This evening marks the first ever virtual annual congregational meeting for Park Avenue Synagogue, and I am pretty confident it is the only one where the Chairman addressed the congregation from an empty room in the shul. Yet, the irony of it all is that this is very likely the best-attended meeting in our history, and as I will describe, some new best practices for community engagement may very well be evolving from the current crisis.
The PAS annual meeting is when the Chairman gives the year in review. In essence, this speech is supposed to be a summary of chapter 138 in the history of Park Avenue Synagogue. What should this chapter be called? It has been quite a year, with no shortage of headlines. Perhaps we could call it “Year of Transition: Moving In and Out of a New Home” or “Year of the Building Rededication: Expansion Once Again Precedes Recession.” Or how about something more fitting to the current moment, like “Year of the Pandemic: from Antisemitism to the Coronavirus.” But to label this past year solely with one of these topics would shortchange all the spectacular things both ordinary and extraordinary that have brought us together these past twelve months. While there is probably no title that says it all, I would probably name it something along the lines of “Passionate Community Rides Roller Coaster with Elegance, Demonstrating Excellence.”
Our protagonists in this chapter are undoubtedly the incredible clergy and staff who despite their own personal challenges have been there for us all, working passionately for our community. To our entire PAS team, led by Rabbi Cosgrove and Executive Director Beryl Chernov, on behalf of the board and our 1,700 family units: Thank you! Because of all of you, in a year that has had some of the best of times and some of the most challenging, we have been able to come together as a community to proudly fulfill our mission to “inspire, educate, and support each other towards living passion-filled Jewish lives.” Because of you, our staff, and your partnership with an amazing group of dedicated lay leaders, led by my devoted partners, the Officers – President Natalie Barth, Nan Rubin, Amy Steiner, Lizzy Markus, Mark First, Craig Solomon, and Mark Hirsch – we are not only surviving, but growing stronger, a community with a firm foundation and the ability to continue growing in the months and years ahead. The membership is grateful to you all: Todah rabbah.
The vision to fulfill our mission continues to be centered around three pillars: Learning/Beit Tefillah, Prayer/Beit Midrash; and Community, Beit Knesset. As this roller coaster year has proved, we can be nimble and accomplish excellence through a variety of mediums. Starting with the physical, we moved back into our 87th Street building in September, on time, fulfilling our promise to open the ECC and hold High Holiday services on our revitalized campus. The leadership of Beryl along with our unrelenting Associate Executive Director Liz Offenbach and steadfast Head of Facilities, Jason Santos, our innovative HR manager Zawnia Dehaney, and their teams enabled this herculean accomplishment.
A few months later we gathered right before Hanukkah for our building rededication, which was led by Amy Steiner and Andrea Baumann Lustig along with our new Head of Development Hadley Rolf. It was a true celebration of our passionate community. We focused on celebrating our core values, not our physical building – perhaps a premonition for the months ahead. Appreciating the need for further innovation, we were simultaneously working on our digital campus under the leadership of Communications Manager Maggi Heffler with guidance from lay leaders Susan Cantor and Paula Gendel. We rolled out our new brand and website in early March, just in time for our transition to a virtual campus. Our foresight in upgrading our online presence and improving our omnichannel approach has enabled us to more easily pivot and better serve our membership in the current and future environment.
Which brings me back to to our core mission with its three pillars. Thanks to both our enhanced digital campus and our expanded flexible physical campus, we have continued and will continue to fulfill our mission with excellence:
Under the leadership and steady hand of Rabbi Charlie Savenor, our educational programs have remained strong. Our flagship schools educate members from age 2 to 92. This year, our Shalom Shtayim program and our first Toddler Hebrew Immersion Class were so successful that we needed to add additional sections in January. These have been great experiences not only for the children, but for parents and grandparents as well. They all transitioned online and we are now introducing our summer camp in a virtual format. Thank you, Jamie Diamond, for your innovative leadership.
The newly named Penn Family Early Childhood Center was our first program to transition online. Fervently led by Pamela Schwartz, they continue to raise the bar of excellence and had a long waitlist for potential students this past spring admissions season. Crowd favorite for our young kids has been Josh Rosenberg, who has has been zoomed for hundreds of hours these past weeks.
Our Congregational School led by stalwart Jen Stern Granowitz continues to create more experiences to come together as a community. Our K–2 family Shabbat services have been revamped, and in December, the entire school was invited to help lead community Shabbat morning services in the Sanctuary. After a year’s hiatus, the Book Fair was a welcome return right after our flagship Mitzvah Day.
Our teen program is as vibrant as ever, with our teen Leadership Council being instrumental in shaping programming. Our teen-run food pantry reopened with the return to 87th Street in the fall and importantly continued to help those in need during this crisis by redirecting their food grants to the Met Council and City Meals on Wheels. Teen engagement programs included dialogues with Dr. Richard Haass and professor Dr. Julian Zelizer, as well as taking advantage of other broader synagogue events like the Shabbat Speaker Series. These past few months, with the accessibility of virtual programming, we have actually seen increased teen engagement, and they are looking to continue throughout the summer.
All in, our youth have completed well over 1,000 online classes with programs operating through the end of the semester.
The addition of Rabbi Steven Philp to our clergy has strengthened outreach to our 20s/30s. We have had some great events, including a program for potential art collectors and an interactive Hanukkah party featuring an improv comedy groups.
We continue to serve as a major hub for adult education. The Reading Jewish Lives program was revived with a lecture from prominent scholar Dr. Paul Mendes-Flohr, and our first Shabbat dinner, featuring Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, drew nearly 300 people. The annual Shabbaton, with the theme “Synagogue 2020” and headlined by Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles, engaged and inspired the community. The Sunday morning Shabbaton session built momentum for our Tikkun Olam initiative to be launched in the coming months.
While they were running full speed ahead with the events of early March, our Adult Education and Synagogue Programming team led by the inexhaustible Mara Bernstein pivoted in every sense of the word. We became virtual almost overnight, and we continue to make our virtual campus better with every technological nuance, serving as an intellectual anchor of the community. Programming kept the community engaged and connected throughout Passover, and since then a highlight has been the “Israel Week” programming that began at the end of April and continued through Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzma’ut. Now we turn our focus to the PAS Virtual Summer Village, as we look forward to hearing more speakers and interesting new content. In the words of Rabbi Cosgrove, “We are raising the bar.”
Our Travel Education initiatives continued to be enthusiastically received as the community made its much sought-after trip to Russia last fall, filling three buses and making friendships and connections that are constantly being renewed on WhatsApp. A Morocco trip originally scheduled for this fall used a lottery system for registration for the first time in order to meet extraordinary demand. This trip as well as our Young Family Israel trip will be rescheduled. PAS has been at the forefront of travel education and when it is safe, we will return to it.
Additionally, under Rabbi Witkovsky’s stewardship, the study circle learning model continues to grow with 24 groups now combining the long-tested model of small group learning with technological capabilities of online learning. This approach has not only allowed learning to continue, but brought people together at a time we are all physically separated
Another area of educational progress for PAS is our efforts in interfaith learning. Pathways, our introduction to Judaism class co-taught by Rabbi Zuckerman and Rabbi Philp, continues to be very successful. The next cohort of the class, our fifth, began online a few weeks ago.
At the heart of PAS, 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 sick, or there is a death, God forbid, or God willing, a birth, we turn to ritual, and the first call is typically to one of our clergy. Our clergy has continued to perform in-person graveside funerals with virtual shivas, while also offering their thoughts and advice on how to manage through these challenging times.
Throughout this year, and the past few months in particular, we have learned what it means to have a truly exemplary clergy team. Under the leadership of Rabbi Cosgrove and Cantor Schwartz, along with Rabbi Zuckerman, Rabbi Witkovsky, Cantor Brook, and Rabbi Philp, our spirits have been lifted. These past months, when days blend into days, so many of us look forward to Shabbat to have our spirits refreshed and to hear the beautiful melodies of our cantors and inspiring words of our rabbis. There are now thousands who tune into our Livestream each and every week. We have seen the inspiring and admirable Bnei Mitzvah students stepping up each week to show our community and those around the world what it means to come of age, representing Park Avenue Synagogue with dignity and honor.
Seeing the desire for more ritual and more community, we introduced a community Zoom havdalah, which has had over 100 families participating each Saturday evening. I lit a havdalah candle of my own for the first time a few months ago. This service is something we will perhaps continue in some form or fashion in a post-COVID world.
I would like to pause and thank Gil Smuskowitz, our A/V manager, whose devotion has made this virtual reality possible. Thank you Gil for being our digital backbone.
Thank you as well David Enlow, our new music director, and your team for the beautiful melodies each holiday and Shabbat.
On that note, music has been a key ingredient in the innovation of our ritual experience. Under the leadership of Cantor Schwartz, with his angelic voice, we continue to be at the forefront of Jewish music. The “Lift Every Voice” concert in November was a huge success with the sanctuary filled to capacity with members of PAS and neighboring congregations of various faiths.
Our Purim Spiel, beautifully led by Cantor Brook, was the last moment we had together in the Sanctuary. The memory is embedded in my spirit.
I want to thank Arielle Green, who has been our cantorial intern for two years, and congratulate her on her graduation and ordination from JTS – we will miss her, and Denver will be lucky to have her.
Looking into the ritual year ahead, many people have asked what we are doing about the High Holidays. The flippant answer to that question is “we don’t know.” But as you would expect, we are getting ahead of this. The current premise is that: (1) we are not yet sure exactly what constraints will be put on us by others or ourselves, but there will be many, (2) we need to be flexible and be prepared for a variety of scenarios, and it will clearly be far from business as usual, and (3) whatever we ultimately do, it will be excellent. With those guidelines, we have formed a High Holiday Task Force that has already met several times to start planning for a variety of scenarios. The focus will not be only on the main service, but on the entire ecosystem of services, classes, and programs. This task force will work side by side with the Staff, Officers, and lay committees.
We have also convened a Professional Advisory Group to give us expertise in the areas of infectious disease, pediatrics, mental health, and large group gatherings. This group will be coordinated through the leadership of Natalie Barth, and we expect they will help us think through areas well beyond the High Holidays. It is premature to go into detailed scenarios for the High Holidays, programs, schools, or services, but as I said, I can guarantee it will be different. I assure you, we will prioritize safety, and with that as a guiding principle, will hope to make everything as personal and interactive as possible.
Most importantly, I am confident that whatever we do, we will strive for excellence and it will be something to be proud of. As you can imagine, this is all very complex, and there are many implications across our institution, so I ask for your continued trust, patience, and support. As we start to reopen the physical PAS, we will use a deliberate and thoughtful approach.
To give context for the current time and potentially turbulent times ahead, at the suggestion of a former PAS leader, I have started to read Beth Wenger’s book New York Jews and the Great Depression. What struck me was not the unexpected economic struggles of synagogues, including PAS at the time, but rather what was described as the “spiritual depression gripping the nation,” one which saw dwindling attendance at worship services and widespread religious apathy. While they say history is the best predictor of the future, I seek comfort in knowing that at Park Avenue Synagogue the pillars of learning and ritual seem to be on the rise and are sought after more now than ever. In fact, they are integrating with our third pillar, community.
This desire for community echoes my remarks this past Kol Nidrei and can be traced all the way back to Park Avenue Synagogue in the early 1930s at the start of the Depression. In the words of PAS Rabbi Gabriel Schulman in 1931, which I believe are very applicable today: “If ever organized religion had a mission and message for the world, it is at this tense, critical period in human history. The modern synagogue has now, perhaps more than ever, a vital contribution to make . . . movement of the human spirit . . . community.”
As I also said to you this past Kol Nidrei, I have realized that we are Never Alone at Park Avenue Synagogue. To help make that a reality, our unwearied Membership Director Rachel Zorboran and Rabbi Zuckerman have led the effort to reach out to our community. The first round of calls was made by 35 callers to members of our community aged 65 and over. There are now more than 70 callers, reaching out to additional households. Thank you to all of you who helped in this effort.
Our services and classes have been a much-needed source of warmth for so many. I would like to read to you something that was shared with one of the Officers: “I wanted to pass along a conversation I had with a friend earlier today. They have had a tough time with the isolation but has been very high on PAS during this quarantine. They said to me, ‘I just feel that my hand and my heart have been held.’” Our commitment to our members, regardless of potentially challenging times ahead, will be to make sure Park Avenue Synagogue will be there to hold as many hands and touch as many hearts as possible.
You will hear from Mark First regarding our budget, which he will explain was no easy task to create with a tremendous amount of uncertainty and complexity. We thank our fastidious Director of Finance Geet Engel for her tireless efforts. To echo what I told the board a few weeks ago: As fiduciaries to this institution we need to be best prepared to protect the viability of the institution. The obvious concern in that regard is our financial health as we embark on what will likely be the most challenging economic environment any of us have seen.
There are a few fundamental principles we hope to stand by: (1) first and foremost, no member, including students, will be turned away because of economic circumstances; (2) our employees are stakeholders, and we are focused on a policy of not reducing staff, and (3) we will continue to provide the excellence that our membership expects and deserves. It will be no easy task to accomplish all three. The key, of course, is to have a strong foundation and indefatigable spirit. With our outstanding staff and clergy, dedicated lay leaders, and passionate and supportive community, I am confident we will uphold these principles and continue to innovate and thrive. Park Avenue Synagogue possesses the strength of time and tradition as well as the creative and entrepreneurial capacity to do so.
I look forward to leading our beautiful community through our 139th year and am excited to hear what that chapter will be called.