the incomparable magic of The Shul Band; they make our services and celebrations like no other.  We had an amazingly good time at the Band Together in Love Concert this year and I am thrilled to announce that there will be another concert next year.  

Yes, they are going to do it again despite the enormous amount of work and preparation that goes into creating the concert, which is a testament to the Band’s love and devotion for the Shul, and I am certain has absolutely nothing to do with the pictures I took backstage. 

And, of course I cannot begin without thanking our very favorite violin virtuoso, Ernesto Villalobos.  I am pleased to announce that as of this year, all three of the Villalobos Brothers are now Permanent Residents of the United States.  Though it is unlike me to toot my own shofar, I did have a hand in this.  I was asked to write a letter to the Immigration Service and though I may have gotten a bit carried away, everything turned out just fine. 

In an unrelated development, next week I am being deported back to the homeland of my people, Jackson Heights. 

As you know, we had some unexpected expenses this year, so fundraising in the coming year will be ever more important.  So before I begin, I’d like to share with you just a few of the Board’s ideas for future fundraising. 

First up is the Shul’s annual Jewish carnival, Jews-a-Palooza™.  We will, of course, have everything you would expect to find in a Jewish carnival: rides, like The Parting of the Red Sea Waterslide; The Fakakta House of Mirrors™ where every reflection looks like that fakakta Donald Trump; and the most frightening ride of all, The Haunted House where Jewish mothers lunge out from the darkness holding sweaters shouting, “So when are you coming to Boca?”

There will be games of chance, like the kosher pickle ring toss, throw the matzo ball into the goldfish bowl, bobbing for kreplach, and Whack-a-Mohel™. 

And because everything tastes great when it’s been deep fried, we will have Deep Fried Gefilte Fish, on a stick.  Yum, yum. 

If all else fails, we know we can close the Shul’s deficit with our ace in the hole, the Villalobos Kissing Booth. 

In addition, we’ve added several new products to the Shul store.  We now have t-shirts that say “Schlock Him Up!”, “Wall Schmall, Build something useful like a fat free babka!”, and my favorite, “M-A-G-A, Make America Gewish Again!”  On the back it says, “That’s Jewish with a G, that rhymes with P and that stands for pool, which I told you not to go in after eating that sandwich and now you have a cramp, you’re lucky you didn’t drown.” 

My name is Don Brancaccio, and I am the webmaster and a Co-President of the Shul.  Recently, my qualifications to be Co-President were called into question in an anonymous op-ed piece in The Jewish Week.  I remain in my position because, as it turns out, I am highly over-qualified to be a Co-President since I handle the job on the level of a tenth-grader. 

As webmaster, my job is the upkeep of the Shul’s website and digital database.  We’re not Facebook, but I know who you are.   If you love the website, and who doesn’t, I’d love to hear from you at webmaster @

If you hate the website, or have a complaint about the Shul or the weather or anything else, please feel free to email my Co-President, Sara Lavner at Sara @; that was Sara, S-A-R-A @ 

Once again, welcome to The Shul of New York where everyone, Jew and non-Jew, half-Jew, quarter-Jew, eighth-Jew, everyone, even Paul Ryan, is welcome. 

Actually, The Shul of New York, aka The Shul of Love, is the Shul where everyone from A to Z, from Atheists to Zoroastrians, is always welcome.  And as the Shul’s chief resident A, I can personally attest that this is true. 

And so, I stand before you once again, the non-Jewish, atheist Co-President of The Shul of New York, here to deliver the Kol Nidre Appeal for 5779. 

Last year, I spoke about our shared values and how I thought they were being put to the test.  Since then….Oy!  

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time, way too much time wondering:  How did this happen?  And where do we go from here?  

Many, many books will be written to explain how this happened, or at least, to try to.  Where we go next, I think depends on the answer to another question.  Who are we? 

When I shed my religious upbringing and became an atheist, I realized it was because I viewed the world and humanity and the universe through a rational, scientific lens.  In the hubristic certainty of youth it was very appealing to catalog the universe and everything in it into two groups, that which we know, and that which we don’t know, yet.  I assumed human curiosity would drive science to eventually explain everything.  I now know that isn’t necessarily true. 

No, I haven’t changed my mind about non-corporeal beings or anything else that I consider to be in the realm of the supernatural.  But over the years, I have come to the realization that my rational, scientific lens was just a bit cracked.  There are things that I think we will never know. 

Like, what exactly lies in the utter darkness and crushing density at the center of a black hole, or Donald Trump’s heart.    

Likewise, I don’t think we will ever fully understand the trillions of interconnections between the hundred billion neurons in the human brain. 

What we are may never be fully knowable, but I think who we are is.  All it takes is the courage to look inward, to see one’s self honestly and objectively.  Over the last year, I have been forced to do exactly that.  And I do mean forced. 

The day after Election Day two years ago, I was depressed, I was anxious, I felt like a stranger in a strange land.  By the time I spoke to you last year, I was once again sure that people would eventually come to their senses and realize they’d made a mistake, and so I made a point of talking about what I called our universal shared values.  It wasn’t until this summer, when I watched people defend the actions of our government, actions that can only truthfully be described as horrifically cruel, that I felt lost. 

How could anyone, anyone regardless of beliefs, regardless of prejudice, how could anyone hear a child screaming for their mother and be unmoved by that pain?  How could anyone see that and not think:  this is wrong. 

This was incomprehensible to me. I knew they weren't’t mentally ill, millions of people do not suddenly become sociopaths.  I began to think, perhaps, we really aren’t all the same. 

I am ashamed to admit that I began to believe there were millions of people who were so fundamentally different from me that they weren't’t fully human.  I thought, there really are people beyond hope, beyond redemption.  That thought frightened me.  What frightened me most was just how easily the idea entered my mind.  I was all too ready to think of them the same way they think of immigrants and refugees, as not really human, as not worthy of empathy, as not worthy of compassion. 

That was when I was forced to take that long, hard look in the mirror. 

I think of myself as a good person. We all do.  But it wasn't’t until that day that I realized you’re not a good person because you have no prejudice.   No one is without prejudice, like some cardboard cutout liberal who, as the joke goes, doesn't’t know if you are black or white because they don’t see color.  

You’re a good person when despite your prejudice, you treat everyone the same way.  You don’t act on your prejudices.  You fight against them. 

And so I decided I had to fight my prejudice.  First, I had to admit to my prejudice against people who don’t see the world the way I do.   Like I said, I think I’m a good person.  I also think I’m a thoughtful person.  I’ve thought about the ways we can make our country and our world better, and of course, I think my conclusions are correct. 

It naturally follows that anyone who disagrees with my liberal, progressive point of view is not merely wrong, but in some sense purposefully blind to the answers that I see as the obvious, common sense responses to the world’s problems.  Talk about hubris. 

What does this mean?  It means I have to practice what I preach.  I’ve said here many times that in this Shul tolerance isn’t good enough.  That here in the Shul of New York we practice acceptance.  Now I understand, in a truly meaningful way, that this acceptance must extend to everyone, almost.   Obviously, we cannot accept, or even tolerate, the Nazis and racists who feel empowered lately.  I’m not talking about them. 

I’m talking about the people who we say are on the other side of the aisle.  Unfortunately, there are those on both sides who want to build a wall down the center of that aisle.  This past summer, I was ready to join them.  Not anymore.  I now know that until we are ready to step into that aisle, to open our hearts and our minds, to once again be willing to listen to what reasonable and decent people who disagree with us have to say, there will be no way forward. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we only get to where we go from here by showing people who we are.  We have to take what the Shul has given us and share it.  The acceptance, the inclusivity, the love that we feel here in this Shul is what we must take with us when we step into that aisle and reach out to the people on the other side.  It won’t be easy, but I think it’s worth the effort, because eventually our “leaders” will be doing something else (hopefully making license plates in Ossining). 

After they’re gone, all that will be left is “us” and “them.”  If we can’t talk to each other, we will never rebuild our society.  We only have a chance, if we are willing to work together.

And there’s one more thing we can only do together.  I’ll give you a hint:  it involves money.

We on the Board, utilizing all of our collective wisdom, such as it is, have spent the last three years rebuilding the Shul’s finances.  We did not do this alone; we did it with you.  Your kindness and your generosity is the reason this Shul has survived.  

This year due to circumstances beyond our control, the expenses for the High Holidays increased by 30%, but let’s not forget what really matters, surprisingly, I still have most of my hair. 

Simply put, this increase in expenses erased the revenue from the Concert, and then some; and we unfortunately are now forecasting a $10,000 deficit for this fiscal year: the largest deficit in many years.   So this year, and I know I’ve said this before, this year we really need your help.  You decide if we are here together next year.  You decide if the Shul survives. 

I know we can count on you because you have never let us down.  And the words do not exist to adequately express our gratitude for your support of the Shul. 

Luckily though, we make it as easy as possible.  In addition to our strikingly gorgeous website, you can donate right here.  Our lovely volunteers will soon walk among you with their shopping bags and their well-practiced looks of pathetic desperation. 

Please feel free to drop in checks, cash, credit cards, car keys, jewelry, lottery tickets, time shares in the Bahamas, and even those cute little Ivanka boots that are now being sold on clearance.

Thank you for listening.  Thank you in advance for your kindness and your generosity.  And thank you for sharing the gift of acceptance and love that we create together here in The Shul of New York.  Thank you. 

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Sat, December 7 2019 9 Kislev 5780