A Message from Tom and Suzanne Sawyer, 2022 Super Tzedakah Week Co-Chairs

Adapted from remarks shared at Shabbat Services at several Berkshire congregations. Super Tezdakah Week is May 15 to May 21. 

My name is Tom Sawyer, and I am here today with my wife, Suzanne.  We live in Monterey and are members of Hevreh in Great Barrington. We thank you for allowing us to share Shabbat with all of you.

We are honored to represent the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires as this year's Super Tzedakah Week Chairs.  

I want to share with you a bit about how the Federation has impacted our Berkshire Jewish experience as an interfaith family and invite you to join Suzanne and me in supporting the vital programs and services of the Federation as they launch Community Campaign.2022 

Suzanne and I are Massachusetts natives and have lived in the Berkshires for 30-plus years. We lived and worked in Northern Berkshires when we met in the early 90s and moved to the Southern Berkshires when we were married.  Although Suzanne was very active in her Conservative synagogue growing up, organized religion was not much a part of our lives early on in our relationship.  We celebrated and participated in the traditions of the major holidays, but that was about it.  

As we started growing our family, making organized religion a part of our children's lives became more important.  In 2001, we joined Hevreh and put our children in its religious school.  We had decided early in our relationship that our family would be Jewish.  We also felt strongly that we wanted to be involved in all that our kids do. 

With that in mind, we decided not to just drop our kids off at religious school, but to hang around on most Sundays to be involved with what was going on.  We were quickly pulled into life at Hevreh, which included parent groups and various family activities.

Through our participation at Hevreh, we learned about PJ Library. This Federation-funded program sent our children monthly books about Jewish values and traditions and held programs where we could meet other parents. Those books were some of our children's favorites and provided a foundation of Jewish learning for both them and me.

Over the years, we learned more about the work of the Federation when our kids participated in decorating bags for Federation care packages for seniors, and we volunteered at various Federation events, including their annual concert. Our girls also had the incredible opportunity to attend a Jewish overnight camp with scholarship support from the Federation.  

Hevreh's religious school was an incredible place for our girls and contributed greatly to who they are as young Jewish women today. More than 35% of the religious school's budget at Hevreh and other congregations throughout the Berkshires is funded by the Federation through its annual community campaign

As someone new to Judaism, I felt I was learning and experiencing community building at its best with a family and community experience that I had not experienced before.

As we built stronger relationships with Hevreh, we also grew into leadership roles in the community, with Suzanne serving as president of Hevreh for four years and me serving as a current member of the Federation's Board of Directors. 

One of the most eye-opening experiences on the Federation board has been serving on the Allocations Committee, where I was able to participate in determining funding levels for the various beneficiaries of the Federation. 

The diversity of organizations we consider for funding is broad, and the discussion on how best to make an impact is serious and thoughtful. The allocations committee is where you see the Berkshire Jewish Community's values in action –caring for the most vulnerable, strengthening Jewish identity, building community, and saving lives across the Berkshires, in Israel, and around the world,

One experience that comes to mind when I think of the impact of Federation is when Shira, Suzanne, and I participated in Hevreh's 8th-grade family trip to Israel in 2020. This trip was partially funded by our Federation, which sponsors a partnership between the Berkshires and the Afula Gilboa region of Israel.

On one of the days, we traveled to the Afula Gilboa Youth Center. This center brings together Israeli and Palestinian youth in northern Israel near the West Bank and Jordanian border. The drive to the center was through a small village on dirt roads.  The thoughts in my head were of terrible news reports I had seen in the past in this area.  This was my first trip overseas, let alone to Israel.  I was out of my element and did not quite know what we were getting into.

 As we approached the youth center and parked among the scrub brush and stones, we could hear music outside the bus. An entire ensemble of drums and percussion instruments greeted us. The young people at the center enthusiastically greeted us and shared a wonderful meal.  We learned about one another, played games, and danced through the evening.  This special connection to Israel and its diversity was made possible in part by support from our Federation. 

As a non-Jewish partner, I feel strongly that Jewish activities in the broader community can help further understanding of the community as a whole as to what it means to be Jewish and break down stereotypes that unfortunately still exist in our society. Activities like the Federation's recent Chanukah celebration at the Mount and their annual Dignity Drive and Pajama Drive bring our community into partnership with non-Jewish organizations to support the broader community.

Similarly, the Federation's partnership with the Berkshire County Superintendents Round Table and funding the ADL's A World of Difference anti-bias training program in local middle and high schools impacts thousands of students and faculty across the Berkshires.

If you were to ask me, "are you Jewish," at this point in my life, I might pause a moment, but the answer would be yes, even though that is not the case according to Jewish law.  This is in part due to the experiences and opportunities that the Federation and Hevreh have provided our family over the past 22 years.

Federation kicks off its 2022 community fundraising campaign with Super Tzedakah Week on May 15-22. There are lots of ways you can make a difference.

First, Suzanne and I want to thank all of you who have supported Federation's important work in the past. We are grateful for your support's impact on our lives and the lives of so many others in our community and beyond.

I invite all of you to join Suzanne and me in making a meaningful gift to the Federation's 2022 Community campaign this year. Every donation counts, no matter its size. Your support is vital to continuing the programs and services the Federation supports for the Jewish community across the Berkshires and around the world. 

Second, please join us on Sunday, May 15, for Jewish Community day at High Lawn Farm. This day is a fun opportunity to be together and celebrate what it means to be a caring Jewish community. 

During this time Federation is also conducting its annual Dignity Drive and has partnered with locations across the Berkshires where you can donate packaged feminine hygiene and incontinence products.  

And finally, on May 17, Federation will host acclaimed author Anita Diamant for a conversation on Women's empowerment and Social Justice.

Thank you for this opportunity. We hope that you will join the effort to make our community and our world a better place for all.

Shabbat Shalom.