Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove Addresses the 135th Annual Meeting


Address to the 135th Annual Congregational Meeting

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove
May 16, 2017

Among all the titles that a clergyperson holds – teacher, preacher, fundraiser, and manager – perhaps the most essential and most sacred is that of pastor. As pastors we are called on to serve as a spiritual sherpas to our flock in times of transition, entrusted by our congregants to offer wisdom, presence, and stability in threshold moments of change – what anthropologists call liminal moments – passages from one stage of being to another.

What are, after all, birth, death, marriage, divorce if not inflection points in the arc of our lives as we exit one chapter of existence and enter another? Some are announced with great fanfare and predictability, with invitations and caterers following months of planning. Others come quietly and often unexpectedly – a miscarriage, a child becoming a parent to their parent, or a retirement. Some have specific rituals attached to them – the tearing of a cloth upon the death of a loved one, going to the mikveh following a year of kaddish, or joyously linking arm-in-arm to sing sheheheyanu as we usher in a new year. Some transitions do not yet have rituals assigned, but are weighty transformations nonetheless – a child going off to college or a woman seeking wholeness following a mastectomy. All these moments, and they are as numerous as our varied humanity, share the fact that they announce the conclusion of one stage in our lives and the arrival of a new chapter. It is one of, if not the most, sacred task of a clergyperson to be called on to be present and represent our Jewish tradition at such times of transition.

Change is hard. As we go from the known to the unknown there is, inevitably, anxiety in what the future will bring. To leave the familiar, to let go, to encounter the confusion, uncertainty, and doubt over what lies ahead and then, of course, to acclimate ourselves to a new “normal,” none of it is easy, none of it happens without some level of disorientation. In the words of change consultant guru William Bridges, there are three identifiable stages of all transitions: First, ending and letting go; second, entering a neutral zone of uncertainty, and then third, arriving at a new beginning.

As Jews, our most famous moment of transition and transformation is, of course, the crossing of the sea. We like to tell the story of Nahshon Ben Aminadav, the young Israelite who, with the Israelites at the edge of the water and the Egyptians in pursuit, took the courageous step into the sea causing the water to part. What we don’t often teach is that the Rabbis relate that our ancestors actually divided into four groups on the shore of the sea. One group said, “Sure, let’s go into the sea.” Others demanded, “Let’s return to Egypt.” Still others rallied, “Let's fight the Egyptians.” And finally, one group despairingly announced, “Let’s cry out.” There is something refreshingly human about this midrash because it is such an accurate reflection of the varied human responses to change, or perhaps, the cycle of response within us all when faced with change. Is it fight? Is it flight? Do we stamp our feet protesting, or perhaps just cry out immobilized, frozen in our tracks? Every response is human, each one a natural and understandable reaction to change.

When the next volume of our congregational history is written, there will undoubtedly be a chapter on the transitions we presently face. This fall we will dedicate a new building – the first new space in our community in nearly forty years. We will then turn our attention to this building so that it can be refreshed, reconfigured, and reimagined to meet the needs of the coming generations of our community. We know the reasons why; they are all good. This is a sheheheyanu moment par excellence. We have grown and continue to grow, thus building on the achievements of our predecessors. PAS is a vibrant community of Torah, prayer, and acts of kindness. It is time, we all know, for our physical structure to catch up to the dynamism experienced here daily. You have responded and continue to respond with support for this effort, giving of your resources, your time, and your wisdom, signaling your trust in the vision and your knowledge that no different than generations before, it is now incumbent upon us to step up to the needs of the hour.

And . . . there is nervousness. “What will the new building look like?” “I know my way around 87th Street.” “I like it the way it is.” “What is going to happen in the transition?” “How is it all going to work?” There are a lot of questions, and they are all good ones. Synagogues are not pop-up shops – certainly not this one. We pride ourselves on our connection to the past, many of our families have past generational roots. But like the Israelites of old, we are entering a period of transition. We have closed one chapter and a glimpse of the Promised Land still lies beyond the horizon. We are, if you will, entering a midbar, a wilderness of sorts, a time of wandering, where, in the words of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, “The past has been let go of, but the . . . future has not yet been made manifest.” A little nervous, a bit apprehensive, and understandably vulnerable as we enter our desert sojourn.

As staff and lay leaders, as a community as a whole, we would do well to pause two beats to consider what it is we need to bring along on the path ahead. Not the physical objects. Thank God, we have a dedicated team of lay and professional leaders who are managing the logistics of the transition in ways that leave me truly humbled at their dedication and wisdom. Rather I would like to focus on what must be in our spiritual backpacks for this journey.

First and foremost, we must be filled with a spirit of gratitude. Gratitude for those who have brought us this far, gratitude for those who are guiding us now. As at a wedding, there must be time to appreciate all that which brought the couple to the huppah before we celebrate the establishment of a new home. This evening and in the decades ahead, we must always express gratitude to those who came before, to our congregational history.

Second, we must be filled with patience. We are a synagogue and the lifeblood of the synagogue will continue uninterrupted in the transition ahead. There will be bnei mitzvah celebrations, Congregational School, Women’s Network events, and Young Couples Group speakers. There will be births and deaths and classes and lectures and all the things that make us who we are . . . AND . . . we will be in the midst of a massive building project. There will be moments when a classroom must be reassigned, or a kiddush doesn’t take place in our ideal time or place. And so we must be patient. We will all be working hard, perhaps twice as hard, in the years to come – doing what we do and doing it in the midst of a once-in-a-generation building project. Some will be enthusiastic, some will be frustrated, some will be afraid, and some, maybe, will just make noise. And so we must be patient. We must communicate with transparency, with frequency, and with kindness. We must recognize the professional and lay commitments being made and create a nurturing environment knowing that everyone is doing the very best they can.

Third, we need commitment or, if you like, conviction. Everyone in the community must be an ambassador for this moment. We all need to look long and encourage others to do the same. I will tell you right now, everything won’t be perfect in the next two years – so don’t let, as the expression goes, the perfect be the enemy of good. We need to be constructive in this time of construction, ride out the bumps, and know that we are all doing what we are doing for the greater good. As much as the building and finance and transition committees, it is your commitment and conviction in what we are doing, and then your ability to communicate that widely, that is critically important to this next stage of our communal story.

Fourth, fifth, and finally, I need to ask you for your creativity and, most importantly, a sense of community. Notwithstanding the fact that so much of our energy is devoted to this once-in-a-generation building opportunity, the heart and soul of our synagogue is never just the bricks and mortar. It is the Torah that is taught, the relationships that are developed, the prayers that are offered, and the community that is formed. Now is not the time to sit out and wait until the project is done. Our December 2018 congregational trip to Israel is important not just because it is a chance to visit Israel on its 70th anniversary. It is important because the experience communicates that our community is not about any one address in space. The momentum of our community must press forward. The reimagining of our Congregational School curriculum, the constant reflection that goes into our Sanctuary services, the new horizons in Adult Learning, the creative programming of our youth, young family, and outreach efforts. Now is the time to have the scrappy pluck of a start-up synagogue, as we will literally be a synagogue without walls. Now is the time to bring our creative juices to the fore. We are, after all, “A synagogue in action . . .” We are building the future – our future. This is an opportunity for our community to shine.

Gratitude, patience, commitment, creativity, and community. These are the spiritual resources that will enable us to transition from one chapter of our congregational history to another. There may be more – but it is a good start. These are the pastoral obligations that fall equally on us all. We are all in this together; we are all stakeholders in the outcome, and we must all care for each other. Most of all, like kissing a mezuzah as we enter a new room, we invoke God’s presence to protect our sacred community as we cross this threshold. May our deeds be deserving of God’s blessing, may we treat each other as human beings created in the infinite dignity of our divine creator, and may we emerge as an Agudat Yesharim, an association of the righteous, one community, with one heart. A shared and very bright future that awaits us all.