Chairman of the Board Art Penn Addresses the Congregation at Kol Nidrei

Address by Arthur Penn
Chairman of the Board, Park Avenue Synagogue
Kol Nidrei 5775/2014

“They don't teach you that in rabbinical school!” These are the words I regularly hear from Rabbi Cosgrove whenever we are discussing the synagogue budget, organizational charts, or even dessert choices at the kiddush. “They don't teach you that in rabbinical school!” he always says.

Well, in the last twelve months, I've been involved in everything from searches for rabbis and Jewish educators to re-imagining our Friday night services, from finding a location for a third High Holiday service to giving my second Kol Nidrei address tonight. I assure you, they didn't teach me that in business school!

What they did teach me in business school was the difference between enterprises that succeed and those that do not. This knowledge was helpful when a friend of mine asked me an intriguing question: “If Park Avenue Synagogue were an investment, would you invest in it?” To guide me towards an answer I focused on four areas; I call them “the four Ps.”

The first area is purpose. Last year on Kol Nidrei, I spoke of our synagogue’s legacy of family, faith, and community. We should be proud of the talented clergy, professional team, and membership that are working together to continue that legacy. We have moved to create multiple portals of entry that connect to our lives today. We strive to make Park Avenue Synagogue a model for how to live a Jewish life in America while being active members of a secular society. We seek to be a destination for spiritual enlightenment, a hub of thought leadership, and a multi-generational center for learning, community and celebration. Park Avenue Synagogue has a vital role to play. It is a place where Judaism happens. It is a generator of Jewish identity, where we are taught how to understand ourselves, our tradition, and our connection to it. The synagogue is the only institution present throughout the course of our lives, literally from cradle to grave, where some of our most significant life cycle events happen. Despite all the challenges facing organized religion in general, and Conservative Judaism in particular, Park Avenue Synagogue is meeting these challenges and is uniquely positioned to make a difference.

The second area to examine is people. In the past year, we have added to an already outstanding professional team. Rabbi Neil Zuckerman and Rabbi Ethan Witkovsky have joined our clergy, as we've returned to a three-rabbi model. In order to fill important vacancies on our educational team and to better serve our members, we've added Rabbi Charlie Savenor, Pamela Schwartz, and additional talented professionals in new positions. As we continue to bring world-class talent into our community to better serve our congregants, we strengthen the Park Avenue Synagogue culture of individualized one-on-one, person-to-person connection, kindness, caring and warmth that has been the pride of our community for over 130 years.

I am blessed to be working with talented partners. Thank you to our President, Paul Corwin, and Officers: Natalie Barth, Marc Becker, Andrea Baumann Lustig, Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Mel Schweitzer and Heidi Silverstone. Thank you to our highly engaged Board of Trustees and Advisory Council, as well as to the volunteers who work on each committee, parent association and task force. You are the lifeblood of our community.

Rabbi Cosgrove, your rabbinical leadership continues to reach new heights. Your intellect, humor, and energy are a blessing to our community. We look forward to your rabbinical leadership for many years to come. Cantor Schwartz, your musical talent combined with your warmth and humanity is a catalyst to creating the leading center of Jewish music in America. Cantor Lissek, you had a terrific first year. Thank you for your lovely voice, personal warmth and continual smile.

Beryl Chernov, thank you for keeping this complex organization running smoothly. Thank you to all of our staff leaders who work so hard for this community. A special thank you to all of the lay leaders who have preceded us and to Rabbi Emeritus David Lincoln and Cantor Emeritus David Lefkowitz for their leadership over many years.

The third area I am focusing on is participation. With our services, educational offerings, and arms activities, together we build our relationships in a vibrant community. In a world where Judaism competes in the marketplace of ideas and our members have attractive alternatives for their time, we provide compelling options. We will continue to focus efforts on making worship at PAS even more inviting, uplifting and participatory.

I'm reminded of a story: One Saturday morning, a rabbi noticed little David staring up at a large plaque in the lobby of a synagogue. It was covered with names, and small flags were mounted on each side. The eight-year-old boy had been staring at the plaque for a while, so the rabbi walked over, stood beside the boy, and said quietly, “Good Shabbes, David.”
“Good Shabbes, Rabbi,” replied the youngster, still focused on the plaque.
"Rabbi, what is this?" David asked.
"Well David, it's a memorial to the men and women who died in the service."
Little David looked up at the rabbi and asked, “Which one, the Friday night or Saturday morning service?”

At Park Avenue Synagogue, our Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services are full of life. They are musical, lively, social and family-friendly. Friday night services last an hour and draw an enthusiastic crowd of all ages finding a meaningful way to break from the workweek before heading off to Shabbat dinner.

With regard to Saturday morning services, we are respecting tradition and encouraging innovation. This year, once a month, we have a revised schedule of prayer, learning and engagement under the banner of “TGIS: Thank God It's Shabbat!” From 9:00 to 10:00 am, we offer options such as yoga and meditation, youth choir, traditional minyan and Torah study, and a discussion on Israel. All, quite literally, different portals of entry to Jewish life.
On those Shabbat mornings, we come together at 10:00 am for a renewed and shorter Shabbat morning service. We are engaging all age groups, including parents and grandparents who want to pray and study as adults as well as attend synagogue with their children. Our next TGIS is October 25. I invite you to come to our services Friday night and Saturday morning and to be part of our welcoming Shabbat community.

Purpose, People, Participation, those are areas where we thrive. The fourth area to examine is where we have a challenge, and where we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity: our place of worship and community. Among the challenges of an increasingly involved congregation are that our High Holiday services have been over-subscribed, our schools have grown beyond the capacity of our classrooms, and our adult classes serve hundreds of people at all hours of the day and evening. Our third service, on Fifth Avenue at 90th Street, has allowed us for the first time in decades, to offer all of our members a seat on the High Holidays. Members who were there on Rosh Hashanah found a beautiful, comfortable worship space where it is easy for families to sit together.

As for the other 362 days of the year, we are challenged by lack of space. We have had to hold Shabbat morning family services for hundreds of people in different locations in the neighborhood. With 460 students in the congregational school, a thriving young family program, and over 600 adult learners, we need additional and modernized classrooms, worship and meeting space. Our welcoming space is not welcoming. Our entertaining space is dated. In our over-130-year history, we are now coming to the end of the longest span with no improvement to our space. In order to meet the needs of our increasingly engaged congregation, we must move forward, building upon our strong foundation for Jewish life.

I am extremely pleased to officially announce the launch of a major capital campaign to raise $55 million for Park Avenue Synagogue. We are calling it: A SYNAGOGUE IN ACTION: BUILDING THE FUTURE. Our vision for the purchase and creation of a Lifelong Learning Center on 89th street and a revitalized 87th Street building will create a spiritual hub for enlightenment and learning that will match the vibrancy of our community. The Lifelong Learning Center at East 89th Street will be a new, modern facility customized to our needs. The new center will house educational programs for young families, the congregational school, the high school, young adult and adult learning. The revitalization of our main building at East 87th Street will include larger worship spaces; a lobby that is welcoming; new lecture spaces; and multiple event spaces for small and large events.

It’s been 34 years – more than a generation – since we significantly renovated or added a square foot of space at Park Avenue Synagogue. Some of you may remember New York City in the 1970s, a decade which is regarded by some as the low point in New York City history. Crime was high, the economy was terrible, and people were fleeing Manhattan for the suburbs. Fortunately, New York City is in much better shape today.

We are sitting here tonight as a community because our predecessors stepped up to the challenges of their time and made meaningful contributions during that period of uncertainty. All of us who have joined Park Avenue Synagogue since 1980 have been beneficiaries of their commitment at a challenging time. That was a community of foresight, faith and chutzpah. That is still our community today! It's time to do our part.

When we first developed the $55 million goal, we knew it was ambitious. There are only a few synagogues in the world that could even consider this type of project. I am delighted to announce that John Hess and Leon Black have agreed to serve as Honorary Co-Chairs for the campaign. We began speaking to members about the capital campaign a short time ago, and I am thrilled to announce that as of this morning, 55 families have already pledged their support. Together they have pledged 36 million – double chai! – putting us 65% of the way to our financial goal.

Thank you to the inspirational leaders who have supported this effort already. You have set the bar with your generosity and paved the way for success.

We are now in control of our destiny. If everyone participates, we will realize our dreams. We are asking each and every one of you to make a gift that is deeply meaningful to you and your family. Every gift counts and we hope everyone will share in the pride of having helped make our dreams a reality. As the synagogue is the only institution that is present through the course of our entire lives, and has a campaign like this only once in a generation, I hope you will want to participate. Please consider all the value that you currently receive and will receive over the course of your life from Park Avenue Synagogue. In the coming months we will provide more information on A SYNAGOGUE IN ACTION. In the meantime, should you wish to get involved as a volunteer, please contact Andrea Baumann Lustig or Beryl Chernov.

Now, as you can imagine, a campaign like this has the potential to distract us from our annual Kol Nidre appeal. Your annual support is critical to keep our education and programming as vibrant as it is. Synagogue dues represent only two-thirds of our expenses, excluding the schools. Last year we raised over $2.6 million. Every contribution counts and I encourage you to participate to sustain the ongoing operations of this sacred community.

So tonight, to be clear, we have two priorities with regard to financial support. First, our annual Kol Nidre campaign that supports the daily operations of the synagogue. Second, our once-in-a-generation, transformational A SYNAGOGUE IN ACTION: BUILDING THE FUTURE campaign.

Purpose, people, participation, and place. These four “Ps” are the bedrock of who we are and what we do. Knowing that we have a plan to get our place of worship and community to meet us where we are, my answer to my friend’s question – “If Park Avenue Synagogue were an investment, would you invest in it?” – Absolutely! My investment will be a statement of the passion and pride I have in our family, faith, and community.

Ladies and Gentlemen, our dreams can be realized only with the investment of our entire community. In every generation, Jews have stepped up to meet the opportunities and challenges of the hour. This is our time. This is our hour. We can't do it without you. We are a synagogue in action, building the future, uniquely positioned to address the needs of our community. I hope you will be an active part of it.

On behalf of the Officers and Board of Trustees of Park Avenue Synagogue, I pray that all of our members and their families are written and sealed in the Book of Life and enjoy a new year of health, happiness, peace, prosperity and friendship.

The ushers will now pass through the aisles for those of you who wish to show your support tonight.