141st Annual Meeting Report – Chairman Mark First
Welcome, everyone, to the 141st congregational meeting of Park Avenue Synagogue! I am happy to say that despite some challenges, it was a successful year and one of progress at our synagogue.
I officially welcome you to the 140th annual meeting of Park Avenue Synagogue.
As many of you know, Park Avenue Synagogue is an amalgamation of a number of synagogues over our storied history, and tracing back to our founding is not so simple. Our original roots actually go back beyond 1882 to as early as 1843, which would make us over 180 years old. Either way, older than Moses and not close to approaching Methuselah.
Our community was rooted in a variety of locations starting downtown on Leonard and Christie Street, moving uptown in the 1880s to 72nd Street, then further north to 82nd and then 86th, and now we have a thriving campus on 87th and 89th Streets.
Our predecessor communities weathered several changes in affiliation among the various branches of Judaism: from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform to Conservative-Reform to Conservative with Reconstructionist emphasis to Conservative, with many variations.
We have had a variety of names: Congregation Beth Israel, Congregation Gates of Hope, the 86th Street Temple, nicknamed The Little Temple, to name a few. Our current Hebrew name is legacy, but perfectly fitting: Agudat Yesharim, the Association of the Righteous. And our secular name is Park Avenue Synagogue, although we never seem to have been located on Park Avenue. Perhaps we had a communications committee in the 1920s that did a branding study – now that would be foresight.
We have had renowned clergy – rabbis and cantors Schulman, Sternberg, Nadich, Lincoln, Lefkowitz – and we are now living in the Cosgrove/Schwartz era.
From the early 1800s with our ten original members to our current 5,000+ person shul, now a touchpoint to hundreds of thousands across the diaspora, our congregation has withstood wars, recessions, depressions, rises in antisemitism, declining religious and Jewish affiliation, and yes, pandemics.
We, the Association of the Righteous, have not only gotten through it all, but we have consistently come out the other end stronger. Looking back, there has been one constant for almost two centuries: lay leaders with deep loyalty and a commitment to fulfilling our mission and ensuring that our beloved institution thrives into the generations to come.
At our annual meeting 101 years ago, then board head Jacob Friedman framed this leadership ideal, stating: “What we are doing is laying the foundation of a greater institution than we have now . . . so that after we are gone, the youth. . . will say in pride ‘we must keep up the spirit of our faith, for look what our [parents] have left us to take care.’”
Members of Park Avenue Synagogue, today is no ordinary annual meeting. Today is the passing of the torch to our next group of leaders to ensure, as Jacob Friedman instructed, that we can pass our institution down to the next generation, l’dor vador.
This evening I will summarize the year gone by and start and end with the context of the experience of our current Officers, the indefatigable eight, who despite unforeseen circumstances these past four years, have indeed helped lay the foundation for our next group of able lay leaders.
In that spirit, about an hour ago, we continued a tradition started by past Chairman Steve Friedman, where the current Officers gather with the incoming team for a l’chayim toast to our future. Steve’s message to the Art Penn administration nine years ago was a simple one: “Don’t mess it up.” Four years ago, Art emphasized to us that being an Officer is an important responsibility, but noted that given our remarkable community, it was actually impossible to “mess it up.”
My message to the incoming Officers was to make sure they appreciate that they are about to become an instrumental part of the glorious history and future of our institution, one which is not only the leading force in the Conservative movement, but uniquely qualified to pave the way and define Jewish life in the diaspora for future decades. I echoed the century-old words of Jacob Friedman, that their responsibility was to lay the foundation for the generations to come. That the job of our lay leaders is to ensure that our institution continues to thrive, not just for the next four years, but for another 140 or 180 years.
I relayed the sentiments that were once reflected by past Chairman Amy Bressman, when she said: “We have reached this milestone. . . because of the commitment and devotion of those who came before us, and we thrive because of the efforts of so many. . .”
In closing, I conveyed to the new Officers that, as the current administration can truly appreciate, there will be many bumps in the road, but if they take on this role with a sense of humility and stay true to our values and mission and, most importantly, act with hesed, with kindness, the rest will prove to be quite fun and one of the most rewarding experiences of their lives.
As I reflect upon the past four years and the start of our current administration, I go back to the saying Rabbi Cosgrove has reiterated: “Man plans and God laughs.” We started off four years ago with a plan: Keep the community together while operating out of our temporary space until we can move back into 87th Street for the High Holidays in 2019. All, of course, while moving forward on key initiatives in areas such a branding, communications, human capital, and operational excellence.
With the incredible work of our amazing staff, we started off as expected and moved most of our team into the Church of Heavenly Rest and embarked on our journey to “keep it all together.” It required some creativity: Kiddush-to-go, classrooms and services across the Upper East Side, study circles at people’s homes, new locations for the High Holidays and minyan, makeshift bathrooms, board meetings on a basketball court, increased utilization of our Lifelong Learning
Center, offsite bnei mitzvah tutoring, and I could go on and on. But the mindset of the staff and board was not only to keep things together, but to keep moving forward.
And that is exactly what we did. PAS kept attendance high for our ritual activities, created world-class musical experiences, forged ahead with excellence in programming and education and even ran the single largest synagogue trip to Israel ever with over 450 people. And it was this mindset of perseverance and innovation that proved to be a foreshadowing of the times to come. But first, we made it back home, on schedule, barely, in the fall of 2019 for the High Holidays and ultimately celebrated our rededication that Hanukkah with an emphasis on our PAS values. It was a special moment, the Sanctuary packed with the energy, warmth, and love of our community.
As a relatively new administration, our honeymoon eighteen months went pretty much “as planned” and we prepared the budget and roadmap for what was supposed to be “getting back to normal” in the year ahead. Or so we thought. What we didn’t know was that the December 2019 celebration was essentially the last time we would be physically together as a community for two years.
The pandemic arrived and as with other institutions, our initial focus was survival. Can we pay our bills, keep our staff, retain our members, keep our preschool open, run our programs safely, have bnei mitzvah, run a minyan, educate our youth, tend to our elderly? What happens if the clergy get contact-traced or worse, infected with COVID? More broadly speaking, in an isolated and scary world, how during a pandemic would we possibly fulfill our mission: “to inspire, educate, and support each other towards living passion-filled Jewish lives”? But with the power of partnership between staff and lay leaders, and the foundation laid by our predecessors, we made the great pivot. Ironically, it was our first year of planned dislocation – emphasizing flexibility and use of technology – that made us better prepared for the challenges our institution faced.
COVID pushed us as a synagogue to be bold and adapt quickly, and we did what we needed to do: we kept our preschool open and youth programs running – first virtual, then hybrid, and now in-person; we launched hundreds of videos along with e-learning classes; we used technology for world-class programming and virtual travel; we stayed connected with those who needed us with adapted programs; we revamped our marketing and communications to have global reach to hundreds of thousands who relied on our community, to have community. This list could go on and on. With grit and innovation, and with new media like our PASConnect app, we leveraged our best-in-class ritual and programming to engage hundreds more existing members with increased participation.
The pulse of our community continues to be driven by our amazing clergy and staff, who have worked passionately and tirelessly to do all this. To our entire PAS team led by Rabbi Cosgrove and Cantor Schwartz along with our Executive Director Valerie Russo, on behalf of the board and our 1,800 family units: Thank you! Because of you, we have overcome obstacles these past four years and taken a nimble and fearless approach to serving our community. Because of you, our staff, and your partnership with an unbelievable group of dedicated lay leaders, led by the
indefatigable eight, we have not only survived, but are paving the way for the generations to come. The membership is grateful to you all – Todah rabbah!
Let’s take a quick look back at this past year and reflect on what we have achieved as an institution, because there are so many spectacular things, both ordinary and extraordinary, that have made us even stronger these last twelve months.
Our mission continues to be centered around three core pillars: Prayer/Beit Tefillah; Learning/ Beit Midrash; and Community/Beit Knesset.
Starting with our Beit Tefillah, House of Prayer
At the heart of who we are is our focus on ritual experience, and the core of our Beit Tefillah is our outstanding clergy. Under the leadership of Rabbi Cosgrove and Cantor Schwartz, along with Rabbi Zuckerman, Rabbi Witkovsky, and Cantor Davis, this past year we have once again provided our community deep and meaningful ritual experiences. We kicked off the fall with hybrid High Holiday services – back in person for those who wanted, along with over 200,000 digital touchpoints from over forty countries. With PAS CONNECT, people were able to watch in real time or in many instances replay when practical and even rewatch segments over and over again – favorites like the Schwartz kids’ spectacular performances or Rabbi Cosgrove’s Blink of an Eye sermon. To enable all this, during the summer, we embarked on a A/V upgrade, investing significantly in enhanced audio and video capabilities as well as completing phase one of Project Pew, our enhanced digital strategy.
Our High Holiday services demonstrated the excellence of what we do serving our members from wherever they want to worship. The logistical challenges and complexity we faced were met with a herculean effort under under Valerie’s leadership along with our veterans former Associate Executive Director Liz Offenbach, Director of Facilities Jason Santos, Director of Finance Geet Engel, and IT lead Mike Masullo as well newcomers like our Director of A/V & Production, Oscar Acevedo. We welcome our new Director of Communications, Lesley Alpert-Schuldenfrei, who will make us even better in the years to come. Thank you.
We got back in person for Shabbat services, better than ever, with mesmerizing sermons, new melodies, aliyot, Kiddush on the roof, and thousands joining however convenient. Minyan is also back in person with dozens attending, and we are even seeing better attendance than pre-pandemic levels.
Music has been a key ingredient of the innovation of our ritual experience, and we completed our Haggadah for Young Families, hosted a music salon, brought the Purim Spiel back to the sanctuary and reaffirmed our commitment to “Never Again” with a Kristallnacht commemoration.
Our Beit Tefillah will miss Rabbi Witkovsky, who after eight years will be taking over his own pulpit. Rabbi Witkovsky and Erin: We thank you for all you have done for our community and we are proud and excited to see your success in Philly – they are lucky to have you!
Moving to our Beit Midrash, our House of Learning
Under the steady hand of Rabbi Lori Koffman, our Director of Content and Innovation, recently joined by Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, our Director of Congregational Education, our educational programs remain strong and have a brighter future. We thank them as well as Rabbi Savenor for their leadership and excellence.
This year, our Shalom Shtayim class and summer camp are both back in person and we had a highly successful Purim program. Thank you, Jamie Diamond, our Director of Young Family Education, for your continued innovative leadership for our youngest learners.
The Penn Family Early Childhood Center is back in person for the second year in a row under the stewardship of Director Pamela Schwartz, who has been spectacular navigating the countless bumps in the road with changing COVID guidelines, variants, outbreaks, and a community with divergent views. Yet she continues to raise the bar of excellence. Thank you, Pamela.
Our Congregational School is now in person and back on on the uptrend. We have made A/V investments to allow entire grades to build community by learning together including Shabbat programming. We thank Jennifer Stern Granowitz for over a decade of service and we are excited for Melissa Silverman Cohavi to step up and into Jen’s role as Director of the Congregational School.
Our teen program continues to find strength with our teen leaders, with the Teen Leadership Council paving the way. Our teens remain active through programs including our renowned food pantry, Midnight Run, donut crawl, carriage ride, and a teen college panel, to name a few. For our college students, we got back to sending out packages, something I know my daughter Olivia appreciated.
PAS continues to serve as a major hub for adult education under Rabbi Koffman’s leadership. While I could never list the dozens and dozens of our high caliber programs, a great example of our success was a dialogue with Dan Doctoroff and Rabbi Cosgrove discussing the rebuilding of New York City. Participation included several dozen members in person, several hundred virtually, and almost 2,000 people who watched a recording on PASConnect. In the pre-pivot world, the discussion simply would been seen once by just the few who could make it physically during the allotted window. This broad reach also becomes a virtuous circle, as we are able to attract better speakers who want more reach than just our local community. Our Shabbaton was back in person and hybrid, focusing on antisemitism with Deborah Lipstadt and our very own Alan Levine in dialogue. A big todah rabbah to Mara Bernstein, our Director of Synagogue Programming & Adult Education, who makes it all happen.
Virtual travel continued for all demographics and will resume in person in the fall with an adult trip to Israel and the UAE, a December Bnei Mitzvah Israel trip, and much more to come. And our arts engagement has been taken to another level of excellence with our partnership with Menorah Galleries, which has been curating exhibits in our new display cases each holiday season.
Moving to our excellence as a Beit Knesset, House of Community
I find comfort that at Park Avenue Synagogue, the pillars of learning and ritual seem to be on the rise and are sought after now more than ever. But most importantly, they continue to be integrating with the third pillar of community.
Despite two years of COVID challenges, our Arms continue to bring people together with interesting and vibrant programs. We had a Women’s Network event at the Jewish Museum, and we are having a Men’s Club cryptocurrency event in June. Our Young Couples Group had a comedy night last fall and just had a casino night.
Our sense of community is best exemplified by our re-envisioned Tikkun Olam effort with our Tikkun Olam General Council focused on getting more members involved in a broader set of causes. Our community has been engaged in monthly sandwich making with the NYCP, and a new Met Council Partnership to pack and deliver food. Mitzvah Day returned in person with great success with several new projects including Days for Girls and East Harlem WIN and continuing favorites like the blood drive. Thank you, Rabbi Zuckerman, for helping make Tikkun Olam, which I know is near and dear to your heart, a core tenet at PAS.
Our community’s generosity knows no bounds. Having raised a record $4.5 million for Kol Nidrei, plus $500 thousand from 1,300 nonmembers, we raised significant dollars for the Ukraine relief efforts. We had our gala in person last week and it was so great to be back together. We thank our Director of Development, Hadley Rolf, whose innovative and creative spirit has kept us moving forward, kadimah.
The excellence of our Beit Knesset is driven by our superlative lay leaders, the hundreds of volunteers dedicated to fulfilling our mission. In Jacob Friedman’s yearly reports a century ago, he passionately repeated his desire and need for increasing involvement by the members in the “active service of the synagogue.” Over my last nine years as an Officer, I have been in awe of the incredible volunteers and leaders dedicating thousands of hours to make this institution hum. To all of you: Thank you, it has been an honor to serve by your side.
There is no better example of this servant leadership than our current Officer team, my partners, the indefatigable eight:
Amy, when we were assembling the group of Officers four and a half years ago, you were an obvious candidate: Few lay leaders had your breadth and depth of experience across PAS as well as your zest to “do good.” You were already co-chairing our monumental trip to Israel and took on the broader responsibility of Membership, Caring, and Inclusion. And when the bumps in the road came, and we needed to keep the community together while staying true to our values, your passion and relentless focus on our broad community was what we really needed. You also spearheaded the reinvigoration and growth of our Tikkun Olam efforts, something near and dear to my heart. You expanded inclusion from education to all aspects of the community, culminating with a change to our bylaws to welcome interfaith families. Your focus on furthering our values was evident when you co-chaired our rededication and led the way on our community covenant. All while keeping your eye on our day school community. Amy Steiner has exemplified the heart, soul, and kindness of our community.
Amy, thank you for helping us reach this milestone in our history; we are stronger because of you.
Mark Hirsch. Not to be formal, but we have three Officers named “Mark.” Mark, as our de facto General Counsel, your counsel during our twists and turns these four years has been instrumental. You took full control over our legal matters, reviewed countless contracts, handled lawsuits, and organized our board in the most efficient manner, altogether redefining the role of Board Secretary. And pairing with your legal skills was your true passion, “all things worship.” You brought back the Ritual Advisory Committee, which has been a guiding hand on worship during COVID and you helped our High Holiday Steering Committee navigate through uncharted territory. And as I have experienced recently, you have been a steady hand and leader of our minyan, with participation increasing multifold over the last four years. You have also helped ensure our position as the leading Jewish music center in North America with your partnership with Cantor Schwartz. Rabbi Cosgrove said in his recent sermon that to be holy requires both observance and kindness. Mark Hirsch is our poster child for “holy” and it is no surprise he will be next year’s Hatan Torah.
Mark, thank you for helping us reach this milestone in our history; we are stronger because of you.
Nan, I am sure you had no idea four years ago how important your role would become . . . and how many hours would be needed to do it. Adult education and programming has always been foundational for our membership, but when COVID turned the world upside down, it became the glue that kept so many people together. From a content and participation perspective, PAS adult programming is stronger than ever with depth and breadth beyond what we could have imagined. This is because of your hard work, passion, and stewardship. With Lizzy, you helped re-envision travel during COVID, when no one could travel. Your work on the archives has been monumental and will ensure that our history endures. And you have brought our gallery and the arts to another level of excellence. You also focused on general engagement creating a roadmap with “ways to get involved” at PAS and helped ensure our Arms continued during COVID. You were our first Officer liaison to facilitate Honorary Trustee engagement. Nan, you are an exemplar with your dedication and commitment to making our institution better and there is no better person than you to have as next year’s Kallat B’reishit.
Nan, thank you for helping us reach this milestone in our history; we are stronger because of you.
Craig, your leadership in our once-in-a-generation space project was foundational for our ability to adapt to a hybrid world. Your passion and pride in our infrastructure, and your advocacy to always do it the “right way” enabled the power of the pivot. As we both know, moving back into our 87th Street building came down to the wire, but you got it done with excellence and ensured we were able to have everyone back together for the High Holidays in 2019, before what we didn’t know would be a several-year hiatus. But the new and flexible spaces along with the integrated technology were more instrumental than we ever could have thought. And the work continued as we transformed our worship spaces into hybrid spaces while still maintaining an intimate feel – all with the Craig Solomon golden touch. Also, your focus on security and
integrating it has kept us safe in an uncertain environment. Craig, you and I have lived this dream together for almost a decade. It has been complicated, it has been fun, and this all would not have been possible without you.
Craig, thank you for helping us reach this milestone in our history; we are stronger because of you.
Lizzy, I remember that first breakfast we had at Eli’s. I am not sure you knew what you were getting into, but you certainly got right into it. Your energy has been contagious and key to our culture of moving forward. Keeping our youth programs fully operational was an institutional priority. For our youngest members, under your direction, we were able to keep the ECC and Shalom Shtayim operational and open in person the first COVID fall. And our congregational school went virtual to hybrid to in person. There were round-the-clock calls with the team and congregants, and it wasn’t easy – it was actually really hard – but you were the steady hand and staunch advocate for our kids, keeping it all together, always with your charm and upbeat attitude. Along with Nan, you helped re-envision travel and we will be back at it in the fall. You have led a number of critical searches and helped bring in strong leadership at the clergy and staff level. You were always the go-to person when we needed someone to represent our brand. Lizzy, I am thrilled that you will continue on as a leader of our community; we are so very, very lucky.
Lizzy, thank you for helping us reach this milestone in our history; we are stronger because of you.
Mark First, you continue to raise the bar of excellence in everything you do, and that you do for the PAS community, which I know you love. As you emerged from behind the scenes five years ago doing “anything and everything that was needed” to now, an inspirational leader, our community has been the beneficiary. You have guided us financially through rough waters, always protecting the institution. Each year, we looked forward to your budget themes. I think you have coined the phrase “Programmatically Supportive and Fiscally Responsible.” But my favorite is your latest: “Strengthening our Foundation While Moving Forward,” a great indicator of your vision for our institution. Under your leadership overseeing Development, we kept our ambitious fundraising plans in sync with our synagogue’s aspirations. We continued to grow our Capital Campaign and with your guidance, we have had a record Kol Nidrei raise. Your leadership has been instrumental in our strategic work, including Project Pew as well as our administrative transformation including our Executive Director search and integration. Mark, you do it all - with pride, dedication and, most importantly, in your menschlichkeit way. I am confident that our institution and our future is in great hands with you to take us from strength to strength.
Mark, thank you for helping us reach this milestone in our history; we are stronger because of you and will be for the years to come.
Natalie, we have had almost a decade together leading our incredible community, one you have served with a remarkable sense of loyalty and care. Nine years of Officer meetings and walks back to 93rd Street, countless calls and meetings and lots of hard work and laughs along the way.
A century ago, the role of Chairman was created as Jacob Friedman in his third decade as President needed a partner to help manage this complex institution. I can think of no better person to have had as my partner these past four years. Your contributions to Park Avenue Synagogue are endless, as is your devotion to our community.
You have overseen the transformation in our brand and communications efforts. You chaired multiple committees to bring in the leaders of PAS’s future and oversaw our complex committee leadership structure creating the building blocks for decades. You led our move to professionalize our human capital and oversaw an administration metamorphosis. When things got tough, you always stepped up. Whether it was leading our COVID advisory committee or navigating a one-off crisis, you never shied away, always knee-deep and always putting PAS first. And when our board members and members in general had a concern or question, they always knew they could rely on you – just as I always could.
A decade later, I not only come out with the highest respect and regard for you as a person and a selfless leader, I have gained a close friend. No one, and I mean no one, has worked harder this past decade making PAS who we are than you, and your impact will be long-lasting and immeasurable.
Natalie, my partner and friend, thank you for helping us reach this milestone in our history, we are so, so much stronger because of you.
In Rabbi Cosgrove’s Yom Kippur sermon in 5781, he stated “What are you doing out there? It is no longer enough, in this day and age, simply to care. You have to do! You have to make that problem your problem.” Our current Officers group had no shortage of problems to solve; they made them their problems, and we have reached this milestone in our 140-year history and are stronger because of them.
Speaking of caring and doing, the core and heart of PAS has been our spiritual leader, Rabbi Cosgrove. Rabbi, we went into this together with eyes wide open, trying to manage our multi-faceted relationship: board chair/PAS staff; member/clergy; friends. And with mutual trust and respect, and a shared devotion to and love of our community, our partnership thrived. You have made this journey one I am truly grateful for.
I would like to take a moment to thank my incredible family for their support and the sacrifices they have made. My kids were 5, 7, and 9 when I became an Officer, and there were lots of missed dinners, missed soccer games, missed family moments, and plenty of late-night calls. Now they are teenagers who love this community and are committed to its success. And special thanks to my incomparable wife Caryn, always stepping in, always supportive, always cheering me and PAS on. Thank you, Caryn, Olivia, Willow, and Hayden. You have helped Park Avenue Synagogue reach this milestone in our history, and we are stronger because of all of you.
So, as we wrap up this year, and the current administration comes to an end, the comment I have recently received most frequently is “this was not what you signed up for.” Which brings me back to the question I received most frequently before I started my new role: “Why would you possibly do this?” As I said during my Kol Nidrei address this past year, the story of Mah Tovu
was about turning a curse into a blessing, and how PAS during COVID found opportunity in the catastrophe.
There is an English expression that is claimed to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” While seemingly a blessing, the expression is normally used ironically; life is better in “uninteresting times” of peace and tranquility than in “interesting” ones, which are usually times of trouble. Our team certainly lived in “interesting times.” But was it a curse: “Not exactly what we signed up for”? Or was it a blessing: “Because this team was exactly what our institution needed in a time of need”? The answer is clearly the latter. For the indefatigable eight, this was a blessing and the opportunity of a lifetime to make a difference. We have been honored to serve, to stand on the shoulders of those before us, and to provide a foundation for the generations to come.
Thank you for entrusting us with this beloved institution and allowing us to reach this moment. It has truly, truly, truly been an honor.