Farewell to Woodside

Adapted from my speech at Woodside Synagogue Ahavas Torah, Shabbat Nachamu, Parshat VaEtchanan 5782 – August 13, 2022.

* * *

In a moment I will make a siyum in honor of my maternal grandfather’s yahrzeit, but first – if I can make it through my speech – a few words about this special Shabbat and this wonderful community.

This is a bittersweet moment.

On one hand, we are celebrating with my mother and father both the gathering here today of practically their entire family, as well as my parents’ upcoming aliyah in a few months, in fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

On the other hand, this is the last planned family get-together in Woodside, and for some of us, like me, it may be our last visit here. And for me, it’s very hard to say goodbye.

[Tears begin to flow.]

My parents joined this community as a young couple in the 1960s, back when the “shul” was still in Summit Hill. After adding a dog and two kids to the family, they moved to Silver Spring, Maryland’s Woodside neighborhood in 1975, and have been in the same house on Midwood Road ever since.

My sister was 5 and I was 4 when we moved, and thus naturally, my associations with this place are of the formative, as well as the transformative.

The formative: as a youngster, walking to and from shul every week with my father through the lovely neighborhood streets, with their enormous, shady trees and distinct lack of sidewalks; sitting in shul with my father, and on many holidays, my paternal grandfather z”l; attending, with my friends, “Shabbas groups” led by the community’s  older kids; sipping the Friday night Kiddush given out by the Chazan; and – indelibly etched in my memory – the moving melodies of Mel z”l, Avrom, and Ernst z”l, among others, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (some of which I use as a baal tefila today).

The transformative – my passage from that youngster towards adulthood – is a multi-stage process which is in many ways bound up in this holy place. When (if ever) is the transition complete?

Does it happen when, in this very building, you become a bar mitzvah, read from the Torah, lead the Musaf service, and are officially counted for the minyan for the first time?

Or when the shul suffers a terrible fire and you, now a high schooler, participate in communal responsibility by joining with other members to help clean up the debris and begin facing the aftermath?

What about coming back here, having departed to points north and east for college and law school, to make your first siyum Shas Mishnayot, in this building?

Or when you agreed to serve as gabbai in the shul for the summer before you make aliyah (“It’s a segulah (good omen) for getting married,” was the salesman’s pitch…)?

Perhaps the process concludes upon your return from Israel a few years later with your new wife (segulah – indeed!), when you share sheva brachot with the community, right here in this sanctuary?

Or, does it happen when, having now spent more than half of your 51 years in Eretz Yisrael, you come back to Woodside Synagogue for perhaps the last time, and stand up here to perform the extremely difficult task of saying goodbye – of letting go?

[Totally crying now.]

In this week’s Torah reading, Moshe teaches us a valuable lesson about a different kind of letting go: giving up on an unachievable dream. While accepting reality and moving on is typically the mature approach in such a case, it’s not the way to go when it comes to making aliya, no matter how unrealistic this goal may then seem. At the Parsha’s outset, Moshe informs the people that, even though God had previously decreed he would not enter the Land (Bamidbar 20:12), ואתחנן, “I pleaded” – for a retraction. Despite the decree, Moshe made this request again and again, repeatedly imploring God to let him go into the Jewish homeland (Devarim 3:23-25) and only stopping when He explicitly commanded him to cease his pleas: אל תוסף דבר אלי עוד בדבר הזה (3:26).

This lesson has not been lost on my parents who, after 58-plus years of marriage — with aliyah as an ever-present, ultimate goal – are, in a few short months please God, finally going to actualize that aspiration.

And I will be thrilled to have them living around the corner from me, after a quarter-century separated by an ocean.

The primary cost: letting go of Woodside. Letting go of the house, the community, and the shul which our family has called home for half a century. This will likely not be easy for them when the time comes – and it is not easy for me today.

And yet, alongside the difficulties, there are consolations. Drawing on this week’s haftara opening, נחמו נחמו עמי, “Take comfort, take comfort, My people” (Isaiah 40:1) – or, in my case, “Take comfort, take comfort, Ami” – I do take comfort: comfort in the friendships and bonds which I forged here, which endure to this day, and which I will continue to cherish; comfort knowing that, even if I never physically step foot into this building ever again, I will be back here many times in the future in my thoughts and my memories; comfort in realizing what this place, and this community, mean to me: they will always be a critical part of who I am, representing the very foundation upon which everything I have become is based. As much as Jerusalem is home for me now – not just where I have lived for the last 26 years, but where I know I ought to be – in a meaningful way, Woodside will always be home as well.

[Bawling big time right here.]

The ability to live here and freely practice our faith, and to walk away from here on our terms, at a time and to a destination of our own choosing (our Homeland!) –with countless wonderful memories and so few negative ones in hand – is without doubt a privilege, one unfortunately not shared by many of our Diaspora brethren throughout history. It is precisely for this reason that I have such a tremendous sense of hakarat hatov, gratitude, towards the United States in general, and my childhood hometown in particular. This country, and the nation’s capital of which Silver Spring is a prime suburb, are certainly not without their faults, but for me this truly was a great place to grow up – and for that I am exceedingly grateful.

My gratitude extends even more deeply to the Woodside Synagogue community and its people: for the warmth, for the friendship, and for modeling what a community should be. This goes, first and foremost, to members of the shul’s remarkable founding generation, some of whose members, like my parents, are still here today. You were guiding lights to us as children and as we transformed into adults – personal examples of how to be both talmidei chachamim and successful professionals in the general society; how to step up and take on communal responsibility, simply because things needed to get done; how to be there for one another, in times of joy, of sorrow, and everything in between; and for so much more. Your example continues to influence us to this day. My gratitude also extends to the shul’s membership across the generations until now, who have preserved and deepened Woodside’s excellent reputation, under the outstanding leadership of rabbi emeritus Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz and Rabbi Moshe Walter.

Related, of course, is the gratitude I have to my parents – well, for so many things – but in this context, for having the foresight to join this community in the first place. In doing so, they tapped into a key skill of my late grandfather, Dr. Philip Wasserman z”l, whose yahrzeit is tonight. And we are fortunate to have two of his three daughters, my mother and my Aunt Sherry, here in this room today. The family legend goes that when asked, at a mere six years old, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” – my grandfather answered not “a doctor”, but “a pathologist” (!). Anticipating correctly, my grandfather spent more than 40 years as the Chief Pathologist at Cincinnati’s Jewish Hospital.

It is this type of foresight which is reflected, Ima and Abba, in your decision to choose this special community as a place to lay down your roots, to start and raise your family. And so, on a Shabbat when all but one of your offspring are here together with you in the place where you first planted your familial seeds, it is appropriate to conclude with a siyum of the Mishanyot for Seder Zeraim, The Order of Seeds.

Ima and Abba: I am so inspired by your determination! Uprooting your lives from the place you called home for five-plus decades to move halfway across the world – even to make aliyah – doesn’t go without saying at 80-plus! May Saba Phil’s memory be for a blessing, and in the merit of the Torah I learned studying Seder Zeraim, may God (among other good things) bless you both, and all of your offspring, with long life in good health and happiness, and the good fortune to reside in communities which live up to the ideals and example set by Woodside, this most wonderful community in which you had the foresight to bring us up. Next year in Jerusalem – for real!

[Eyes have run completely dry.]

About the Author
Ami Hordes lives with his wife and their four children in Jerusalem, where he gives a weekly class in Tanach to adults. He is a partner at S. Friedman, Abramson & Co. Law Offices, where he represents Start-up Nation investors and companies, in a corporate practice that focuses on equity and debt financings and M&A transactions.
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