Chairman of the Board Art Penn Addresses the 135th Annual Meeting

Address to the 135th Annual Meeting

 Arthur Penn, Chairman of the Board
 May 16, 2017

As we come together for the 135th congregational meeting of Park Avenue Synagogue, I can definitely say that although our institution may be old in years, our lay and professional leadership are continuing to bring fresh perspective, hard work and excellence to our members throughout the year. As we end the fourth year of our term, the other Officers and I feel blessed to serve a vibrant community built on relationships and a passionate vision. We are partners with a gifted clergy, educational, and administrative team, and our members are kind and engaged.

Mordechai Kaplan said, “The past has a vote, but not a veto,” and as I look around the community, I am absolutely thrilled that we are living up to our leadership culture principle of “respecting tradition and embracing innovation.” Some of the innovation is occurring within our longstanding programming and some innovation is resulting in altogether new programming.

Services are the core of what we do here. The Sanctuary Task Force, with our clergy, has reimagined our Friday night and Saturday morning services, as well as reviewed our overall Shabbat programming. Shabbat programming has been robust this year, ranging from Youth Services, gatherings prior to Friday night services, Shabbat dinners; Window on Israel; traditional Shaharit and Parashah study; post-kiddush study sessions with visiting scholars; teen conversations with Rabbi Cosgrove and teen a cappella with Cantor Schwartz. Our services are lively, relevant, and moving. We encourage all of you to attend and make it a habit for you and your family as often as possible. The strength of our community is right there for you to see and feel, and we hope you will be part of it.

One of the most visible innovations this past year in services was the first-time High Holiday Family Service for families with children in Kindergarten through 7th grade. Families prayed together on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, with close to 300 participants on Yom Kippur. Last year’s experiment will become a tradition this year, and due to the increased participation, the family services will be held at the Brick Church at 92nd and Park, which can hold twice as many people.

Education is also at the core of our mission. In Adult Ed, we've had another robust year of engaging hundreds of learners in classes, lectures, Shabbat dinners, Shabbaton, and other learning activities. We have stimulating programs lined up for this summer and exciting new visioning for the Lifelong Learning Center as a venue for educational programs for all ages. Stay tuned for details.

Elsewhere in education, our Young Family Education team experimented and made progress with Shalom Shtayim, the twos program, Tot Tefillah, and camp. The Early Childhood Center initiated a collaborative rooftop garden with Tikkun Olam and continued Rainbow Time where the entire school comes together. We continue to innovate by enhancing our programs for two-year-olds with expanded days and times and extending programs to slightly younger twos.

Another new initiative is the Congregational School Visioning process that we undertook this year. With the support of a leading consultant and after extensive participation by the community, our team developed a renewed vision of the Congregational School in five key focus areas:

1. Enhancing core curriculum
2. Strengthening Hebrew reading to enable learners to be active participants in prayer services
3. Ensuring teacher excellence
4. Improving communications and clarifying expectations and
5. Transitioning to a K–12 model

We are looking forward to the implementation and success of this vision.

For teens, the year was highlighted by an increase in the number of engaged teens. Innovative programs included the February trip to LA, Senior Seminar with Rabbi Cosgrove, and Teen Appreciation Shabbat.

Travel education is another area of substantial innovation in the last few years. Travel Education started at Park Avenue Synagogue about 15 years ago and has grown continually because it deepens and broadens the bonds of our community. This past year included a successful trip to Prague and Budapest and the always popular Bnei Mitzvah trip to Israel in December. We are excited about our upcoming Young Family Israel trip with two full buses of young families heading to Israel next month. We have another two full buses going on the Women's Poland Trip in late October. A Civil Rights Mission to the South will travel in February, coinciding with both public and private school breaks. With a range of activities around historic and current civil and human rights struggles, the trip is planned to appeal to teens through adult learners. And finally, we announced a couple months ago the December 2018 Congregational Trip to Israel, celebrating Israel at 70 and PAS at 136! This trip will have multiple tracks that will appeal to all demographics including young families, bnei mitzvah, teens, college, young adults, and adults. Registration will open in the fall, just after the High Holidays.

Our Inclusion initiative is only a few years old and has quickly ingrained itself in our community as we strive to make our congregation a “house of prayer for all people.” Recently new initiatives have included Park Avenue PALs, Quiet Purim Carnival, Quiet Simhat Torah Service and Mitzvah Day Buddies.

Consistent with our theme of “meeting members where they are”, and being “inclusive while being true to our Conservative traditions”, we have formed an Interfaith Families Committee. This new initiative is a high priority. The Committee is working with our Adult Learning Department on a number of education initiatives, will be developing appropriate pathways to conversion, and will be studying best practices in serving the needs of interfaith couples and families.

Over the last few years, one of our most interesting new projects has been the digitization of the Shapiro Audio Archive. This initiative has increased awareness and utilization of these valuable historic recordings of great Jewish leaders and music on our website, through our Bulletin, in our programs, and in consultation with our educational team, in the curriculum in our schools.

The Caring Network has been an important element of our community for a long time. I would like to highlight it as well as a new initiative within the Caring Network. Our Caring Network consists of Nechama (which comforts the bereaved), B’rukhim Haba’im (which welcomes new babies), and Bikur Cholim, (which comforts and supports those will serious illness or injury) Susan Lincoln, of blessed memory, together with Leah Modlin, started Bikur Cholim over 20 years ago. There are many Bikur Cholim volunteers who care for our most vulnerable congregants. Their good works are a highlight of the best that our community can be, and yet they seldom seek recognition. These selfless volunteers do truly righteous work through their visits and meal deliveries. After many years of service to our community, Leah has decided to step down. Thank you, Leah, for your many years of compassionate caring.

Within the Caring Network we have a new initiative called “What Matters.” This program sets up individualized advance care planning discussions for members of our community. These are Jewish values based conversations. You will hear more about this initiative during the coming months.

Every other area of synagogue life is bringing vibrancy, innovation, and member engagement to their activities including the three arms – Men’s Club, Women’s Network, and Young Couple’s Group – as well as the Membership Committee, the Jewish Camping Committee, College Connections, Tikkun Olam, Mitzvah Day, JTS@PAS and UJA@PAS.

Lastly, in the category of longtime activities where we've recently innovated, I want to highlight fundraising. We are so appreciative and proud of the generosity of our community! The ingenuity and dedication of our professional and lay fundraising team have resulted in our fundraising continuing to reach new heights even during a once-in-a-generation capital campaign. This year, our Kol Nidrei appeal generated a record $2.9 million from 1,100 families. Our Gala focused on our community, with the innovative theme “cheers to 13 years of galas.” Over 300 people attended as we celebrated all former gala honorees and everyone who had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at PAS. It was a warm, fun evening which generated over $330,000 after expenses to support our synagogue. With regard to the capital campaign, we have made it a priority to have as wide participation as possible. Our innovative Chai Hopes matching challenge has been a big success with about 170 gifts received so far. We have extended the deadline to be a part of Chai Hopes to June 18 with the goal of obtaining another 180 donors.

Now we turn to our people, those who create the innovation.

I'm reminded of a story. Benjamin woke up one Saturday morning in a bad mood. When he came down to breakfast, he put on his yarmulke and sat across the table from his visiting sister, Sarah. “I’m not going to shul today!” he said to Sarah emphatically.

“Yes, you are,” Sarah replied calmly.

“No, I’m not! I really think I don’t want to go ever again!” Benjamin said with irritation. “The people there don’t like me, they ignore me sometimes, they don’t appreciate me at all, and I won’t go back.”

“Yes, you will go today, and you will continue,” said Sarah with confidence. “And I’ll give you two reasons: Number 1, you’re 45 years old, and number 2, you’re the rabbi!”

That is not the issue here at Park Avenue Synagogue, where we truly appreciate and highly value all the excellence and innovation that our clergy, educators and administrative team bring to our community. Rabbi Cosgrove, thank you for your inspiring rabbinical leadership and innovative vision of Jewish life and learning. Rabbi Zuckerman, thank you for your leadership and for being so approachable. Rabbi Witkovsky, thank you for your enthusiastic outreach to multiple groups within our synagogue.

Cantor Schwartz, we appreciate your cantorial leadership. Your new ideas and fresh music have created a leading center of Jewish music that seems to get better and better all the time. Cantor Lissek, thank you for your cantorial excellence, your beautiful voice, and your warm presence. Cantor Brook, thank you for so capably inaugurating the role of Cantorial Fellow. Thank you to Charlie Savenor, Pamela Schwartz, Jennifer Stern Granowitz, Jamie Diamond, Hallie Chandler, and Beth Levick for continuually improving and innovating our educational offerings. Beryl Chernov, thank you for keeping this increasingly complex organization running so smoothly. Thank you to Liz Offenbach, Geet Engel, Laura Yamner, Rachel Benichak, Marga Hirsch, Jason Santos, and Lawrence Conley for being the backbone of the organization. Thank you to all the educators and staff who provide so much value to our community every day.

With great appreciation, we say good bye to some important leaders who are leaving Park Avenue Synagogue.

We thank Eliana Light for the past three years as our Director of Music Education and wish her the best as she moves to another institution.

We wish the best to Margie Morse, our Early Childhood Center Admissions and Exmissions Coordinator, as she moves on, and we thank her for her many years of service.

We wish the best for the future to our Ritual Director Abe Lebovic  and hope to see him here often. Thank you, Abe, for your service over the years.

We wish our Shabbat usher Mark Fraier well in his retirement, and we thank him for his many years of service. Mark has provided us with crisply coordinated services, appropriately soft hands, and a warm heart, serving as a real-life role model of our goal always to provide a warm and welcoming entry to our community. We hope that we see Mark here often in the years ahead.

Thank you to Josh Jacobs, our Congregational School Assistant Director for the last two years, and best wishes to Josh for his future endeavors.

And finally, we thank Bryan Wexler for his outstanding work as our Rabbinical Intern. We wish him mazal tov on his ordination and great success as he moves to his next congregation.

One of the most impactful innovations in our community at this point is our once-in-a-generation space project and capital campaign, A Synagogue in Action: Building the Future. Our new Lifelong Learning Center on 89th street will open in September. We are planning a memorable dedication that will launch the first phase of our expanded, state-of-the-art campus. This special event will take place on Sunday, September 10 from 4:00 to 6:00 pm. It will be a festive, multi-generational block party; the entire congregation is invited. The afternoon program will be preceded by guided group tours that day from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm by reservation, and ongoing guided group tours during the weeks to follow. There will be musical entertainment, refreshments, something to engage everyone. We will unveil the building, dedicate the mezuzah, and present Torah scrolls for the new chapel. We'll have special speakers and new music, an exciting role for the children in our community, and a sheheheyanu moment that we will all cherish. Please mark your calendars and save the date: Sunday, September 10 at 4:00 pm.

The opening of our new building on 89th Street will mark the completion of the first stage of our vision for an expanded campus and launch the next phase of activity focused on the renovation of our 87th Street building. During the renovation of 87th Street, our Sanctuary will remain open and functioning for worship services. The 87th Street phase of the project will include a comprehensive revitalization and reconfiguration of our classrooms, offices, and special event spaces.

To accomplish this plan most efficiently, cost effectively, and appropriately during the shortest period of time possible, we are delighted to announce that we are entering into an agreement with the owners of the school at 4 East 90th Street, which will become the temporary home for the staff, clergy, and our Early Childhood Center during the anticipated period of construction, starting in June 2018 and continuing through August 2019.

We are incredibly fortunate that this building is conveniently situated directly behind and adjacent to our Lifelong Learning Center. It will enable us to house our Early Childhood Center as well as all our clergy and staff offices and meeting rooms all in one place. It has the added benefits of a large gymnasium and a beautiful library. We believe that this temporary space, in combination with our new Lifelong Learning Center, will be the ideal setting for our programs and activities to continue while we proceed with the 87th Street renovation.

In addition, this move does not increase the project timetable but rather shortens the overall time of construction and disruption while maintaining our original target completion date. Our Congregational School team will move to our new Lifelong Learning Center this summer, and the remaining staff, clergy offices, and events will move to 90th Street in late May 2018 upon completion of the 2017-2018 school year. We will remain there for approximately 15 months through the end of summer 2019, and the transition back to the newly renovated 87th Street building will coincide with the opening of schools and the High Holidays in the fall of 2019, as laid out in our original timetable. During this anticipated 15-month period of displacement, we will offer weekly Shabbat Kiddush at 90th Street following Sanctuary Shabbat morning services. We are in the process of securing an offsite venue for the 2018 Lower Level High Holiday services.

Our goal is to complete this project in a fiscally responsible manner while maintaining the integrity of our community throughout this short-term period of dislocation. It is our hope that these arrangements will sustain the excellence of all of our programs and activities.

This is the time each year when we announce our Simhat Torah honorees. The honorees are chosen based on their longterm, enormous contributions to our community. Our honorees this year have both brought significant innovation to our community in different areas. Simhat Torah is on October 13, and I'm thrilled to announce that our Kallat B’reishit will be Pauline Zablow and our Hatan Torah will be Craig Solomon. Mazal tov to Pauline and Craig!

In closing, I want to thank all of the lay leaders who put their time, talent, and fresh pairs of eyes into making this community what it is and always asking how we can improve. I'm honored to be partnered with the most talented group of Officers I can imagine; our President, Paul Corwin, and Officers, Heidi Silverstone, Mel Schweitzer, Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Andrea Baumann Lustig, Marc Becker, and Natalie Barth. Thank you to our outstanding Board of Trustees and Advisory Council who have been involved in all the areas that I mentioned today and more. Thank you to all of the volunteers who work on each committee, parent association, task force, and special events. You have all done meaningful, important, and innovative work this year! Our leadership culture says that we should “enjoy the opportunity, have a positive attitude and have fun!” I can state with certainty that I believe that our lay and staff leadership is living up to that principle.

In all that we do – above all else – our focus remains on the Park Avenue Synagogue culture of one-on-one connection, caring, kindness, and warmth that we have modeled for 135 years. We strive to provide a welcoming entry into our community, meet people where they are, and assist them on their Jewish journey. The other Officers and I enthusiastically look forward to continuing to serve for another 12 months as all of us – lay leaders, clergy, staff, and members together – strive to enhance Park Avenue Synagogue's unique position in our lives as a Kehillah Kedoshah, a sacred community.