Kol Nidrei Address by Chairman of the Board Marc Becker
September 28, 2020
?מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה – Mah nishtanah ha-lailah ha-zeh? – Why is this night different?
. . . שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת – She-b’khol ha-leilot . . . – on all other nights . . .
While we usually hear these words on Passover, they feel especially relevant this evening. Because on all other Kol Nidrei nights, as Chairman of Park Avenue Synagogue, I would address our congregation three times at three different locations to see 6,000 of our congregants. This year, we all are experiencing something very different. Like you, as opposed to looking around the shul at family and friends, I am in a much different setting than on “all other nights.” I stand here in our beautiful sanctuary in front of empty pews that are normally crammed with people. But while the seats are unoccupied, our Torahs are surrounded by the love of our community and those to whom we have opened our virtual doors — all 30,000+ of you who are joining us today.
It is not lost on me that less than a year after completion of our expanded campus, we can’t be physically present. But as we said at our building rededication on Hanukkah, it was never about the physical space, but rather, about our community and the values we embody.
Many have talked about silver linings these past six months, and the High Holidays are no exception. I have had the opportunity to hear our rabbi’s powerful sermons alongside my family instead of scurrying from location to location. Perhaps for you it’s been the ability to FaceTime with a grandparent, child or friend while hearing the angelic voice of Cantor Schwartz. Or maybe it’s just nice to attend High Holiday services in sweatpants and a t-shirt.
But beyond the silver linings, I’d still much rather be together with you right now. I’ve missed being here at Park Avenue Synagogue. I miss our community. And I know we’ve all been feeling these sentiments these past six pandemic months.
I received an email from a board member about her three-year-old grandchild, who after months of social distancing asked, “Grandma,how come I don’t have friends anymore?” Hearing that broke my heart, but in some form or another, we are all asking ourselves similar questions: How do we find community when we’re separated? How do find meaning in this virtual world? Because if there’s one thing people share in this unsettling moment, it’s a profound sense of loss in human connection.
That is why Park Avenue Synagogue is the source that connects us to ourselves and to each other. While times change, people change, and now even mediums change, the one constant — for two thousand years — remains one’s synagogue. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks aptly said, “Communities of faith are where we preserve the values and institutions that protect our humanity.”
For generations, the haunting melody of the Kol Nidrei prayer that was just chanted has reminded us of just that. This particular melody, on this particular day, and at this particular hour takes us back to the same meaningful place we’ve come to for generations when we’re trying to find our spiritual way: the synagogue. L’dor vador, the synagogue has been the torch that showed us the way through times of light and darkness, through the cycle of life and death, from brit milahs to yahrzeits.
Although this pandemic may have slowed the world down, it has inspired us here at Park Avenue Synagogue. It has motivated us to enhance and accelerate our offerings, so that we can continue to be the place, the community, you can always turn to. We will adapt to do whatever it takes, in the words of our mission, to: “inspire, educate, and support each other towards living passion-filled Jewish lives.”
With that in mind, when the pandemic hit, we committed to three guiding principles, which Park Avenue Synagogue continues to stand by:
First and foremost, no one, will ever be turned away because of economic circumstances.
Second, our employees are stakeholders and we will endeavor to retain all of our staff.
Third, we will continue to provide the excellence that our members expect and deserve to make sure our institution thrives for generations to come.
I can proudly say we have been able to uphold all these principles – and it’s because we were in an extremely strong position before the pandemic.
Our strength starts with our incredible clergy who work day and night for our community. Rabbi Cosgrove, your selflessness, integrity, and steady leadership in these uncertain times makes me proud to call you my rabbi. Cantor Schwartz, your beautiful voice is only matched by your menschlichkeit, and you have set a tone for all of us to follow. Rabbi Zuckerman, your kindness and heart are a true gift. Rabbi Witkovsky, your wit and tireless efforts have inspired our community. Cantor Brook, your warmth and uplifting spirit has comforted us week in and week out. Rabbi Philp, you have been there for anything our members have needed. We are blessed with the best clergy team in the world! Todah rabbah!
Our spiritual leaders are partnered with so many remarkable individuals, our loyal Executive Director Beryl Chernov, our unrelenting Associate Executive Director Liz Offenbach and devoted Director of Congregational Education Rabbi Charlie Savenor. They, along with their teams, have put aside their own personal lives at times, so that they could take care of all of us. Todah rabbah!
In March, our Officers immediately went into crisis mode, meeting weekly and creating task forces to solve all sorts of problems, making sure that our standard of excellence never wavered. A huge amount of gratitude to our Officers: the indefatigable Lizzy Markus, Nan Rubin, Amy Steiner, Mark First, Craig Solomon, Mark Hirsch, and our president, Natalie Barth. Your passion for our community is never-ending and your stewardship is exemplary. And to the rest of our board, committee chairs, staff and volunteers: You are simply amazing. Your effort this past spring calling every single member over 60 years old to check in and make sure they were safe epitomizes Park Avenue Synagogue values.
With such strong leadership at the helm, a committed community, and the investments in technology and infrastructure made during our renovation, we were prepared for the uncertainty that came in March. We were able to focus not on survival, but rather on delivering excellence and being there for those who need us.
We moved our daily minyans, Shabbat services, classes, baby namings, bnei mitzvah, weddings, and shivas to a virtual world in a matter of days. The response has been incredible. People are tuning in from New York City and our sixth borough, Florida; from Brazil to Budapest; and as far away as Israel and Australia. Our daily minyan has quadrupled in attendance. We have had over 100,000 views of our Shabbat services. Thousands of people have attended our adult learning classes online and our study circles continue to grow. Our zoom havdalah had over 100 participating families each Saturday evening and gave me the chance to light my first havdalah candle.
We created virtual summer programming – a camp for our youngest members and a lecture series for our adult community with speakers like Admiral McCraven and Madeline Albright. We’ve expanded our interfaith learning by adding new classes and riveting discussions with faith leaders and thinkers like Cardinal Dolan and Reverend Bernard. We as a community acknowledged that change happens when each of us commits to tikkun olam, healing the world. As you will hear tomorrow, our teens are doing their part. For those in need of a meal, they refocused the efforts of our teen run food pantry. They also delivered mahzorim for the high holidays to our homebound members. We stood in solidarity against racial injustice, inviting our dear friend Ray Chew of the Baptist Church of Englewood to address our congregation about systemic racism at Kabbalat Shabbat.
In the spirit of our community’s exceptional belief in hesed, in caring, we have made a conscious effort to open our virtual doors to anyone who would otherwise have no spiritual home to provide what Rabbi Cosgrove calls “Torah for the People.” Because at the end of the day, we are all in this together.
There’s Manny from New Mexico, who emailed and said he’s been a practicing Conservative Jew for the past 70 years, and he now joins us with thousands of people from all over the world every Friday night. Manny, I hope you’re watching tonight.
There’s an administrator from a Jewish Eldercare home in Princeton, NJ, who enjoyed our Livestream so much that they are setting up chairs for over 100 people in their own senior community. Gmar Tov to our neighbors in the Garden State.
Ninety-nine-year old Sylvia from Connecticut messaged us on Livestream last Sunday saying she loved our Rosh Hashanah service. Sylvia, if we are all able to be together next year, we invite you at age 100 to join us in our sanctuary. Tickets will be hard to come by, but I have a few connections around here.
Over the past six months, our clergy, staff and board have received an influx of similar messages from our members and from Jews across the diaspora thanking Park Avenue Synagogue for filling the void.
We, our Park Avenue Synagogue community, should feel so proud of what we have achieved during this pandemic, and throughout our history. It is the active engagement of our current leaders and the generations before us that have enabled us to become who we are today. We are in a strong position because of them. But now, it’s all of our turn.
Despite our progress, we are not without challenges, including trends of de-urbanization and one of the most difficult economic environments we have seen. Each year, we continue to depend on your financial support, and our community’s annual generosity has been exemplary. Last year we raised approximately $3mm from about 1,000 families, enabling us to balance our budget and break even. Many of you have already stepped up, joining my family by increasing your Kol Nidrei Appeal gift from last year. I sincerely thank you! For those of you who have yet to recommit and even those who are listening for the first time from afar, we need your support so we can continue the excellence of Park Avenue Synagogue.
Mah nishtanah ha-lailah ha-zeh? Why is it different this time?
Because on all other nights, we might just tell ourselves we can wait and see. But tonight, during a time when we need each other the most, we need to commit to each other, we need to commit to our synagogue, we need to commit to continuing the momentum our community has courageously begun. The thread holding us all together is the fact that we’re united in our faith and bound together by our synagogue. We are all in this together. Those who can, do for those who cannot. There is something special that you, and you alone, can contribute to our community — through tzedakah, engagement, and volunteering.
And we need to because there shouldn’t be a child or anyone who has to ask, “Where are my friends?” There shouldn’t be a parent or grandparent or anyone who has to say Sabbath prayers alone.
That’s why Park Avenue Synagogue is here.
Let’s do our part in passing down not only our heritage, but our synagogue – l’dor vador.
I want to close with another message that was shared with us, one that relates to what I said at the beginning about the questions we’re asking ourselves today and the answers we find in this sacred place.
A member talked about having had a really tough time with the isolation during quarantine, but how their spirits were kept high because of Park Avenue Synagogue. They said, “I just feel that my hand and my heart have been held.”
Our commitment to our members and to the broader diaspora, 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.
Gmar hatimah tovah! May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of happiness, health, peace, and prosperity, and may we soon be back together - שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת – She-b’khol ha-leilot — like all other nights.
There are no ushers coming to your living room to collect envelopes, but you can easily contribute now or by visiting pasyn.org at any time and clicking the giving option.
Cantor Rachel Brook, who was previously Cantorial Intern at PAS, has now joined the clergy as full time Cantorial Fellow. In this newly created position, she will focus on coordinating our Bnei Mitzvah program, teach music in our schools, lead services, and officiate at life cycle events.
On Sunday, June 12, corresponding to 6 Sivan, the first day of Shavuot, thirteen PAS women concluded a year and a half of study and preparation by reading Torah, leading prayers, and sharing reflections as Adult B'not Mitzvah.