Address by Mark First
Chairman of the Board, Park Avenue Synagogue
Kol Nidrei 5783/2022
The Magic of Park Avenue Synagogue
Thank you, Rabbi,
Good Yontif everyone –
This is my first Kol Nidrei address to the community as Chairman, and while I do know many of you, I want to take a minute to introduce myself to those who may not know me. My name is Mark First and my wife Rachael and I have been members of Park Avenue Synagogue for more than 27 years. PAS is and has been a most important part of our lives. Our children Alyssa and Adam have grown up here. We have davened, traveled, studied, and laughed and cried together with this community, and found some of our closest friends here at PAS. Because of what PAS has done for our family, first Rachael and now I have committed our time in lay leadership positions, trying to make PAS even better hoping it can mean as much for others as it means to us.
What many of my friends might not even know is that when I was young, I was intrigued – and some might say obsessed – by the performance of magic. I performed at all kinds of events – and yes, I even had two working doves named Mork and Mindy. OK, now that I’ve dated myself…. What matters most in magic is the effect: what people see, how they feel, and what they experience. And what makes something magic – versus another performance art – is accomplishing something that does not seem possible, based on a secret that is hidden. Once you know the secret, then it’s probably not magic or magical. Magicians want you to focus on the effect, but I know all we really care about is “how it’s done”.
As an adult, I no longer spend time thinking about the performance of magic, but rather – and often in the context as an investor – about the magic that makes for great organizations, institutions, and highly effective teams. And recently this includes trying to understand the magic of PAS.
Park Avenue Synagogue is thriving…which is no small task in light of the many challenges out there including declining interest in religion, intermarriage, changing consumer trends driven by technology, general economic and New York specific factors, as well as a changing employee landscape, just to name a few.
So, what is the magic of PAS? Well Rabbi Cosgrove has said it is the partnership between the lay leadership and the professional staff. And while it is probably not a great idea to disagree with the Rabbi in front of the entire congregation, I do think his answer is incomplete. Where we do agree is that the lay leadership is a critical component of our success.
We owe a great deal of gratitude to the past Chairpersons and their Officer groups for their leadership over the past decades. And I am most grateful to my Officer partners and friends over the past four years, including Natalie Barth, Mark Hirsch, Lizzy Markus, Nan Rubin, Craig Solomon, Amy Steiner, and my predecessor, dear friend, and total mensch Marc Becker. I am also fortunate to have another terrific group of Officer partners for the coming years: Erica Friedman, Paula Gendel, Lauren Klein, Melissa Raskin, Stefanie Katz Rothman, Andrew Siegel, and our President Lizzy Markus. To my partners past and present: Thank you for all that you have done and will do on behalf of this beloved institution.
And while the Officers have and do give tirelessly of their time, I would be remiss not to mention our extended Board of Trustees, as well as the hundreds of other volunteers and lay leaders working across more than 50 committees who extend our reach and capabilities. We are grateful to our many congregants who have advised on countless projects – most recently our sanctuary refresh, how to navigate the pandemic, and how to be present and thrive online. Thank you!
Beyond our lay leaders, I view synagogue leadership as comprised of three pillars: Foundation, Programming, and Community.
First foundation, which sounds like it should be about our beautiful buildings but is at its core about our people. We are blessed to have the best clergy team of any synagogue anywhere. We thank Rabbi Cosgrove for his vision, thought leadership, and for guiding us from the traditions of the past to those of tomorrow. We thank Cantor Schwartz for inspiring us through his spiritual prayers and songs, as well as his musical leadership and innovation. Rabbi Zuckerman’s compassion and teachings span all corners of this institution. Cantor Davis and Cantor Michaeli’s warmth and uplifting spirit comfort us week in and week out. Our Rabbi-to-be Kornsgold brings youth and energy to the clergy suite, and we recently welcomed Rabbi Zauzmer, formerly Golkow, back to Park Avenue. It is wonderful to see how much she has grown and developed as a Rabbi these past several years. It’s clear she had great training as an intern here at PAS.
Our team of ordained clergy extends from the bimah to the classroom. Our programming and educational leadership includes Rabbi Lori Koffman, Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, and Cantor Arielle Reisner. Overseeing everything else in the institution is our Executive Director Valerie Russo. Valerie, we can’t thank you enough for your guidance and leadership over these past 18 months through what has been a most challenging time to be leading any institution. And a huge amount of gratitude to the entire PAS staff.
From a programming perspective, PAS did not miss a beat from the time we became entirely virtual in March 2020, until today when we are hybrid. To be clear, we will not stop our online presence – it has become a critical part of who we are, both for our members who can now participate from wherever they are, as well as for thousands of others who log in each week to experience the PAS brand of Judaism that we all cherish. But in spite of online access, we still believe that the in-person experience will always be more spiritual and bring greater meaning and joy than a purely digital one.
We ended spring with a most successful gala where more than 500 members attended, and we had a concert based on Debbie Friedman’s music that filled the sanctuary air and pews. Our travel program is back. Our theme for this fall is Yachad – Together. We asked you to “Fill Our House” for these High Holidays, and – just look around – you clearly did! You can find a complete listing of our upcoming programming in the Mah Hadash section of our website or in our weekly emails. I promise you there is something for everyone!
Which brings me to the final component of explaining the magic – we the PAS community. It has been said that people initially come to Park Avenue Synagogue for the clergy, prayer, and programming, but they stay because of their fellow members. The true value of the PAS community reaches far beyond the individual relationships one might have with the synagogue institution or any individual clergy. The magic of the community is seeing 60 young adults socializing on the roof, while the third floor Chapel is buzzing during a Congregational School dinner, all following a Friday evening Shabbat service that had more than 300 people in attendance and many hundreds more people participating online. That’s just one example of the magic of PAS!
So, what do I see over time? Well, when I became Chairman, it was a bit daunting to be responsible for a 140-year-old institution. My first thought was to not mess it up! Then I thought perhaps it was to keep doing the same thing we’re doing – because it seems to be working. But if you don’t evolve and adapt with the times, you will actually go backward. And so, my conclusion is that we need to continue moving forward – kadima! We need to do so by balancing the tradition of the old and familiar with the new, current, and exciting. We need to try new things, not being afraid to fail and learn, and all along balancing the short-term needs and desires of our members with the long-term viability of the institution. So, while it is early in the next era of leadership, we do anticipate making progress and innovating in each of our Foundation, our Programming, and our Community!
The Officers and I promise that we will work hard to protect and grow our synagogue, and in exchange I have three things to ask of each of you tonight.
Which reminds me of a story, a story of some guy named Goldstein who was walking down the beach one day when he stumbled on a magical lamp. When he rubbed it, a genie appeared. The genie told Goldstein that he’d grant him one wish, but that he had to pick from three choices: Goldstein could be either the richest man in the world, the most popular man in the world, or the wisest man in the world. Goldstein said, “We all know that money does not bring happiness, and that popularity just makes you a slave to the whims of others, but wisdom, wisdom is everlasting. I want to be the wisest man in the world.” And with a poof of smoke, suddenly Goldstein’s face took on a very serious look. He sat down, rubbed his chin in thought, turned to the genie and said, “I should have taken the money.”
So, my three wishes for you in the coming year are:
First, Support: This is a Kol Nidrei Appeal so you shouldn’t be surprised. We can’t do all that we do without your generosity and support; in fact, the only way we can have the amazing facilities, programs, and professional team is through your donations – dues alone are not enough. You can support us here tonight when the ushers pass through the aisles, or online by clicking on the Donate button on our website. Yes, we will take your wisdom, and we will take your friendship, but “we’ll take the money” too. Support.
Second, Engage: Decide what is interesting and important to you, and engage with PAS. Come to a lecture, take a class, engage in prayer, do a mitzvah through our Tikkun Olam initiatives, visit the sick, travel – I could go on. You can engage in person, you can engage online, please just engage.
And Third, Connect: Access the magic that occurs directly between our members: Reach out to an old friend, welcome a new friend, introduce yourself to somebody you don’t know, make connections. And while the one-on-one bonds are meaningful and strong, the network of many to many bonds are even stronger and more meaningful.
So, what is the secret to the magic of PAS? Well, I know the secret is about the combination of our professional staff, lay leadership, and the community. And yet, unlike watching a magic performance where when you know the “secret” you know “how” it works, in this case I know the secret but still have no idea how the magic happens – it just does! What I also know is that the more we support, engage, and connect, the more meaningful and magical the PAS community will become.
On behalf of the Officers and Board of Trustees of our Synagogue, I wish everyone a Shanah tovah u-metukah, a good and sweet year, and gmar chatima tova. I pray that all of you and your families are written and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of health, happiness, peace, prosperity, and magic.