Chairman of the Board Marc Becker Addresses the Congregation on Kol Nidrei

Address by Marc Becker
Chairman of the Board, Park Avenue Synagogue
Kol Nidrei 5780/2019

Shanah tovah!

Last Kol Nidrei, I shared with you the reaction from my friends outside Park Avenue Synagogue about my new role as Chairman: “Why would you possibly do this?”

Over the past 12 months, I have had the absolute honor of leading and serving as head ambassador for this amazing institution. As I have touted our thriving congregation, the reaction from outsiders has once again been consistent: “Do you realize you are an anomaly in organized religion? How can all this success be possible?”

The answer, I believe, is obvious. But first, a story:

A cantor was on vacation getting some rest before the High Holidays. On Saturday morning, the cantor went in search of a synagogue for Shabbat services. The city had very few Jewish residents, and the synagogue was essentially for out-of-towners. So he found himself in a shul, a place very familiar to him, but together with other Jews none of whom knew each other. There was no organized service. People were praying individually, and to the chagrin of the cantor, singing way off key. The cantor felt bad that he could not focus on his prayer and his singing. This had never happened to him before. He contemplated why he felt empty, and how he, a religious man, could possibly feel this way on the holy Sabbath? What he realized at that moment was how much he missed his own synagogue. What was truly absent was his community.

How is it that Park Avenue Synagogue is flourishing? It is because of our community. Technically, a community is defined as a group of people having a common characteristic. If there is anything I have learned over the past twelve months, it is that our members are not “all of a kind.”

• We span a century in age and have a variety of social, political and religious views.
• Some of us come to minyan every day and others just a few times a year.
• We have clergy and members that are Jews by choice and congregants contemplating their place on the Jewish continuum.
• Some people like their High Holiday seats, and most . . . want more.
• Many of us are fully engaged in synagogue life, while others are hoping to get more involved.
• Some are fluent in Hebrew, and others use the transliteration.
• Countless of you have an opinion on the new Kiddush caterers. I am still looking for the single member who does not.
• Some of us come to shul for happy occasions, others in times of despair, or everything in between.

Conventional wisdom seems to be that people seek relationships through a myriad of customizable and interchangeable digital networks – that congregations are a thing of the past. While it may be countercultural, Park Avenue Synagogue is absolute proof to the contrary. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks aptly stated: “Community is society with a human face – the place where we know we are not alone.” I have realized over the last year that we are Never Alone at Park Avenue Synagogue.

The common love of our tradition and our strong sense of faith bonds us together. Our success has proven that a synagogue can be more than a meeting place: it is what Starbucks founder Howard Schultz would call our “third place.” It is our Jewish home, our community, one that has come together for well over a century with a shared commitment to perpetuate our beautiful traditions and l’dor vador, to pass them from generation to generation.

We are indeed a community, but we are even more, we are a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community.

As we gather this High Holiday season in our renovated campus, we have much pride in our new buildings, which reflect our passion and commitment to each other and our future. But when I look around, I see more than a beautiful campus (with a huge punch list). I see a steadfast commitment by a sacred community to its values, working hard to fulfill our mission to “inspire, educate, and support each other towards living passion-filled Jewish lives.” Over the past fifteen months as our campus was under construction, I saw a community that came together to demonstrate these values wherever and whenever it mattered.

• After the shooting in Pittsburgh, over 1,000 of our members were in our sanctuary to #ShowUpfor Shabbat, and even more watched on livestream.

• We have gathered for over 700 minyans on our campus or in shiva homes to allow those in mourning to say Kaddish.

• This past year we celebrated over eighty bnei mitzvah and dozens of baby namings; our clergy officiated weddings at Park Avenue Synagogue and around the world.

• We were displaced, and living in our very own diaspora, yet our community has celebrated Shabbat together in each other’s homes, in gyms, in churches, at the beach, on our campus, or simply with text and email greetings to each other.

We are very fortunate. Our inspiration comes from Judaism’s “dream team” with our extraordinary clergy, led by Rabbi Cosgrove and Cantor Schwartz, along with Rabbi Zuckerman, Rabbi Witkovsky, and Cantor Brook. Thank you, Rabbi. Thank you, Cantor. Your leadership gives us a profound sense of belonging.

It is spirited worship that demonstrates our commitment to our core value of tefillah, ensures our vibrancy and is a key ingredient making us a sacred community.

During the past year, I have also seen a community that values lifelong learning. We have had classes in our Eli M. Black Lifelong Learning Center, in apartment buildings, in bars, face-to-face, and over the internet.

We have traveled the world to affirm our responsibility as part of the global Jewish community. This past December, 450 of us made our presence known in Israel, with the largest congregational trip ever. This coming year we will continue to build community with an adult learners trip to Russia, a young families trip to Israel, and teen trips to Houston and Berlin. And Morocco is on the horizon.

Our community continues to set the standard for Jewish education, with renowned speakers and engaging study circles, classes, and book clubs. We remain focused on our youth, the next generation of leaders, providing additional resources to innovate our teen and young adult programs, congregational school, and early childhood center.

It is this commitment to our core value of limmud/ lifelong learning that ensures our vibrancy and is a key ingredient making us a sacred community.

The magnificence of Park Avenue Synagogue is best demonstrated by our compassion.

Over the last fifty-plus weeks, I have seen our caring first hand. After our gala, our Bikur Cholim committee delivered the flowers to those home bound and in need of a “pick-me-up.” I have observed dozens of our teens distributing hundreds of turkeys on Thanksgiving at the PAS food pantry to help families have a holiday meal. I have witnessed the persistence of our Inclusion Committee to address our bimah accessibility issue, and we will soon be installing a ramp, ensuring easier access for all.

We simply could not exist without our hundreds of volunteers with our fifty-plus committees. I have been in awe of the passion and commitment from those that have stepped up day after day, week after week.

• Craig Solomon, you have lived every inch of this space project for over six years and, along with the leadership of Jacqui Weidman and our dedicated staff led by our executive director, Beryl Chernov, have led a miraculous effort to get our campus essentially completed with a standard of excellence that we all appreciate. Thank you.

• A huge amount of gratitude to our Officers – my friends and partners: Lizzy Markus, Nan Rubin, Amy Steiner, Mark First, Mark Hirsch, Craig Solomon, and our dedicated president, Natalie Barth. You are all true role models and an example to our community of what it means to be a mensch.

Thank you and your families, as well as my family, for the sacrifices you make on behalf of everyone here.

It is this commitment to our core value of gemilut hasidim/ giving of lovingkindness that ensures our vibrancy and is a key ingredient making us a sacred community.

So, what is next?

Over the past twelve months, the most frequent question asked me by our membership, apart from “Will the building actually be ready?” has been “How can I get more involved?” The answer is in the brochure on your seats. For the next two months, leading up to the December 8 rededication of our 87th Street building, we will be recommitting ourselves as a community to our values by symbolically earning candles for Hanukkah, which literally means “rededication.” Commit yourself and your family to collecting one, several, or even all eight. Perhaps devote yourself to Remember/Zakhor and attend our Kristallnacht commemoration or create your family tree. Or maybe pledge to do Repair/Tikkun Olam by attending Mitzvah Day or visiting a friend who is ill. There is no more fitting way to celebrate our community and our once-in-a-generation moment than to embrace the bonds and values that have built our wonderful campus.

Most of you have already taken a meaningful step to get involved as donors to our capital campaign, A Synagogue in Action: Building the Future. An astounding 90% of our members have participated. This campaign has enabled us to expand our footprint and revitalize our 87th Street building. Thanks to your financial generosity and commitment to our future, we have raised $96mm. Thank you, and thank you Andrea Baumann Lustig, for your passionate leadership of this campaign.

Each year, we continue to depend on your financial support, and our community’s annual generosity has also been exemplary. Last year we raised a record $3.3mm from over 1,000 families, enabling us to balance our budget and remain breakeven.

This reminds me of another story:

Opening the front door of his home, a rabbi found himself face-to-face with the local priest. “Rabbi, may I have a few words with you?” asked the priest.

“Of course,” replied the rabbi.

“Rabbi, as you know, this town is plagued by thieves and scarcely a day passes without one of my parishioners bemoaning the fact that their house has been broken into. But I’ve noticed, Rabbi, that the thieves do not bother my Jewish neighbors.”

“You are correct,” responded the rabbi.

“Why is that?” inquired the priest.

The rabbi explained, “See this little box on the side of my doorpost? It's called a mezuzah. In our faith, we believe that when we put a mezuzah on the entrance to our home, the Holy One protects both us and our property.”

“In that case,” insisted the priest, “I must have one!” Not wishing to be rude, the rabbi gave the priest a mezuzah. Two weeks later, the Rabbi was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of someone pounding violently on his door.

“Who's there?” the Rabbi asked in alarm.

“Open the door, open the door!” screamed a voice on the other side. The rabbi opened the door to see the priest standing in front of him, in great distress.

“What happened?” asked the terrified rabbi. “Were you not protected from robbers?”

“I was!” screamed the priest. “But this is worse than robbers. These people are relentless, rabbi, please make them stop!”

"I don’t know how I can help,” said the rabbi. “Who is at your door?”

Exasperated, the priest replied, “Rabbi, it’s the synagogue fundraisers!”

The irony of my telling this story is that we do not need to bang on our members’ doors. At Park Avenue Synagogue, our commitment to supporting our community has been a core value and ensures our continued vibrancy.

So, how do we respond when people question the viability of congregations and say we are an outlier, asking how we can possibly be thriving?

The response: Park Avenue Synagogue is a community, a sacred community that cares for each other, one that has stayed true to its values for 137 years and will continue doing so for the decades and generations ahead.

Elie Wiesel once said, “If the only prayer you say throughout your life s ‘thank you,’ then that will be enough.”

Thank you for your generosity.
Thank you for believing in Park Avenue Synagogue.
Thank you for making us a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community

Gmar hatimah tovah! May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of happiness, health, peace, and prosperity, and may our sacred community be blessed with gratitude.