Chairman of the Board Mark First Addresses the Congregation on Kol Nidrei
Chairman of the Board Mark First addresses the congregation on Kol Nidrei
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. As I reflected upon the year in preparation for tonight, what struck me was the fact that PAS just completed 141 years – more if you begin counting from the formation of some of our founding synagogues – quite an accomplishment for any institution!
So, what enables some institutions to succeed and achieve such longevity, while most do not come anywhere close? For sure, we have had great leaders and supportive members who came before us; we are the beneficiaries of their hard work, vision and stewardship. But I believe there are three requirements to achieve institutional longevity, of which the first two are:
1) Reacting to the challenges of the day, and
2) Investing and executing in support of excellence
We’ll get to the third in a minute, but let’s first look back to the start of this year.
It is easy to forget, but the environment was very different just one year ago. We were undergoing an officer transition in addition to onboarding a new rabbi, all of which, I am happy to say, occurred seamlessly. COVID was abating albeit it was not over, and we didn’t know if our members would want to return to the building or just continue connecting online. Would we be able to use our facilities in the way they had been designed? And would large-scale events centered around food be of interest to many, if any? Spoiler alert: big events with food are back. Certain staff had joined during COVID and had never operated in a more typical world. And yet, it was a successful year by most all accounts.
A theme for the year was yachad, being together. It was the theme of our Kol Nidrei Appeal and the name of our new High Holiday service, as well as our monthly community-led Shabbat B’yachad service. But it was also central to our objective to have people return to the building and engage and participate in person – and that we did. In fact, “Showing Up” might have been an equally descriptive theme, as our members are showing up, in strength, and for everything! Our current membership is a record 1,840 family units, and that does not count the more than approximately 250 online Tent supporters or thousands of others in our extended community who engage and support us online. Our annual Kol Nidrei Appeal again achieved record results, as did our recent Gala honoring Marc Becker, which was both a great financial success and also a community success, with more than 500 people attending!
Our programming and educational initiatives are extensive, robust, and focused on offering ways for all of our demographics to engage. More than 200 adult learners study and learn with our rabbis every week, and every month thousands participate online and in person in Jewish conversation, in our many lectures, dialogues, scholars-in-residence, social programs, and more. In addition to our extensive holiday programming, our Fall theme was “Shabbat Across PAS” and our Spring theme is “Israel at 75.” Many thanks to Rabbi Lori Koffman, Mara Bernstein, and their Adult Engagement team for leading so many of these initiatives.
It was a bit of back-to-the-future as some fan favorites returned this year to great reviews: our in-person Shabbaton, community Shabbat dinners, and Passover Seder each had more than 200 participants. Travel returned with trips to Israel and Portugal and teen trips to the South and to Albany. And our in-person Shabbat kiddush returned – with unwrapped food – and a mid-year addition was the return of – wait for it – tuna fish and egg salad! Personally, I am most excited about this one, not because I eat either but because now Kiddush conversation can be about something other than the food!
And there were also some new and expanded community engagement initiatives, which included several meetings of our Downtown PAS members, which of course occurred downtown; 20s/30s-focused book clubs, sold-out dinners and events; 40s/50s cocktail hours and speakers; and, most recently, a 70+ initiative that has attracted more than 70 people to lunch and learn together at Park Avenue Synagogue.
Our Congregational School, Early Childhood Center, camp, youth, and teen programs are all thriving, and further momentum is expected for this coming year. Many thanks to Rabbi Bradley Solmsen and his team, including Pamela Schwartz, Melissa Cohavi, Jamie Diamond, Arielle Glueck, and Cantor Arielle Reisner, who make it all happen.
And of course, central to who we are as a synagogue is our commitment to prayer, worship, and life cycle events. We are eternally grateful to the leadership of our rabbis: Rabbi Cosgrove, Rabbi Zuckerman, and Rabbi Zauzmer, whom we welcomed back this year; and our Cantors: Cantor Schwartz and Cantor Davis, both of whom renewed contracts this year. With David Enlow and his musical team, we will continue to experience beautiful music for years to come. I also want to thank Rabbi Kornsgold and Cantor Michaeli for being part of our PAS family these past several years and wish them luck in their next great adventures. Our clergy team is world-class, and we are lucky to have them to inspire, educate, counsel, and console us!
Behind the scenes, making the synagogue run, is our administrative team led by our Executive Director Valerie Russo. I walked around the building during last Friday’s Shabbat service, only to see one program being cleaned up on the third floor, kiddush in the lobby along with two other dinners being set up downstairs, all made possible by Jason Santos and his facilities team. I found Oscar Acevedo, our Director of AV and Production, coordinating camera shots and sound levels with his team so the clergy could be seen and heard. Ross Abelow and his team of ushers made sure that the service ran smoothly. The Shabbat Shalom brochures had been designed and printed by Lesley Alpert-Schuldenfrei and her marketing and communications team, who also did a good job publicizing the evening since more than 400 people were in attendance for many different reasons.
With the help of her Chief of Staff, Susan Zuckerman, Valerie is completing year two of a multi-year plan to raise the excellence of our administrative departments. It was a year of progress in many respects, with a focus on people, processes, and systems, although there is still work to be done. Zawnia Dehaney continues to lead our people initiatives as our Director of Human Resources, and this year we welcomed Sarah Cohen as our Director of Membership. We are close to completing our search for a Director of Development and have a search ongoing for a Director of Finance, although I do want to acknowledge the leadership of David Webber over the past year as our interim Director of Finance.
Finally, I want to thank Alberto and the entire Security USA team for keeping us safe. Security is most effective when the details and levels of protections are not shared, but know that security has been and will always be a top priority for us. While you can never predict or protect against everything, we invest meaningfully to ensure that PAS is a safe place for us all to be.
An overall thank you to the staff and clergy – those whom I have mentioned by name, and the many more that I have not mentioned – without whom none of this would be possible. Nothing at Park Avenue Synagogue happens by chance or without a lot of hard work, thought, and planning. Thank you!
Additionally, I am most grateful to my Officer partners – Paula Gendel, Erica Friedman, Lauren Klein, Melissa Raskin, Stefanie Katz Rothman, Andrew Siegel, and our President Lizzy Markus. I could not, and would not, do this without you! Also, thanks to our many volunteers, lay leaders, and to all of you – our congregants.
This past summer we completed a refresh of our sanctuary, which included a new bimah, carpet, and furniture. While our office and classroom building was renovated in 2019, our sanctuary building is more than 100 years old and so at times you will see scaffolding or hear construction to maintain them.
In his Treasurer’s report, Andrew will explain how we continue to operate at a break-even level – fiscal responsibility being a critical for institutions to be around for many years.
So, what is the third determinant for institutional longevity? I believe it is thinking about and planning for the future, as well as adapting with and in advance of the times. John F. Kennedy has been quoted as saying: “Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past and present are certain to miss the future.” We are working hard not just to be in a position to react to the future, but to actually make and create our own future. And no, it is not a coincidence that our recent Gala was themed “Atid – Inspiring our Future.”
Rabbi Cosgrove mentioned in his remarks some of his challenges and aspirations for the community. For several of these initiatives, we have already formed a series of task forces, or strategic initiative review groups, which combine staff, clergy and lay leaders. Our goal is to evaluate how we are doing, what more or different things we should be doing, and what opportunities might there be in the future for PAS. This is not because things are broken or not working but rather because we are striving for improvement and excellence. I do not know what any of these efforts will yield and where they will go, but I do know that they will, at a minimum, make us a better and smarter institution.
I hope the year ahead brings more of the same as it relates to institutional momentum and community engagement, and with continued evaluation, innovation, and progress across many fronts. While it is impossible to know what challenges will arise, I am optimistic about the year ahead, and take comfort in knowing that PAS is resilient, and that through all of us working together, PAS will endure, thrive, and continue to chart our own path forward.
Thank you. I will now ask if there are any questions.