Last year marked our first ever “virtual” annual congregational meeting for Park Avenue Synagogue, and this evening represents our first “phygital” – part physical and part digital – meeting, exemplifying our ability to pivot these past 12-plus months.
The PAS annual meeting is when the Chairman gives the year in review. In essence, this evening I will be summarizing chapter 139 in the history of Park Avenue Synagogue. So what should this chapter be called? Last year, I had said our 138th year was befitting of the title “Passionate Community Rides Roller Coaster with Elegance, Demonstrating Excellence.”
But before assigning any labels, we should take a step back and look at where we have been as an institution and express gratitude, because there are so many spectacular things – both obvious and imperceptible – that have made us stronger this past pandemic year.
Over the past 12 months, PAS has pivoted indeed, adapting and evolving to do whatever it takes – in the words of our mission – to “inspire, educate, and support each other toward living passion-filled Jewish lives.”
The heart and pulse of our community continues to be driven by our incredible clergy and staff who have worked passionately and tirelessly. To our entire PAS team led by Rabbi Cosgrove and our outgoing loyal and accomplished Executive Director Beryl Chernov, on behalf of the board and our 1,700 family units – thank you!
Because of you, we have overcome obstacles and taken a nimble yet indomitable approach to serving our community. Because of you, our staff, and your partnership with an incredible group of dedicated lay leaders, led by our assiduous Officers – President Natalie Barth, Nan Rubin, Amy Steiner, Lizzy Markus, Mark First, Craig Solomon, and Mark Hirsch – we have not only pivoted, but are paving the way for the generations to come. The membership is grateful to you all – todah rabbah.
With our enhanced digital and expanded flexible physical campus, there is lots of talk about “how” we fulfilled our mission this past year, but what is critical is that we never lose site of the “what.” Because it is the “what” that ultimately dictates the “how.” “What” is the role of Park Avenue Synagogue.
Our “what” continues to be, and I believe will be for the decades that come, centered around our three core pillars: learning (beit midrash); prayer (beit tefillah); and community, (beit knesset).
I am inspired by the words from Rabbi David Lincoln in his farewell Rosh Hashanah PAS sermon:
“What is a synagogue all about? The synagogue is about prayer and study and deeds of loving kindness. We cannot live alone in isolation. Some people are better at prayer, some are better at study, and some deeds. When we all come together, we have a wonderful center of Judaism”
But of course, one cannot have these pillars described by Rabbi Lincoln – the “what” – without the “how.” As we know, the “how” has not been easy with CDC guidelines, building closures, and remote members and staff. The leadership of Beryl and our Associate Executive Director Liz Offenbach, along with our Head of Facilities, Jason Santos; HR Manager Zawnia Dehaney; Director of Membership Rachel Zorboran; Communications Manager Maggi Heffler; Director of Finance Geet Engel; Director of Development Hadley Rolf; Michael Masullo; and their teams’ herculean efforts enabled us to deliver on our mission week in and week out. Todah rabbah!
So, let’s review the year in the context of our three pillars:
LEARNING (BEIT MIDRASH)
Starting with learning (beit midrash). Under the leadership of Rabbi Charlie Savenor, our education teams continued their pivot, emphasizing creativity while prioritizing in-person learning for our youngest learners, thoughtfully using our digital platform for all.
Our campus was filled throughout the year with our little ones, as we helped our families instill Jewish values with in-person community for their children. We had three sessions of our Shalom Shtayim program for our two-year-olds at 89th Street, and we will resume all other in-person toddler classes in the fall 2021. Our summer camp, which was virtual last summer, will resume on campus. Thank you to Jamie Diamond for your continued innovative leadership.
Park Avenue Synagogue’s Early Childhood Center was started in the Fall of 1965 with one class and 15 kids. And for the last 55 years, we opened our doors on 87th Street for our youngest students to start their first formal Jewish-based education. This chain was not broken, and the Penn Family ECC was up and running in person.
Despite the challenges of opening last September, our Director Pamela Schwartz would not take no for an answer, and with her bold leadership – along with Associate Director Pam Schaner – they showed us what indefatigable really means. Thank you to them and a special thanks to our Penn Family ECC and Shalom Shtayim teachers who were PAS’ front-line workers.
Our Congregational School – ably led by Jen Granowitz – was in full swing with virtual Tefillah, Judaics, and Hebrew tutoring for all 300+ learners. The addition of online tutoring for our younger students and flexibility in scheduling have been positive developments that we expect to continue once we return to in-person learning. We also introduced a “Taste of Congregational School” virtual program for K–3 learners to lure back some of the younger students that didn’t enroll because of pandemic challenges.
Our youth and teen program remain active. In the fall, we successfully reopened our teen led Food Pantry, serving dozens in need each Friday. We have had engaging virtual teen programming including sessions around the election, fashion, environmental activism, anti-Semitism, sports, and a Zoom challah bake. This spring we kicked off Calling Generations, a matching program between teens and older synagogue members. Thank you to our teen leadership council and Rachel Sherman for your efforts.
All in, our youth have completed over 1,000 online and physical classes and programs.
With the help of Rabbi Philp and Rabbi Witkovsky, our 20s & 30s program continues to pivot and we are planning a pride event next month. We are also growing our 20s & 30s small-group learning study circles.
We continue to serve as a major hub for adult education thanks to the hard work of Mara Bernstein as we continue to reinvent the Jewish learning experience. We are seeing strong participation not only for our marquee speakers from our Summer Virtual Village, such as Madeline Albreight and Admiral McGraven, or Shabbat talks by Senator Jackie Rosen and Bari Weiss, but also at our drop-in classes as people are enjoying the flexibility and easy access.
Fall programming focused on three areas: Elul classes for the High Holidays, major events in the U.S., and learning focused on Israel and the relationship with American Jews. The Shabbaton with the theme of Medical Ethics and Jewish Values in the 21st Century drew more than 600 participants throughout the weekend. Our Yom HaShoah and Yom HaAtzma’ut events were strongly attended, including a talk on the life and legacy of Elie Wiesel.
Travel at PAS continues, trip chairs and all, although no frequent flyer miles have been had. Dozens of young families are taking engaging virtual trips to Israel. For the adults, Magic Carpet Mondays kicked off with 190 people in virtual Vilna and trips from the comfort of our homes continued to the UAE, Morocco, Turkey, Iran, and Egypt. The silver lining is that we have been able to attract synagogue members who normally would not be able to participate. Our hugely successful physical travel program will ultimately return.
PRAYER/RITUAL (BEIT TEFILLAH)
Moving to prayer/ritual (beit tefillah). At the heart of PAS and what grounds us is our ritual experience. As we know, there are certain lifecycle events that can neither be deferred nor canceled. When someone is born or there is a wedding or sadly a death, we turn to ritual, and the first call is typically to one of our clergy. Our clergy have continued to perform in-person graveside funerals with virtual shivas, while always offering their thoughts and advice on how to manage through these challenging times. With the help of Rhonda Sexer-Levy, we also were blessed as a community to celebrate many simchas, including 70 Bnei Mitzvahs this past year, one of which was for my son Hayden.
Throughout this pandemic, we have learned what it means to have a truly exemplary clergy team. Under the inspirational leadership of Rabbi Cosgrove and Cantor Schwartz, along with Rabbi Zuckerman, Rabbi Witkovsky, Cantor Brook, and Rabbi Philp, our clergy have, through their words of wisdom and beautiful melodies, given us the hope and warmth we have needed. We also thank our Rabbinic Intern Viki Bedo, whom we wish luck in Virginia; our Cantorial Intern Mira Davis, who is staying at PAS as our Cantorial Fellow; and the pied piper, Josh Rosenberg, our current Cantorial Fellow who will spread his joy and kindness in Boston next year.
The excellence of our ritual experience was on center stage in the fall for our high holidays, as our team created the warmth and vibrancy our community needed. Our virtual services had rave reviews from our local members, as well as from the tens of thousands of participants across the globe who made PAS their only spiritual home for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Ironically, Shabbat attendance has increased this past year as we connect with thousands of homes each month. In fact, based on the popularity and need, unlike years past, we did not scale back the ritual experiences last summer nor winter break.
Minyan has also experienced a significant boost in participation, and we introduced a popular Zoom havdallah, both with daily participation in the multiple dozens, proving how the ease of accessibility can drive connectedness to Judaism. Thank you to Ross Abelow, our head usher, who has kept the trains running each week.
Music has been a key ingredient in the innovation of our ritual experience and under the leadership of Cantor Schwartz, we continue to be at the forefront of Jewish music, which is now integrated into our weekly newsletters. Our first virtual Purim spiel, A Purim Fairytale, was beautifully led by Cantor Brook and Josh with an all-star cast in a creative production that was enjoyed by hundreds of households.
We continued our engaging concerts, including the Carnegie Hall Be the Light concert showcasing Jewish and Gospel music. And next month, Cantor Brook will lead the Shul Sisters concert. The following day, we will be celebrating her with pride as we wish her success as she heads to Chicago to lead her new congregation July 1. Thank you as well to David Enlow, our Music Director, and to your team for the beautiful melodies each holiday and Shabbat.
COMMUNITY (BEIT KNESSET)
The third leg to our stool is community (beit knesset). In the words of Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, “The social distancing we have all been compelled to undertake should become a tool of community building and social bonding. We must ensure that Jewish life isn’t enfeebled, but empowered.”
Park Avenue Synagogue has done just that. As I said this past Kol Nidre, our commitment to our members, regardless of what challenges and opportunities lie on the horizon, will be to make sure Park Avenue Synagogue holds as many hands and as many hearts as we possibly can. To help make that a reality, Rachel Zorboran and Rabbi Zuckerman led an effort to reach out to our community this past year with more than 100 callers attempting to contact every one of our members both on the High Holidays and Passover. Thank you to many of you who helped in this effort.
We formed a Tikkun Olam General Council and a new Tikkun Olam webpage to find ways to be engaged with current opportunities to make a difference including COVID-19, racial inequality, poverty and hunger, LGBTQ+ and gender equality, and climate change.
This past Simchat Torah, we honored our PAS Lamplighters, those members who have brought light to others during the challenging months and heard incredible real-life stories. We rolled out our new Community Covenant, representing our shared commitment to honoring and respecting each other.
Mitzvah Day was reimagined, including a special drive led by our Women’s Network donating diapers and baby wipes to the Met Council.
JDAIM (Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month) emphasized mental illness, addiction, autism, and activism which was seamlessly integrated into our programming including, a Shirenu service during Shabbaton weekend with visual tefillah slides and sign language interpretation
So, taking a big step back and looking at where we are today as an institution, as I have explained, we have been very, very successful in the pivot – adapting the “how” to enable our three pillars, the “what.” But where do we go from here? I would now characterize us from moving well out of pivot mode to transition mode.
The obvious immediate transition we are embarking upon is for our Executive Director. Our new Executive Director, Valerie Russo, who is with us this evening, started this Monday, having a week of in-person overlap with Beryl, who will remain in a formal advisory capacity through the end of June.
There is the transition back to campus, which has been and will be a phased approach. As I have discussed with the board, we will be neither laggards nor front of the pack as we open our campus. We will prioritize the safety of our community in a thoughtful way. We actually started this transition in the fall with our young learners being physically present throughout the year. And there is progress being made as we speak and much more to come as we bring back more and more elements of ritual and programming in the coming weeks and months. A once-a-week Sunday in-person minyan last month is now two per week. And just last Friday, we piloted in-person Friday night Shabbat services and are rolling it out in a limited way to vaccinated members tomorrow.
Regarding High Holidays, we have set up three committees who have been meeting weekly since January to help ensure the excellence our members expect this coming fall. We have a High Holiday Task Force that, like last year, is focused on the ritual and programming elements.
This is complemented by our A/V Sanctuary Task Force, which is focused on maximizing the production quality of PAS’ services and ritual events to ensure integration with our in-person worship services.
Finally, there is the Project Pew Task Force, which is focused on our digital streaming platform and other strategic issues.
As far as the elephant in the room and what to expect for the High Holidays, first, we will obviously need to abide by the government guidelines, which are moving targets at this point. But we do expect to run first-rate hybrid services – virtual as well as in-person – at our three typical locations. And of course, there are lots of discussions regarding family and youth options: indoor, outdoor, pre-recorded, Livestream.
It is way too premature to go into details about capacity and which High Holiday services members will be able to attend and what requirements we will be required for in-person attendance – although I point out that we are now essentially requiring vaccination for Kabbalat Shabbat attendance, and this is very likely a model for the fall. We aren’t prepared to answer any more questions on this. We will in the coming weeks, but what I can assure you is that the high standard of PAS excellence you know and deserve.
Another important “transition” is our transition for the years ahead, our future. We have learned a ton over the last 14 pandemic months, and certain trends have been accelerated and some cut off. Synagogues are no exception, and PAS is not immune to the challenges nor the opportunities ahead in the post-pandemic world.
The pandemic should not slow us down, and the board is focused not only providing resources for the short-term execution, but also paving the way for the future. As such, we embarked on what we have called Project Pew.
Project Pew is based on PAS’ leadership in high-quality online programming during the pandemic and aims to figure out how to best serve our existing community while extending to aspiring members. This includes understanding and providing the building blocks needed to continue to thrive.
We aren’t doing this in a vacuum – we have partnered with BLS Research to conduct focus groups and a survey to better understand the community’s experience with PAS prior to and during the pandemic, as well as how the interaction might change afterward.
We had over 1,300 people complete the survey, including 400 members and 900 remote participants. The punchline is that there is tremendous satisfaction from our existing members who actually showed a 48 percent increase in satisfaction in PAS this past year. In fact, many members have engaged more upon discovering new ways to participate, with about 90 percent of members seeing the appeal of hybrid services and programming going forward.
Remote participants are extremely grateful for finding PAS and the availability of our online services and programming. They demonstrate a 97 percent satisfaction rate. As some proof, we received almost 2,000 donations from non-members since the High Holidays, amounting to almost $400,000. Yet, while many of them aspire to be members, they are unsure how to engage more fully or what membership opportunities are available for them at PAS.
It is clear that we have raised the bar with respect to the art of the possible with members and aspiring members associating PAS with excellence by making first-rate ritual and programmatic experiences easily accessible.
It is clear: Going back to the way it was, will not be acceptable. The “phygital” – physical and digital – synagogue is here to stay, and no one is better positioned to take a leadership role in figuring it out than PAS. As part of the Project Pew work, we are building out a plan to continue providing, and likely extend, our online capabilities to serve the PAS community, including a technology roadmap. We also need to begin to have our organizational staffing reflect the broader set of community needs reflected in the survey responses, including additional hires in A/V and communications, as well as the announcement Tuesday of our new Director of Content and Innovation, Rabbi Koffman.
While we are still thinking through our strategic vision and are even figuring out what our future state membership revenue model could be, we need to seize the moment and cannot risk losing the current members nor the interest of prospective members.
This, I believe, puts us both on offense and defense, given the expectations of content and access for our members and aspiring members. You will hear more about our strategic vision this coming fall.
While this will all be difficult to figure out, Park Avenue Synagogue possesses the strength of time and tradition, as well as the creative and entrepreneurial capacity to do so.
In the words of Rabbi Lincoln, also from his final High Holiday sermon, “And so we look to the future. I am sure that Park Avenue Synagogue will continue to be a light unto the nations.”
Rabbi Lincoln, I couldn’t agree more, and perhaps you have helped us name this past chapter: “The PAS pivot brings the community together, building a strong foundation of excellence as it continues to be a light unto the generations ahead.”
I look forward to leading our beautiful community through our 140th year and am excited to hear what our future chapters will be called.
But before I turn it over to Beryl to facilitate any Q&A people may have, I want to remind everyone that immediately after this meeting, we will have a tribute to Beryl, honoring him for the great work he has done for our last 19 chapters and wishing him the best for his personal ones to come.