Dear Stephen Wise family,
That word “family” says it all. One beautiful October day in 2001, I walked through Stephen Wise Free Synagogue’s big double doors and my life changed forever because I met you. How contrived is that? But it’s true!
Twenty years of memories — how do I even begin to put that down on paper? I’ve had the great privilege of working alongside and learning from some of the most amazing clergy and staff. And you, our members… I’m glad this is a letter and not a speech, because this is the part where I’d start crying.
Over these past 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet hundreds of households and welcome them into this big family, this extraordinarily caring community that became my second home. I got to watch over you as you and your loved ones embraced, explored and practiced Judaism: as your kids grew up and became b’nai mitzvah and got married and started families of their own; as you celebrated together and as you mourned together. What an honor it’s been.
Oh boy, did we have a wild time together! I took hundreds of you to Israel and Europe. I think we traveled something like 3,000 miles on a bus one year, passing through five countries. And I didn’t even lose any of you — at least not permanently! No mission was ever the same (that’s why some of you went back four or five times) and I got to experience the Jewish homeland for the first time again and again through your and your children’s eyes. Then I got to see you come home to New York wiser, steeped in your religion and history and with so many new and lasting friendships.
Don’t get me wrong: It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. You people sure do have high expectations! But rising to meet them was the most rewarding challenge. And you know what? Often when you asked the most of me, you weren’t asking for yourselves, but, rather, on behalf of someone else or for the greater community. Usually, you were trying to figure out how you could give of your time or your talents or your money to make the largest impact. By helping you, by giving you the care and attention you deserved, I was fulfilled and all of us grew stronger.
This last year was a really tough one. But the way my colleagues rose to the occasion and the way you all pulled together to help each other makes me so proud to be a member of this community. At Stephen Wise, we may not be curing cancer, but I like to think we’ve done some good and important work. I hope that during my time here I touched your life in some way, that I influenced your Jewish journey for the better and made you feel as at home here as you’ve made me feel. Now, as we emerge from this pandemic and begin to rebuild, it’s time for me to make a change.
It is so hard to say goodbye. It makes me think about everything I had here and won’t have anymore. But then I realize that that’s ridiculous! I’m not losing this family at all; I’m just embarking on a new chapter in my life: I’ll be spending more time with my “real” family — with my husband and my kids and my grandkids — and less time running around this place putting out fires (sometimes literally).
So it’s not even really “goodbye,” but “see ya later!” Next time I find myself in our sanctuary, I’ll try to remember that directing traffic isn’t my job anymore — and I’ll be comforted by the knowledge that you’ll still be in excellent hands.
Donna Levine retired this summer after 20 years handling membership engagement, special events and travel at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.