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Address by Marc Becker
Chairman of the Board, Park Avenue Synagogue
Kol Nidrei 5779/2018
I am profoundly honored to be addressing you for the first time as Chairman of Park Avenue Synagogue. When I tell people outside of our Park Avenue Synagogue community about my new role as Chairman, the reaction has been fairly consistent: “Why would you possibly do this?” Or: “I didn’t realize you became so religious!”
So perhaps, the question for tonight is “Why am I standing in front of you? Lamah ani omed lifneikhem?” This question is multi-faceted, and the answer depends on which word you emphasize. I will start with “ani,” why am “I” standing in front of you?
I would not characterize myself as “religious” in the traditional sense. However, I am a proud Jew, deeply rooted in Jewish values, who has a strong sense of faith, and who believes in, loves and craves Jewish tradition. As I will share, Park Avenue Synagogue provides the perfect setting for me and the ideal foundation for all of us to develop and perpetuate our Jewish identity.
I grew up in your average Long Island Jewish family. We were members of the local Conservative synagogue, came for the High Holidays, maybe a service here and there, two Passover Seders, and Hebrew school mixed in with soccer practice. Despite my sporadic synagogue attendance, I always felt there was something special about being Jewish. A constant in our family was Shabbat dinner. While we might have eaten chicken in a butter sauce, our family having a Sabbath meal is ingrained in me. I can still visualize the dining room table, hear the prayers over the wine and challah and taste those Jewish memories. Our Friday nights made me proud to be Jewish. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was spot-on when he said, “while the Jews make Shabbat, it is Shabbat that makes the Jews.” I remember belting out the Four Questions at my Uncle Charlie’s seder and seeing the nachas on my grandparents’ faces. Traditions like these root all of us as Jews.
Upon entering my childhood shul, I was always enveloped by a sense of community. I vividly recall the volunteer minyan rotation to ensure all shivas were visited and mourners were able to recite kaddish. When it was the Beckers’ assigned week, I would go with my father each night. I remember feeling partially responsible for keeping traditions, feeling good that we supported each other.
Post-college, for Caryn and me, as for so many of our peers, work and social activities took precedence. When it came to Jewish life, our view of synagogue was stuck in the 80s. Fortunately, we joined Park Avenue Synagogue prior to having children, and it met us where we were. Now a family of five, the Beckers have been drawn into the heart and roots of this amazing community.
While so many religious and Jewish institutions are struggling to find their way, Park Avenue Synagogue is vibrant and thriving. We have remained focused on our mission to “inspire, educate, and support our membership towards living passion-filled Jewish lives through spirited prayer, study, observance and acts of kindness...” In all our initiatives, we strive for excellence, and our achievements have made us an innovative force in American Judaism, elevating Jewish community.
When I joined the board, Executive Director Beryl Chernov explained that Park Avenue Synagogue has another name, a Hebrew name–Agudat Yesharim, The Association of the Righteous. As an Officer over the past five years, I have been inspired by the members of our community, the people in the seats around you, who have stepped up to make us worthy of this designation.
Most of you may not be aware of Park Avenue Synagogue’s unsung heroes. Our volunteer Bikur Cholim committee makes countless home visits to our elderly members with kosher food and a smile. Last week they ensured that some of our homebound members were able to perform the mitzvah of hearing the shofar. Our Nechama volunteers make weekly shiva calls. Our B’rukhim Haba’im volunteers welcome babies to Park Avenue Synagogue with a call and a gift from our community. Our amazing teens run the Park Avenue Synagogue food pantry, feeding hundreds of local families in need. Caring for our community is one way we achieve excellence.
Our extraordinary clergy team led by Rabbi Cosgrove and Cantor Schwartz, along with Rabbis Zuckerman and Witkovsky and our newly installed Cantor Brook, lead with their hearts and their minds. They are at the forefront of our community’s tikkun olam efforts with visits to the sick in the hospital, comforting the bereaved, and giving solace to those who find themselves in a difficult spot. From the pulpit, they set the standard for engaging services, as reflected in our weekly increases in Shabbat attendance. Our clergy’s sermons and music are enjoyed by hundreds of thousands – here, across the street, and around the globe through our livestream, podcasts, and YouTube. Empathy and inspiring worship is another way we achieve excellence.
Under the leadership of Rabbi Savenor, we are setting new standards in Jewish education by taking learning beyond the classroom. Our members engage in study circles and book discussions in homes and offices. We travel around the globe to build Jewish community. This past year we brought a women’s group to Poland and a mix of teens and adults to Alabama to study civil rights through a Jewish lens. This coming December, we will embark on the largest congregational trip ever to Israel, going 470 strong. We opened our new Eli M. Black Lifelong Learning Center a year ago and are attracting world-renowned lecturers, resident scholars, in-house concerts, and of course housing our Congregational School with over 450 students, including our Matan program serving those with special needs. Being inclusive and educating our community, is yet another way we achieve excellence.
Our infrastructure needs to support the excellent programming happening inside and around it. Clearly evident this High Holiday season, we are in the process of reinventing our 87th Street building. I would be remiss not to thank you for your patience as we work through these short-term inconveniences so we can reopen the building a year from now. Our hard-working staff, led by Executive Director Beryl Chernov and Liz Offenbach, are excellent. They have kept pace with our growth, and throughout this transition they are making sure all our daily needs are met.
Our lay leadership is truly excellent – they dedicate countless hours purely for the love of our community. We have over fifty committees led by people who want to ensure we are indeed an Association of the Righteous. Our deep bench of leaders has enabled a smooth transition to our new Officer team, my partners: President Natalie Barth, along with Mark Hirsch, Lizzy Markus, Mark First, Nan Rubin, Craig Solomon, and Amy Steiner. We are excited to have been passed the baton. We all owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the outgoing Officers: President Paul Corwin, Andrea Baumann Lustig, Mel Schweitzer, Jeanie Rosensaft, and Heidi Silverstone. We are immensely grateful to our past Chairman and my good friend Art Penn, who is a role model, having served us tirelessly with distinction and honor. Art, your and Ilene’s selfless leadership has brought our community to a level we never thought we could achieve. We will all be the beneficiaries of this excellence for the decades to come.
So back to my initial question: Lamah ani omed lifneikhem? Why am I standing in front of you? We all share the same desire – for our families and future generations to perpetuate our Jewish traditions and values. I believe there is no finer place than Park Avenue Synagogue to accomplish this, and there is no Jewish institution that I would be more honored to lead.
The other question is lamah ani omed lifneikhem? Why am I standing in front of you?
On behalf of the leadership of our community, I would like to express our appreciation. We could never be The Association of the Righteous without your enormous generosity:
• Generosity of the time of hundreds of volunteers,
• Generosity of spirit with a bold confidence in our future, and of course,
• Generosity of financial support.
Our capital campaign, A Synagogue in Action: Building the Future has illustrated this generosity with an astounding 86% participation, having raised $86mm. This is enabling us to revitalize our 87th Street building and expand our footprint, not only with the addition of the Eli M. Black Lifelong Learning Center on 89th Street, but also with the recent purchase of the building adjacent to it. Thank you for your leadership and commitment to investing in our future and in the generations to come.
Synagogue dues represent only two-thirds of our annual expenses excluding schools. Each year, we depend on your continued generosity and financial support. Last year we raised a record $3mm from over 1,100 families, enabling us to balance our budget and remain breakeven. This reminds me of a story:
Irving, an rich old man, lay on his deathbed. He requested to be joined at his bedside by his rabbi, his lawyer and of course, his beloved synagogue chairman. Irving instructed them that when he finally passed away, he wished to be buried along with all his money. He gave each of them an envelope with $180,000 cash and asked them when he died, to throw the money he gave them on top of his coffin in the burial plot. Afterwards, the three all shook their heads in disbelief, each thinking, how much good could have been done with Irving’s money.
A couple of days later, Irving passed. At the shiva, the three were chatting and the rabbi was suddenly overcome with guilt. He confessed to the other two that he had only thrown in $170,000 from his envelope on top, and had put $10,000 into the tzedakah box. Irving’s lawyer thought, “What the heck, if we’re making confessions,” and she told the other two that she had thrown in only half of the money and had given the other half to the local hospital.
The chairman jumped up and said to the other two, “I think you both should be ashamed. We are projecting a budget deficit at the synagogue this year: I deposited the entire $180,000 cash into the synagogue bank account, and I gave Irving a check for the full amount!
So why do I stand in front of you? We are a thriving community. We are the Association of the Righteous, raising the bar to achieve excellence in every aspect of our institution, and doing our best to lead meaningful Jewish lives and elevating those around us. Our collective generosity is needed to enable this great work to continue at our Park Avenue Synagogue. As Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who is for me; and if I am (only) for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Gmar hatimah tova! May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of happiness, health, and prosperity, and may you be blessed with an abundance of Park Avenue Synagogue excellence.