Chairman of the Board Art Penn Addresses the 136th Annual Meeting

Address to the Annual Meeting of Park Avenue Synagogue
Art Penn, Chairman of the Board of Trustees
May 14, 2018

Just a few minutes ago the current Officer team met with the incoming Officers for a l’chaim, toasting them, congratulating them, and thanking them for taking on the responsibility for this synagogue community. This tradition was started five years ago just prior to our congregational meeting in May 2013 by our Chairman Steve Friedman, who along with President Brian Lustbader and Officers Marcia Colvin, Rachael First, Marlene Muskin, and Howard Rubin, toasted the current Officer team. Steve’s comments were classic Steve. He had just a few words of advice and perhaps admonition. He said, “Don’t mess it up.”

I knew it was a big responsibility. Although I had been an Officer for five years at that point, I knew that there was more for me to learn and experience and I knew that this community is extraordinarily wonderful and also complex.

With the words “don’t mess it up” ringing in my ears, I spent the next couple of months working with the other Officers on the leadership transition. The more time I spent with Paul Corwin, Heidi Silverstone, Mel Schweitzer, Jeanie Rosensaft, Andrea Baumann Lustig, Marc Becker, and Natalie Barth, the more I became convinced that we, as a team working together, would not mess it up and perhaps, could help take this community forward.

Our first official Officer meeting was in July 2013. We organized another l’chaim at the start of that meeting with some of the senior staff including the clergy.

Now you know all the drinking that comes with being an Officer!

At that point, having developed a game plan for how we would operate, it was my turn to speak. I quoted the Greek physicist Archimedes who said, “With a firm spot to stand and a lever long enough, you can move the world.” To me, the firm spot was the strong congregation that our predecessors had handed us, and the lever was all the lay leaders, staff, and members of Park Avenue Synagogue who wanted the best for our community. By having the Officers, the Board, clergy, educators, administrators, and members own this enterprise together, we might be able to leverage ourselves to moving the world, our world, just a bit.

Now, I was not the first person to discover delegation, leverage, and teamwork, and Archimedes wasn’t either. In parashat Yitro, Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, told Moses that he needed to delegate responsibility to other people.

As I am coming to end of my five-year term as synagogue Chairman, I can clearly see that together we have accomplished much. We have left our community well set to take advantage of opportunities in the future, and I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to serve our members and to get to know many of you.

The Officers had some primary areas for focus as we started our term about five years ago. The focus at the beginning was on the three S’s, which five years ago stood for services, space and searches. Services and space priorities continued as priorities throughout our term. That third S initially stood for searches because we needed to find some senior professionals to fill gaps in our team. After the searches were complete, that third S stood for different efforts depending on what the priority was at the time. We used the S’s to highlight our priorities over the term which were services, space, searching for talent, staff development, strengthening our community, and seeding new initiatives. So in total, we actually had six S’s over time.

With regard to services, it’s the core of what we do. The clergy and the Sanctuary Task Force have reimagined and wonderfully executed our entire Shabbat experience. Friday night has become a highlight of the week. Our Friday night services are full of life, family-friendly, musical, and relaxed. We draw a strong crowd every week and are attracting more people all the time. Shabbat morning services have become even more engaging and there are multiple gateways to involvement throughout the day.

With the addition of our Fifth Avenue venue, we now comfortably offer High Holiday seats to all of our members seats, including over 1,000 people at Fifth Avenue, many of whom did not have High Holiday seats for decades. We have also added High Holiday family services for the past two years, allowing parents with young children to sit and pray together. About 500 people attended each of these family services these past High Holidays.

Five years ago at this time we had just started our space exploration project by evaluating our needs. At that time, we had not touched our physical facility in over 33 years. That evaluation made clear that the vibrancy of our community was not reflected in our physical plant and resulted in our space bursting at the seams.

Only four years ago at this time, our exploration led us to conclude that we needed more and better space. In the last four years, we purchased and fully renovated a building on 89th Street, which is the new Eli M. Black Lifelong Learning Center. As we speak, we are just starting to renovate our main building on 87th Street, which should be ready for occupancy in the fall of 2019.

We are also about to close on purchasing a building on 89th Street directly adjacent to the Eli M. Black Lifelong Learning Center, which has been the headquarters of the Road Runners Club. The community will have the long-term opportunity to utilize that building in the years ahead.

To enable us to do this, we executed a highly successful major capital campaign supported by over 82% of our members. Never before in our 136-year history have so many members come together to support the synagogue. One thousand, three hundred, and fifty-five member families financially supported the vision of a vibrant community and campus, which resulted in our raising $86 million. These numbers – 82% member participation raising $86 million – are truly extraordinary.

The next 15 months will be ones of physical transition. The sanctuary will remain open during the regular season, while our staff will be operating out of our Lifelong Learning Center and the school building on 90th Street directly behind the Lifelong Learning Center. In a few months, our lower level High Holiday services will be held at St. James Church at 71st and Madison.

Five years ago the third S was for searches. We had decided that we needed three rabbis to properly serve our thriving community, so we needed to hire two more. We also needed to hire a Director of Congregational Education as well as a Director of the Early Childhood Center. Those first nine months were extremely productive from a recruiting standpoint, resulting in Rabbis Zuckerman and Witkovsky joining Rabbi Cosgrove on our rabbinical team and Rabbi Savenor and Pamela Schwartz joining our education team.

The investment that we had been making over the years in the top rabbinical, cantorial, and educational talent had resulted in significantly increased member engagement. This engagement required us to invest in the administrative area to provide better customer service for our members. Joining Beryl Chernov in Administration, Liz Offenbach strengthened the team by becoming Associate Executive Director. The administrative team has also been bolstered by Geet Engel as Director of Finance, Laura Yamner as Director of Development, Rachel Zorbaron as Director of Membership, and David Perry as Director of Operations.

After the searches and hires, then came the next S, staff development. We have dramatically increased our focus on the development of our team. Annual evaluations for our staff have helped determine aspirational goals as well as create a forum for constructive feedback. We have spent significant time and resources mentoring and coaching members of our professional team. As a result of these efforts, over the last few years we have seen substantial improvement in the quality of leadership and teamwork among the professional staff. Thank you to so many members of the professional team for putting in the effort and focus to continuously improve. Developing and investing in our professional and lay leadership team has been one of the most gratifying aspects of what we do. The development of staff is likely to remain a top priority into the future.

S also stood, at times, for strengthening our community. We are extremely proud of the strides we’ve taken in our programming and Adult Education area. From the Shabbaton to Melton to the Friday night speaker series to music, there are many options to learn, to meet, and to enjoy community. Most recently, we seeded new initiatives in Study Circles and book discussions.

One of the crown jewels of our education program is our thriving travel education effort, which has taken members to Israel, to Poland, to Germany, to Czech Republic, to Hungary and to the US South. Immersive travel education has proven to be a compelling way to travel, to learn, and to build community. Our congregational trip to Israel this December celebrating Israel at 70 and Park Avenue Synagogue at 136 is likely to be a generational highlight. Our nearly 500-member contingent will be taking Israel by storm and is perhaps the largest synagogue trip to Israel ever!

Also part of strengthening our community and seeding new initiatives are our efforts over the last five years in inclusion and interfaith initiatives, which help open the portals of entry into our community and into Judaism. With regard to inclusion, we will be honoring Lisa Grinberg on Simhat Torah as our Kallat B’reishit, recognizing all of her work helping to start our inclusion efforts and changing our culture.

Our schools continue to thrive. From Young Family Education to the ECC, from the Congregational School to the Teen program, we continue to help create Jewish families. Our Arms – Young Couples Group, Men’s Club and Women’s Network – create additional entryways into Park Avenue Synagogue.

As we look at all of the S’s over the last five years, we should feel proud of our progress.

What about the future? As I said in my Kol Nidrei speech, it will be up to our talented and committed group of new Officers [listed below] to lead us. I do want to touch on some areas that are in a sense “work in process” where the new leaders will continue to move us forward.

One opportunity of primary focus is, of course, our continuing space project. Keeping a tight, strong community during the physical displacement over the next 15 months will be a key priority. This will require focus, hard work, and some ingenuity.

Another opportunity for focus into the future is the continued professionalization of our operations. It is incredibly challenging to run a complex 1700-family synagogue and still be able to deliver the highest quality Judaism to each and every family on a one-on-one personalized basis. To give you a sense of the complexity, we have what we call the “Heidi Silverstone Chart,” which Heidi has developed in an attempt to keep track of this community. There are 52 different committees, Arms, Parent Associations and educational efforts led by a complex matrix of lay and staff leaders.

We are in process of further developing our communications platform for 2018 and beyond, and we are targeting unveiling an updated website and communications platform simultaneous with the completed renovation of our 87th Street building. Our technology, software, and CRM efforts are undergoing a major reset and will hopefully be unveiled in the next 12 months.

Our development effort is now, I believe, legendary. An $86 million capital campaign and growing Kol Nidrei annual campaigns indicate the strength of our community as well as our development program. Now that the Capital Campaign is in its final stages, that development expertise will be re-focused on day-in and day-out efforts that will finance education and programming.

I have such gratitude for so many of our lay and staff leaders. We’ve said it many times, our staff is the best in Judaism. We thank Rabbi Cosgrove for his spiritual and rabbinical vision that is the cornerstone of everything we do. I’ve seen it up close and I can say that his commitment to this community and Judaism is truly inspirational. Rabbi Zuckerman, your individual one-on-one relational Judaism and outreach to bring people in is a blessing to this synagogue. Rabbi Witkovsky, we appreciate your outreach to our members and beyond; your energy is infectious.

Turning to music, Cantor Schwartz, we appreciate your cantorial vision and leadership. We used to say that we wanted to have the leading center of Jewish music. Your drive to continuously improve has certainly made that a reality today. Cantor Lissek, thank you for five wonderful years here. We know that you will make us proud as cantor at Temple Israel in Charlotte, NC. Cantor Brook, we are excited about you in your new role as our Assistant Cantor. We also thank Colin Fowler and Josh Rosenberg for their efforts.

In education, we are thankful for the overall leadership of Charlie Savenor. Thank you to our wonderful team of Jamie Diamond, Pamela Schwartz, Jennifer Stern Granowitz, Hallie Chandler, and Beth Levick. We thank Beth Levick and Hallie Chandler for all their efforts and wish them the best in their future endeavors.

In Administration, thank you to our Executive Director Beryl Chernov, now completing his 16th year at Park Avenue Synagogue. Thank you for your commitment to our community. Thank you for your willingness to take on new challenges that we throw you all the time and handle them so well. Liz Offenbach, you have truly helped take our administrative efforts to a higher level. Thank you. Thank you to Geet Engel, Laura Yamner, Rachel Zorbaron, David Perry, Jason Santos, Marga Hirsch, and Lawrence Conley who keep our synagogue running so smoothly.

With great appreciation we also say goodbye to Eric Wasser, Malka Lowenstein, Amy Martin, and Leah Volynsky. We thank them for all that they have done and wish them the best in their future endeavors.

I want to thank our Board and Advisory Council for all their commitment. I look around our Board Room and see such talented people who are willing to give their work and wisdom to this community. You are the lifeblood of our synagogue.

Now to my Officer partners. Those accomplishments mentioned earlier could not have happened unless each and every one of you did your part. To be an Officer was an honor and a job, and you all did a wonderful job. In reverse alphabetical order.

Heidi, you are the heart and the soul of this community. Your love of Park Avenue Synagogue comes through in every interaction I’ve had with you. From the Caring Network to the Arms, Vicki K. Wimpfheimer Mitzvah Day, Tikkun Olam, Membership, and making sure our Board minutes are thorough and accurate, to coming up with adjectives like “membershippy,” your body of work is enormous. As an example, your focus on bringing to life our Jewish Camping initiative, which can be so powerful to creating Jewish families, has directly led to a more vibrant teens program. Everything you do is done with a kind and positive attitude. It has been my privilege to work with you and get to know you better over the last five years.

Mel, you were the one who originally found Cantor Schwartz for our synagogue, and your love of music has carried through and been blessing to our community over the last five years. Your efforts in Music and Security have taken us to new levels in all those areas. You have paved the way for a significant improvement in Catering when we move back into the new building. It’s been a true pleasure getting to know you as a partner. We are looking forward to October 2, when we will honor you as our Hatan Torah on Simhat Torah morning.

Jeanie, due to your efforts in Synagogue Programming and Adult Ed, Travel, Archives, Gallery, and Communications all those areas took significant leaps forward under your leadership. How you dealt with our trove of art for this recent move was amazing. Your intelligence, articulateness, and commitment to Judaism were a pleasure to be around, and I really treasure our friendship.

Andrea, as the numbers show, you are a Development leader without peer in Park Avenue Synagogue history and perhaps in overall synagogue history in the United States. Our annual Kol Nidrei appeal and Gala never lost a step during the entirety of the capital campaign. With this enormous financial success, there was risk that our Park Avenue Synagogue culture might have changed. Andrea’s leadership was instrumental in maintaining our down-to-earth, kind and caring culture because it was a key priority of hers. Her hard work, tenacity, orientation to detail, thoughtful questions, processes, and procedures taught me and I’m sure many others the right way to do things. Thank you.

Marc, running a once-in-a-generation space initiative, including buying two buildings and renovating two buildings, being deeply involved in development, keeping our budget in order, and growing our financial resources over the last five years, has been a challenge. You have excelled in it all. Not only what you did was impressive, how you did it was even more impressive: always calm, always thoughtful, and always handling everything with kindness, decency, and a soft touch. Marc, I am absolutely confident that you will lead our community to new heights in the coming years.

Natalie, you have shepherded our thriving youth education programs including Young Family Education, ECC, Congregational School, Teen Program, Food Pantry, Bnei Mitzvah program, Inclusion, Travel Education with Jeanie, and so many other initiatives. You have been able to successfully organize and motivate staff and other lay leaders in a wide variety of synagogue areas. Your hard work, organizational skills, managerial ability, and love of Judaism have been a blessing to this community. I am thrilled that you will continue on as a leader into the years ahead.

Paul, you were a Park Avenue Synagogue legend even before you became President five years ago. You essentially founded both synagogue programming and travel education at Park Avenue Synagogue more than a decade ago. Your encore efforts during the last five years included many of the accomplishments mentioned earlier. The reimagining and growth of our Friday night services, more engaging Saturday morning services, a variety of programming and entry points for our members on Shabbat and thorough and inclusive searches for two rabbis. Your drive to reach out and bring people in also flowed into livestreaming, outreach to 20s and 30s, and interfaith efforts. Through all that we have accomplished, you were also our conscience, reminding us that there is a heart and soul to Judaism that we should never forget. It has been my privilege to be your partner.

So what was my message for the incoming Officers at our l’chaim just prior to this meeting?

My message was that being an Officer is an important responsibility. After five years as Chairman, I have confirmed what I sensed five years ago.

The true greatness of Park Avenue Synagogue is its members. Our members make everything possible: Our members who come to services and minyan; our members who bring their kids to our schools, our adult learners, those who travel with the synagogue, spend their time with the Arms, the Caring Network made up of truly righteous people, and on and on and on. Fifty-two different efforts and growing of our members engaged with Judaism and synagogue life. No lay leader or staff leader should ever forget for one moment whom we are working for and why we are here. We are here to serve our members. We are always to act and make decisions in the best interests of our members and their synagogue.

After being told five years ago to not mess it up, the little secret I am sharing with all of you is that with the committed and involved members we have, it is nearly impossible to mess this up! I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to serve this vibrant and warm community. Thank you for allowing me to serve you in such a meaningful way.

As I’ve said before, people who spend time around synagogues are generally kind. It has been my privilege to have gotten to know so many of our members individually. Those personal connections have been incredibly meaningful to me.

We say in our leadership culture that we need to build the future by identifying and developing our successors. I am tremendously excited about the new Officer Team, Board, and Advisory Council that is taking this community forward into the future. I know that this ongoing team will continue our primary focus on deepening and broadening the Park Avenue Synagogue culture of one-on-one connection, caring and kindness that has been our hallmark for 136 years. I also know that this ongoing team will continue to enhance Park Avenue Synagogue’s unique position in our lives as a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community.

PAS Officers Installed at the 136th Annual Meeting
Marc Becker, Chairman
Natalie W. Barth, President
Lizzy Markus, Vice President
Nan Rubin, Vice President
Amy Steiner, Vice President
Mark L. First, Treasurer
Craig Solomon, Associate Treasurer
Mark Hirsch, Secretary