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 5776/2015

Three years ago we hosted renowned sociologist Robert Putnam at our annual Shabbaton, our weekend of prayer and thought here at Park Avenue Synagogue. Putnam noted that people involved in religious communities are “systematically more generous and [are] better neighbors.” His studies found that people's kindness seems to have little to do with their theology. Rather, kindness is linked to how many friends a person has and how closely integrated a person is in their religious community. Putnam says, “It's not so much faith; but communities of faith that make people nicer.”

I wholeheartedly agree. People always ask me why I like being involved with Park Avenue Synagogue. There are many answers to that question, but the main reason is to surround myself with wonderful people. Generally, people who choose to spend their time here are kind. If we know that communities of faith make people kinder and more compassionate, what then are the building blocks of great communities of faith? What attributes of Park Avenue Synagogue make it a place to inspire kind people?

First, we meet people where they are. We say this a lot because our thriving community is focused on one-on-one connection, caring, and warmth. Our Board and staff have been working on an initiative called “relational Judaism;” a redoubled effort towards building an inclusive community, based on long-term relationships and meaningful social interaction. It has been said that “people come to synagogue for services and programs but stay for the relationships.” From our welcoming young family programs to our Early Childhood Center, our Congregational School to our teen and young adult programs, our successful adult education to our compelling travel opportunities, our daily minyan to our engaging Friday evening and Saturday morning shabbat services, there are many avenues to create wonderful shared experiences and lifelong friendships. At all levels, Park Avenue Synagogue will meet you where you are and take you to where you want to go. I encourage you to get involved.

Second, we have dedicated leadership. I and my fellow officers – Paul Corwin, Natalie Barth, Marc Becker, Andrea Baumann Lustig, Jeanie Rosensaft, Mel Schweitzer, and Heidi Silverstone – continue to feel blessed to serve such a vibrant, thriving and warm community. Rabbis Cosgrove, Zuckerman, and Witkovsky and Cantors Schwartz and Lissek are an extraordinary clergy team. The return of the “three rabbi model” has been a huge success with Rabbi Cosgrove's inspiring vision for our community, Rabbi Zuckerman’s highly successful return to the pulpit and Rabbi Witkovsky’s elevation to the pulpit.

Cantor Schwartz, we appreciate your musical leadership in making Park Avenue Synagogue the leading center of Jewish music. Cantor Lissek, we remain blessed by your warm presence and beautiful voice. We are proud that Rabbi Cosgrove and Cantor Schwartz are representing Park Avenue Synagogue and the Jewish community on Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to New York City. We also thank Rabbi Charlie Savenor and our excellent educational team. Beryl Chernov, thank you and the rest of our outstanding administrative team for all you do to keep everything running so smoothly.

Third, we are as passionate about present as about our future. Have you ever wondered why we pause tonight, during the most sacred services of the year – a time for soulful prayer and deep reflection – for an annual appeal? The history of the Kol Nidrei Appeal goes back to World War I, when rabbis across America appealed to their congregants to support their European relatives. The first recorded instance of a Kol Nidrei Appeal here in New York was in 1916. It wasn't until 1982, on our 100th anniversary, that we at Park Avenue Synagogue adopted the practice. I listened to a recording of that first appeal from our Shapiro Audio Archive. It was delivered by Joel Cohen and Marty Milston. They emphasized that we “are one of a few synagogues that does not regularly conduct a Kol Nidrei appeal, although this year we must” and then went on to say that “it will be done in a dignified manner.”

In terms of our present, your annual support is critical to keep our services, education and programming as vibrant as they are. Synagogue dues represent only two thirds of our expenses, excluding the schools. Last year we raised a record $2.7 million from almost 1,100 families. This was far and away the broadest participation in our history. Thank you! This year, we would like to have 100 percent participation, as every single contribution counts, at any level. In one of his many memorable sermons last year, Rabbi Cosgrove said that tzedakah, or giving, on the High Holidays “ is the act . . . that announces to God and the world that we are indeed thankful for the blessings of our lives and thus stand ready to enter the year to come.” The Kol Nidrei appeal reminds us of this important act.

In terms of our future, if we want to open our Park Avenue Synagogue community of faith to future generations, we need to be architects of our future and seize an opportunity that may only happen once in our lifetime.

While we’ve had about 1,600 member families for some time, we are pleased that the percentage of our members who are engaging with the synagogue has grown exponentially. With over 600 adult learners, nearly 500 children in the congregational school, and thriving early childhood and young family programs, our kind and increasingly engaged community has grown beyond its physical capacity. This doesn't mean we have to invoke the spirit of Joshua, and break down these walls; but as architects of our future we need space that reflects our community of faith for generations to come.

The addition of our Fifth Avenue service has allowed us to offer all of our members a seat on the High Holidays, which we could not do for decades. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Members have found Fifth Avenue to be a beautiful, comfortable sanctuary where families can sit together and in front of an ark, facing east. What was an innovation last year has become a tradition this year. To address the needs of our community the other 362 days of the year, at this time last year we announced a major capital campaign. In our over 130-year history, we are now coming to the end of the longest span with no improvement to our space. Our last building project was completed in 1980 – thirty-five years ago.

Our campaign, A SYNAGOGUE IN ACTION: BUILDING THE FUTURE, was established to create a new lifelong learning center on 89th Street that will house most of our educational programs. A revitalization of our main building on 87th Street will include a lobby that is welcoming and new spaces for worship, lectures, and other events.

Last Kol Nidrei, we announced that we had raised $36 million from fifty-five families. We have quietly continued with the capital campaign, led by our Honorary Co-Chairs John Hess and Leon Black, and new Co-Chairs Ralph Lauren and David Simon. I am thrilled to report that as of earlier today, from 194 families, we’ve raised $60 million.

I’m reminded of a story.  A local pub was so sure that its bartender was the strongest man around they offered a standing $1,000 bet. The bartender would squeeze a lemon until all the juice ran into a glass and then hand the lemon to a customer. Anyone who could squeeze one more drop of juice would win the money. Many people tried – weightlifters, Olympians, bodybuilders – but nobody could do it. One day Murray, a scrawny little man, came into the bar and said, “I’d like to try the bet.” After the laughter died down, the bartender said “Okay,” grabbed a lemon and squeezed away. He then handed the remains of the lemon to Murray. The laughter turned to silence as Murray clenched his fist around the lemon and four more drops fell into the glass. As the crowd cheered, the bartender paid the $1,000 and asked, “What do you do for a living? Were you in the Olympics? Are you a professional strong man?”

Murray replied, “No, I’m the Chairman of my synagogue.”

We should be excited by our progress. As we move into the next phase of A SYNAGOGUE IN ACTION, we are focused on doing this right. Former president Dwight Eisenhower once said, “plans are nothing; planning is everything.” We need to make sure that nothing gets in our way, whether it be surprises from an aging building or increased costs from a competitive construction market in New York City. It’s important that we are ambitious and responsible, prudent with our members’ capital while not cutting corners for future generations. We need to squeeze that lemon a little bit more to make that happen. Based on our remarkable support so far, we are confident in our ultimate success as we broaden the campaign from the 194 families who have led so far to the other 1,422 families in our community.

We are asking each and every one of you to participate and 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 taking control of our destiny and making our dreams a reality. Our predecessors heeded the call when faced with the same challenge. It's our turn now. Join us in this journey.

I was recently walking in Central Park and saw a sign asking for gifts to the Central Park Conservancy with a beautiful picture of people in boats in the lake in Central Park. The pitch line was “Contribute to your Moment,” with a follow up line: “The Moment you realize that this is your backyard.” I thought about the power of those words and how they also apply to Park Avenue Synagogue, and all the wonderful moments and experiences Ilene, our family, and I have shared here over the years.

As you think about the most important moments in your life – births, bnei mitzvah, weddings, holidays, community events and unfortunately, times of death and mourning – I ask you to think not only about contributing to your moment, but investing in the many moments throughout a lifetime that Park Avenue Synagogue is here for you, your family, your friends, and the future generations of kind people fostered by our community of faith. Ladies and Gentlemen, our dreams can only be realized with the support of our entire community. We cannot do this without you. We are a synagogue in action, building the future, uniquely positioned to address the needs of our community. I hope you will take an active part in it.

On behalf of the Officers and Board of Trustees of the Synagogue, we pray that all of our members and their families are written and sealed in the Book of Life and enjoy a life of peace and prosperity, health and happiness.

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