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 5778/2017

On the day of Kol Nidrei, Murray, a prominent member of his congregation, stood in his synagogue’s lobby near a large window. Murray was wearing nothing at all except for a necktie, and everyone could see Murray in his glorious birthday suit – congregants, employees, everybody. The rabbi walked into the shul just then and he was extremely concerned. So, he went over and said, “Murray, are you okay?” Murray replied, “I feel great. Why do you ask?” The rabbi said, “To be honest, Murray, I’m worried about you. You’re standing here in the synagogue lobby with no clothes on except for a necktie. What’s going on?“ Murray replied, “What’s wrong with being naked? It’s the way God created us. Adam and Eve were created naked, and I’m just continuing their tradition.”

The rabbi said, “But Murray, this is simply indecent and inappropriate behavior. You’re embarrassing yourself and the congregation. If someone calls the police, you could go to jail.” Murray replied, “Well, rabbi, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. It’s my life and this is how I choose to live it.” The rabbi then asked, “If being publicly naked is so important to you, why bother with a necktie?” Murray answered, “What kind of Jew doesn’t put on a tie for Kol Nidrei?”

Many of you know that during my term as Chairman of Park Avenue Synagogue, I have generally avoided wearing ties to synagogue other than on the High Holidays and for our annual Gala. I have nothing against ties or wearing them to synagogue, and I have many stylish ties hanging in my closet that I wear from time to time. Why have I avoided wearing ties to synagogue? For me, personally, I feel a bit more comfortable when I am not wearing a tie.

When Ilene and I joined Park Avenue Synagogue over 20 years ago, it was a different time in our society. Reflecting the times, Park Avenue Synagogue was a bit formal. On Kol Nidrei, many men wore tuxedos. Times have changed. Today, Park Avenue Synagogue is keenly aware that synagogue life competes with many other compelling options for our members’ time. We need to give people a reason to engage with Judaism and synagogue life.

Do you need to get dressed up to come to shul or should you just come as you are? In our Park Avenue Synagogue leadership culture, we say that we need to “provide a warm and welcoming entry into our community.” We say it a lot because it is so critically important. Today, you are welcomed at our synagogue whether you wear a tuxedo or jeans, and we thank you for being here. Park Avenue Synagogue is thriving not because of what people wear but because of what people do.

Here’s what we are doing at Park Avenue Synagogue.

Four years ago, during my first Kol Nidrei address in the Fall of 2013, I said that our facilities were bursting at the seams and that by the Spring of 2014 we would have a plan to address that need. Only four years later, we are coming toward the end of our once-in-a-generation Capital Campaign.

The campaign continued this past year with a focus on broadening participation. I am thrilled to report that as of earlier today we have raised $79 million from 1,309 families. This is an increase of 678 families since last year at this time. Over 79 percent of our members have contributed to the campaign. Never before, in our 135-year history, have so many members come together to support our synagogue. This is truly extraordinary. Thank you to each and every one of you who has participated in making this campaign incredibly successful. If you have not yet participated, it’s not too late.

When we started the project, we envisioned a new lifelong learning center on 89th street and a renewed 87th street building that would together create a center for prayer, learning and community. Earlier this week, we opened the new Eli M. Black Lifelong Learning Center. The official dedication will be on October 15. I hope to see you all there. The center is a new, beautiful, modern facility that will house educational programs for members of all ages.

The revitalization of our 87th street building will start in May of 2018 and should be complete by the Fall of 2019, two years from today. The Sanctuary will remain open and functioning for services during the entire project.

Much of our operations including staff, clergy, and the Early Childhood Center will move to a temporary home in a school building on 90th street between 5th and Madison, directly behind our new Lifelong Learning Center. We were fortunate to be able to find a spot that could fit virtually all our needs at such a convenient location.

Clearly, we have been doing a lot at Park Avenue Synagogue from the standpoint of bricks and mortar. We have come far, but we have another two years and a large renovation at 87th street to complete. From the Sanctuary building completion in 1927, to the Steinberg House completion in 1954, to the Shapiro House completion in 1980, and now, 37 years later, to the Eli M. Black Lifelong Learning Center in 2017 and the refreshed 87th Street Building in 2019, it seems that somewhere between every 25 and 40 years our community takes on a major building program.

I’m reminded of a story. Freda has a heart attack and is taken to the hospital. While on the operating table she has a near death experience, during which she sees God and asks if this is the end for her. God says no and explains that she has another 30 to 40 years to live. As soon as she has recovered, Freda figures that since she’s got another 30 to 40 years, she might as well stay in the hospital and have a face-lift, nose job, liposuction, and the tummy tuck that she had always promised herself. Upon leaving the hospital, she went straight to the salon for a new hair color, a new style, and a manicure to complete the new Freda. But tragedy strikes some weeks later, and she dies in a car accident. When Freda arrives in front of God, she asks, “I thought you said I had another 30 to 40 years?”

God replies, “Freda, I didn’t recognize you.”

Although the physical aspect of our Synagogue is undergoing a major facelift, the mission and culture of Park Avenue Synagogue, our insides, remain the same. As we move to the second half of our construction project, it is time for us to ask what we are doing to refocus on our main mission, which is not about bricks and mortar, but creating an environment where Relational Judaism thrives. Where people show up for services and programming, but they stay for relationships.

We continue to focus on our Shabbat services and overall programming from Friday evening through Saturday evening. With regard to the High Holidays, we‘re in the fourth year of our extraordinarily popular Fifth Avenue service, which has allowed us to provide all of our members seating on the holidays. This is year two of High Holiday family services where families with children in kindergarten to grade 7 can sit and pray together. Last week on Rosh Hashanah at 91st and Park, 500 parents and kids showed up for family services at 8:45 am.

Our Young Family Education program, Early Childhood Center, Congregational School, and Youth and Teen programs continue to innovate and strengthen their offerings. Adult Education is thriving with classes, Melton, lectures, Shabbat dinners and the Shabbaton. Our exciting Mah Hadash or What’s New programming is being unveiled this Fall. Mah Hadash includes outreach programs, small group learning, music salons and book discussions.

Travel Education has continually engaged more congregants because it deepens and broadens the bonds of our community. We are looking forward to our December 2018 Congregational Trip to Israel, celebrating Israel at 70 and Park Avenue Synagogue at 136. My family was fortunate to be on the last major synagogue-wide trip, which was 11 years ago. That trip solidified our connection to this community and ignited my personal interest in getting more involved.

Our Inclusion Initiative strives to make our congregation a “house of prayer for all people,” and our Interfaith Families Initiative will be working on pathways to conversion and serving the needs of interfaith couples and families. There is important community building in many areas such as the Caring Network, the Men’s Club, Women’s Network, Young Couples Group, Tikkun Olam, Mitzvah Day, Jewish Camping, and our Membership Committee which warmly welcomes new members. There are multiple avenues to engage and be involved in this incredible community.

To keep these important areas strong and vibrant, your annual support to our Kol Nidrei Appeal is critical. Synagogue dues represent only two-thirds of our expenses, excluding the schools. Last year we raised a record $2.9 million from 1100 families. That was the most successful Kol Nidrei campaign in our 135-year history; even during the middle of a capital campaign. Our community is strong and passionate and continues to be even more so. Thank you for your generosity! This year, we would like to have 100 percent participation in our Kol Nidrei Appeal. Every single contribution counts and is important.

Where do we go from here?

I can only answer that question in part because the other Officers and I will be ending our five-year term at the end of June. It has been a great honor and privilege to serve this community along with our President, Paul Corwin, and Officers, Heidi Silverstone, Mel Schweitzer, Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Andrea Baumann Lustig, Marc Becker and Natalie Barth. Our outstanding clergy, led by Rabbi Cosgrove and Cantor Schwartz; educators, led by Rabbi Charlie Savenor; and administrative team, led by Beryl Chernov, will work with our next Officers and Board more fully on the question of what’s next. Developing and investing in our professional and lay leadership teams to build this institution has been one of the most rewarding aspects of what we do.

Personally, stepping into the role of Chairman before the start of a major building program and capital campaign might lead some to think that I drew the short straw. The reality is that it was a perfect opportunity to get to know many of you individually; to meet you at services or Kiddush, to have the privilege of sitting next to a bar or bat mitzvah child on their big day, to pay respects at a shiva or shake hands at Ne’ilah at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. The individual moments of personal connection with so many of you have been incredibly meaningful to me.

I am going to end my final Kol Nidrei address the way I ended my first one by invoking our Park Avenue Synagogue mission.

You belong to a community that seeks to inspire, educate and support our members towards living Jewish lives.

You belong to a community that aspires to foster deep connections with each other, our Torah, our God, the State of Israel and broader humanity.

You belong to a community that focuses on prayer, study, observance and acts of kindness.

You belong to a community that is warm and welcoming and meets you where you are. 

You belong to a community with a legacy of family and faith.

You belong to a community.

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

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

Thank you.