Annual Speech to the Congregation

At our annual congregational meetings I think it is worthwhile to reiterate basic principles before reviewing the nearly complete year and discussing plans for the upcoming year. It remains our mission to be a spiritual, intellectual, and cultural center for our membership, offering worship experiences that appeal to mind, heart, and soul; offering support at all life cycle events; providing meaningful education to members of all ages; offering programs which foster friendship, warmth, and kindness inside this building; and providing connections to the Jewish community in New York and in Israel as well as to people of other faiths.

This year began and to an extent will end with two words: air conditioning. As we began to mark the solemn day of Tisha B’Av last summer, the air conditioning failed in the sanctuary; members had to endure a hot and humid, but dignified service. Thanks to the work of our Executive Director, Beryl Chernov, and our Facilities Director, John Davis, we were able to restore air conditioning in time for High Holy Day services, but not without emergency backup support in the form of auxiliary air conditioning parked on 87th Street for all to see. This story will end later this month when the first phase of an air conditioning upgrade for the sanctuary will occur, with the remainder scheduled for the next fiscal year.

My remarks on Kol Nidre night can be summarized with the word Ayekah, “Where are you?” I asked where congregants were in relation to this institution and set out our priorities for the year. I suggested that our goals for the year were to continue to examine ways to make the sanctuary experience more participatory and engaging for members across a wide spectrum of familiarity with Hebrew and with the prayer service itself. While I thought we had made much progress in lifelong learning lectures, courses, visiting speakers and connections to Israel, we were aware of the challenges in contemporary supplementary education and would seek to address these during the year. I suggested that we expand efforts to connect with the broader Jewish community and to strengthen relationships with Jewish organizations that have had an important bond to Park Avenue Synagogue, such as JTS and UJA. We planned to continue to extend our connection to the greater New York community and to people of all faiths. And, of course, I asked for support for our aging facilities including the air conditioning.

Our High Holiday and Festival services were memorable. In addition to Rabbi Cosgrove’s stirring words and Cantor Abramson’s comforting voice, we witnessed Rabbi Rein’s wonderful development as a rabbi and had the distinct pleasure of listening to Cantor Azi Schwartz and Cantor Elana Rozenfeld, who expressed the splendor of our faith in prayer and in song during the High Holy Days and throughout the year. Thank you all for a wonderful year. More on Cantors Abramson, Rozenfeld, and Schwartz later.

To help expand our educational initiatives, we welcomed Rabbi Neil Zuckerman in July in the newly created position of Director of Congregational Education. His charge was to re-imagine congregational school education as well as to ensure that learning and programming for all ages thrive at PAS. Rabbi Zuckerman’s first and probably most important task was to make education for our youth engaging and purposeful, providing a meaningful Jewish educational experience while recognizing and balancing the constraints imposed by secular school and extracurricular activities. Over the past year we have redesigned our Congregational School experience and have recruited a new educational leader, Rabbi Eve Rudin. I am very excited about the opportunities we will offer our students next year.

Thank you, Rabbi Zuckerman, for a fabulous first year. The Florence Melton Adult Mini-School continued for a second year with full classes. Class members and other adult learners will travel to Israel later this month. Our Shabbat dinner series and our Shabbat guest speakers programs were successful both in the breadth of subject matters covered and the attendance at each. Speakers included Rabbi David Saperstein; Ruth Messinger; Ido Aharoni, Acting Consul General of Israel; Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Diamond; Noam Zion; and Dr. Susannah Heschel. The centerpiece of our adult learning was, of course, the Shabbaton, entitled “Building Interfaith Dialogue in a Multi-Religious America: Challenges and Opportunities” and featuring guests Dr. Hussein Rashid, Rabbi Dr. Reuven Firestone, and Dr. Diana Eck. I extend my special thanks to our Director of Community Programming, Rabbi Julia Andelman, for her hard work in coordinating all of these programs as well as our Midtown Lunch and Learn series and other classes and events.

We extended a welcome to the community around us by having a pre-Shabbaton introduction to Christianity and Islam taught by Rabbi Michael Paley of UJA, and we built on the Shabbaton experience by hosting local leaders of the Christian and Islamic faiths. Our connection to the greater Jewish community and Israel began by welcoming Ambassador Michael Oren to speak to a full sanctuary on the major issues confronting Israel, demonstrating that it is possible to have members attend services three consecutive days for Rosh Hashanah followed by Shabbat with the Ambassador. We welcomed JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen again for a thoughtful Seminary Shabbat, and joined other Conservative synagogues to celebrate our relationship with JTS at its annual Garden party. We are not yet done. This Shabbat we will build on the connection between PAS and UJA as we welcome Jerry Silverman, President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America.

This year saw a new emphasis at Park Avenue Synagogue on Social Action and Social Justice. Our annual Mitzvah Day in the fall was not a stand-alone event, but a kick-off to a year of “Mitzvot of the Month.” Congregants of all ages had opportunities to serve the needy of the Jewish community and the wider community. Children in our Tavim Youth Choir provided holiday entertainment at Jewish Home Lifecare; teens rode along on a “Midnight Run” bringing clothes, food, and conversation to the homeless on the streets; adults spent a day with Habitat for Humanity. We look forward to continuing these initiatives in the future.

We continue to connect with Israel, through two trips to Israel; an extremely well-attended six-part lecture series by Dr. Kenneth Stein; our Yom HaAtzma'ut Fair just two days ago, and our planned participation in the Celebrate Israel Parade on June 5th.

Equally important, we have had community events to just enjoy each other's company or move the spirit. Our Cantors not only graced the bimah each Shabbat and Festival, but also treated us to a Cantors Concert entitled “My Favorite Things,” singing to a packed sanctuary. We will hear their voices once again at the annual Musicale on May 22. The Purim Spiel was a rousing event in good fun and cheer and not only because Rabbi Cosgrove, dressed in his 50’s best, and I in my royal crown had such a good time between the chapters of the Megillah. The Gala was the social and financial highlight of the season, celebrating our extraordinary members Susan and David Edelstein. The night was magical for all in attendance as we danced together the entire evening and set a new record for contributions to our community. Please save the evening of March 3, 2012, when we will honor members to be named in the fall. Not to forget, the ECC annual gala was equally spectacular as is the young generation of PAS members.

As Art Penn will explain, our synagogue remains financially strong and vital, but we continue to rely on the generosity of our membership to prosper over the foreseeable future especially in view of the capital requirements to maintain our facilities and offer world class clergy and programming to all.

Last summer we unveiled a new website which has been upgraded throughout the year, allowing members to connect with PAS more efficiently, sign up for programs, read sermons and next year, listen to our Cantors’ music. Lawrence Conley, thanks for your vigilance in maintaining the site, and Beryl, thank you for taking this on as well as all of the other projects that you oversee.

Back to the sanctuary, where we began the year when Rabbi Cosgrove gave a timeless and inspired sermon, “Why I am A Jew,” which set the tone and the intellectual and emotional bar for all sermons here. He related the multiple connections to his faith – that Judaism provides ways to make life sacred and meaningful, treating all of humanity with dignity, being part of the greatest book club ever created, being part of the grandest narrative of all people which long preceded him and will long endure, giving him a voice to have faith in God and to have special moments with his family, friends, and community. His sermon was based on a teaching from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers; that any love that is contingent on only one thing will not last. A Judaism built on any of these “one things” alone will not hold. Just as Rabbi Cosgrove explained that that his faith was based on his multiple connections to Judaism, we endeavor at Park Avenue Synagogue to provide multiple connections to the community to create lasting relationships.

We try at each service to provide authentic Judaism, appealing to our members both intellectually and spiritually. Each Shabbat Rabbi Cosgrove and Rabbi Rein gave sermons which challenged us and made us consider new ways of examining our sacred texts, relating them to the weekly parasha and world around us. The Cosgroves’ good friends the Goldsteins made appearances from time to time; I expect to hear of their humorous adventures in the future. Each and every one of our B'nei Mitzvah students was outstanding and created treasured memories for us, for themselves and for their families. Thanks to the work of Cantor Rozenfeld and Menachem Rosensaft we held a multi-generational Holocaust service, which touched the heart and mind of a full sanctuary on May 1. In what I anticipate will be a memorable Shabbat on June 11, we will call up to the Torah thirteen adult women who will celebrate their B’not Mitzvah.

We have marked the passing of far too many members of our community over the past year, but in the spirit of the continuity of Jewish life, we have also celebrated many births and weddings along the way, including the birth of a beautiful baby girl to our own Rima and Beryl Chernov. We mourn each of those we lost, but I want to make special mention of Lynn Schneider who, as did her mom, lived for this community.

I would like to sincerely thank all of the volunteers whose work makes this community so vibrant. The effort, enthusiasm, and care that so many of you bring into this building is remarkable. Thank you all. From the dedicated volunteers of the Arms and the Singles Committee (which is not technically an Arm), to the Advisory Council to the Officers and Board, your work, spirit and enthusiasm inspires the clergy, the administrative staff, and me to all do our best. At Simhat Torah we honored Jeanie Rosensaft and Jason Dolinsky for their dedicated service to the PAS community. We look forward to honoring Marcia Stone and Jim Rosenfeld next year. At this time, I would especially like to recognize the special committee, led by Susan Silverman, who helped re-imagine our Congregational School with Rabbi Zuckerman and then morphed into a search committee to find a lead educator. I would also like to thank the members of our Cantorial search committee led by Brian Lustbader. After working tirelessly for three years, they actually celebrated the dissolution of their committee, until Cantor Abramson decided to pursue her dreams at JTS.

I welcome the new leadership to the Board, Advisory Council, and Arms. I’d also like to express my deepest appreciation to Susan Edelstein, James Druckman, Freema Gluck Nagler, Dr. Alain Roizen, and Jonathan Sobel and to Jen Feldman and Anita Gluck whose terms as Board members and Advisory Council members, respectively, expire this year. I hope they all remain active in Synagogue life. We will always leave the light on for each of you. I invite each of you up here to accept a token of our appreciation for your efforts. The new Board and Advisory Council members about to be inducted have big shoes to fill.

I extend my sincerest appreciation to the clergy – Rabbi Cosgrove, Rabbi Rein, Cantors Abramson, Rozenfeld, and Schwartz – for all of their inspiring work; to the educators – Rabbi Neil Zuckerman, Rabbi Julia Andelman, Carol Hendin, Ron Koas, Jason Oppenheimer, Matt Check and Marga Hirsch – for fulfilling all of our members’ desires to learn. I also thank Beryl Chernov; Jonathan Schlesinger and the staff of the financial office; Craig Demarest, Sam Rosenberg, Lawrence Conley, Mark Fraier, John Davis and his staff; and all of the main office staff and administrative assistants throughout the building for all of their efforts this year in making this synagogue come alive each and every day.

While our work will continue to deliver on the mission described earlier in my remarks, we sadly wish farewell to several individuals who have contributed mightily to our community – Cantor Nancy Abramson, Cantor Elana Rozenfeld, Ron Koas, and Rabbi Julia Andelman.

As I wrote to the community, we will miss Cantor Nancy dearly. She has been an integral part of our community since her arrival in 1997. Her deep connections to our community extend across all members and age groups. Her special ability to relate to this wide audience with her friendly, warm, and encouraging demeanor helped create meaningful relationships which have made every member of Park Avenue Synagogue always feel at home. Please join us on Monday evening, June 13, to celebrate Nancy’s 14 years with us.

Cantor Rozenfeld: There is not a person in this community who does not appreciate your voice, your smile, and your warmth. Make us proud as you lead a congregation in Massachusetts. Everyone is invited to honor Cantor Rozenfeld on the evening of Shavuot on June 7 at evening services and at a special learning session afterwards.

Ron: Thank you for the leadership of the Congregational School, which has touched the lives of our young people; we wish you our best as you go forth from here to lead a Hebrew day school in Syracuse.

Finally, thank you, Rabbi Andelman, for helping us create two years of outstanding adult learning, social action projects and programming.

We welcome Rabbi Eve Rudin to take on the role of Lead Educator in our inspiring new Congregational School program and expect great things. We also welcome Liz Offenbach as Director of Synagogue Programing to bring all of our programing ideas to life. Finally, we welcome Shiree Kidron as Assistant Cantor. Based on what our community heard last Shabbat as a “coming attraction” with Cantor Schwartz and you on the Bimah, our tradition of inspiring music will live on.

It gives me enormous pleasure to welcome Cantor Azi Schwartz to lead this community in music and prayer next year. On behalf of the Board, the Search Committee, and the entire membership, we are so thrilled that Noa, your two boys, and you will join this community in the summer. Expectations are high, but I know you will exceed all of them. On a personal basis, I thank you for accepting our offer to become this community’s music director and thank you for allowing me not to hear from congregants next year, “Steve, you know the Cantor you hired has a nice voice, but he or she is no Azi.”

Before I finish, I want to thank all of you here tonight for all of the good wishes and support you have given all year to the clergy led by Rabbi Cosgrove, the administrative staff led by Beryl Chernov, the educational staff led by Rabbi Zuckerman, to your Officers, Board and to me personally. I assure you all that everyone takes his or her role with absolute determination to make this synagogue a shining institution in the Jewish world. I also thank again all of the volunteers among you who make this community so vibrant, working together with spirit, joy and purpose. I hope we will meet the challenges of our era and fulfill all of your dreams for this wonderful community. I promise you, as I did last year, that we will certainly try our best.

None of this would be possible without the energy, desire, intellect, pastoral skills, and sense of humor and passion of Rabbi Cosgrove. It gives me no greater pleasure to work beside him in this noble cause. As I said on one occasion this year, there is not one seat in this region – at The Meadowlands, Yankee Stadium, any Broadway theater or Lincoln Center – that I would rather have than the seat next to you on the Bimah in our sanctuary on each Shabbat and Festival. Thank you, Rabbi Cosgrove, for all that you do for the PAS community and the greater Jewish community.

We will continue with remarks from Rabbi Cosgrove; presentation of the budget; the nominations and inductions for Trustees, Advisory Council members, and Arms. At the conclusion of the formal part of the meeting, we will entertain questions. I wish everyone a relaxing summer and hopefully we will not be talking about air conditioning next year.

Thank you.