Kol Nidrei Address by Chairman of the Board Mark First
Mark First, Chairman of the Board
September 24, 2023 ~ 10 Tishrei 5784
It’s a privilege to be here with you. Whether you’re back with us physically for the first time in almost two years, or one of the tens of thousands of people with us virtually, we should all feel the collective embrace.
Because in this moment, in one way or another, we’re together under one roof.
Ma tovu ohalekha Ya·akov, mishk'notekha Yisrael.
How lovely are your tents, O Jacob; your dwellings, O Israel!
This verse is inscribed on the entrance to our 87th Street building. It comes from a biblical story when King Balak wanted to curse the people of Israel. Instead, his messenger, Balaam, praised the Israelites with the words “How lovely are your tents,” admiring how the tents were arranged differently, yet all part of one unified group.
The symbolism of tents as a spiritual gathering place in Judaism actually began generations earlier, when Abraham invited three strangers walking on the road to join him in his tent. At that moment, Abraham modeled the ideal kind of synagogue – one, like Park Avenue Synagogue, that welcomes everyone, even strangers, with open arms.
This brings me back to a personal moment, one that has shaped my leadership as Chairman of Park Avenue Synagogue and my perspective on our path forward.
It was exactly 29 years ago. I was a junior in college and found myself in Berlin on Yom Kippur night. It was the last place I expected to be on the holiest day of the year, but I was determined to observe it as best as I could. God would meet me where I was, I told myself, even if it was in Germany.
I really wanted to be a part of something meaningful that night. To see fellow Jews and pound my chest alongside others during the Kol Nidrei service. Since the internet wasn’t mainstream at the time, and smartphones hadn’t yet been invented, I asked around where to find a synagogue. Dressed in the best outfit I could pull together, map in hand, I embarked on my journey. After a long trek, I finally arrived.
I was excited. I thought the elders would embrace me. I knew they’d be proud that a young man from across the pond had sought them out. I confidently approached the door, when the head usher spotted me. “Sorry, we’re completely full. You can’t come in.”
I tried coaxing him in different ways, telling him I was a Kohen, but still I was turned away.
Now, I didn’t know then what I know now about synagogue security, tickets, and reserved seats, but that was the lowest point of my Jewish life – alone in Germany 50 years after the Holocaust with no sense of belonging. I had come all this way to find them, couldn’t they meet me half-way and open their doors? Couldn’t they bring me under their tent?
At that moment I needed Jewish ritual and community the most, but I felt dejected.
The continued inability of organized religion to make itself approachable has serious consequences. The recent Pew report showed that the percentage of Jews identifying as Jewish is declining, especially among young adults. And it’s only getting worse. Finding creative ways to make Judaism accessible while maintaining our traditions is more important now than ever.
In 1899, over a decade after the founding of Park Avenue Synagogue, Mark Twain wrote about the longevity of the Jews. He noted how the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans all rose to great heights, yet ultimately faded away. “But the Jew,” he says, “saw them all, survived them all . . . what is the secret of his immortality?”
I believe the answer lies in the words inscribed on the entrance to our synagogue: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob; your dwellings, O Israel!” Dwellings are for when we’re stationary; a tent is for constantly changing where we are. The key to our immortality as Jews is that throughout history, we’ve balanced both Dwellings and Tents, the Unchanging and the Changing, Tradition and Innovation. Both sides are a part of Judaism. It’s not tradition OR innovation; it’s tradition AND innovation.
Rabbi Cosgrove has characterized this balance of Tradition and Innovation before, explaining that our mission as a synagogue is not just about preserving the past. It’s about taking the most sacred possession we have – the inheritance of our faith and teaching it in a way that’s compelling to the contemporary searching Jew.
But to be clear, while we’re committed to ensuring that no one is left behind, what we’re NOT going to do, is lose the traditions, the moments, that make us Park Avenue Synagogue. Transformational community building. Meaningful connections. Beautiful melodies. And uplifting prayers. Because at the end of the day, while we now have global reach, we’re still a shul.
The personal moments are core to who we are at PAS, and who we will always be.
PAS tradition is also about the lay leaders of our community stepping up when needed the most. Our indefatigable Officer team has navigated this unprecedented crisis with hard work, loyalty, and creativity. Thank you, Lizzy Markus, Nan Rubin, Amy Steiner, Mark First, Craig Solomon, Mark Hirsch, and our President, Natalie Barth. You’ve honored our tradition in unimaginable ways. And thank you to our remarkable PAS staff you have once again demonstrated PAS excellence.
While tradition has kept our people together, our rituals are constantly evolving. During L’kha Dodi there’s traditionally a time to stand and a time to turn around. But PAS has adapted to be more inclusive, and we now say, “stand if you are able.”
Similarly, those who can’t make it to 87th Street can now watch PAS services from anywhere in the world whether you’re a student at Dartmouth wanting to see their father give a speech on the bimah (Hi, Olivia!), or you’re home watching Kabbalat Shabbat services while preparing your family Sabbath dinner.
So, what are the sanctuary rules if you aren’t in the sanctuary? Sometimes you’re already standing for a part of the tefillah we typically stand for, so there’s no need to rise. For other parts where we sit, you can’t because the brisket may burn. Sit or stand, stand or sit? What does tradition tell us to do? This reminds me of another story.
It happened at the old synagogue. When the Sh’ma was said, half the congregants stood up and half remained sitting. The half that was seated started yelling at those standing to sit down, and the ones standing yelled at the ones sitting to stand up.The rabbi didn't know what to do, so he convened a meeting with the Chairman to settle this once and for all.
The one whose followers stood during Shema said to the elders, “Is the synagogue’s tradition to stand during this prayer?” The Chairman agreed, "No, that is not the tradition."
“Aha!” said the other one. “We were right! The tradition must be to sit!” But the Chairman then retorted, “No, that is not the tradition.”
The rabbi was exasperated, “I need an answer, the congregants fight all the time, constantly arguing with each other.”
The Chairman interrupted, exclaiming, “Now, THAT is tradition!”
Kidding aside, Judaism has figured out how to survive generation after generation by anchoring innovation in tradition, by staying true to our values while evolving to meet us all in the moment. And for the past 140 years, and especially during this terrible pandemic, so has Park Avenue Synagogue.
The story of Ma Tovu was about turning a curse into a blessing. And that’s exactly what we’ve done at PAS during Covid – find opportunity in the catastrophe. Find the good, the tov, in the worst of situations. Covid pushed us as a synagogue to be bold and adapt quickly, while preserving our most sacred traditions. We got creative, we innovated, and we did what we needed to do to stay accessible.
By innovating and seizing the moment, we’ve brought hundreds more existing members further into our tent. In fact, in a recent PAS survey, over 50% of our members reported increased participation. Additionally, our tent has been opened to tens of thousands of Jews across the world tuning in from over 30 countries.
Now, if we look back at what we’ve accomplished this past year as an institution there is so much to be proud of. Steve Jobs once said, “innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower,” and I’m proud the PAS community has led. But this shouldn’t be a fleeting moment. We cannot stop here. Because it’s not just about what we achieved yesterday; it’s about what we will achieve tomorrow.
That’s why the theme of our Kol Nidrei Appeal campaign this year is Kadima, “forward.” We need to push ahead, constantly raise the bar, and continue to turn challenges of the moment into opportunity. At PAS, we’re doing just that. We’ve rolled out our new video network PASConnect, starting with a first iteration for the High Holidays – so everyone can easily join our services and enhanced programming. And there is much more to come in the months ahead.
We welcome our new Executive Director, Valerie Russo, who will lead the charge in operationalizing our enhanced accessibility. We created a new position, Head of Content & Innovation and welcome Rabbi Lori Koffman, who will be supported by a new Head of AV and Head of Communications. All to effectuate what Rabbi Cosgrove calls “Big Tent Judaism.” And we’re going to continue delivering exceptional in-person and hybrid programming like right now. Because this moment requires us to be accessible to our community in order to achieve the PAS mission to “inspire, educate, and support each other towards living passion-filled Jewish lives.”
To fulfill our mission, and meet the needs of this moment, we depend on your financial support. Last year we raised a record $4 million from 1,000 member families, and also over $400,000 from 2,000 nonmembers, enabling us to balance our budget while creating a foundation for our path forward. I sincerely thank you all for your past and continued support.
I would like to go back to how I began: Ma tovu ohalekha Ya·akov, mishk'notekha Yisrael.
The tents that Balaam praised were all different– representing how we’re each at different points in our own spiritual journey. That’s really what the spirit of Yom Kippur is about: evolving who we are, embracing change within ourselves, and innovating our personal connection to Judaism.
Almost three decades ago on my lonely Kol Nidrei night in Berlin, there were two paths for me to follow. After almost nine years as an Officer and now my final as your Chairman, I am proud to have chosen to passionately embrace Judaism and honored to have led.
Tonight, we all stand at an inflection point. We’ve seen the past year what we’re capable of – as individuals, as a synagogue, as a community. We set new standards of accessibility, excellence, and kindness. We have an opportunity to meet the moment in front of us, and that moment for our community is now. We must keep moving forward – Kadima! Each of us can choose to step in, step up, and elevate Jewish traditions. There isn’t one right way – every tent faces a different direction – but together, if we all do our part, we’ll enrich our traditions for generations to come.
Whatever direction your tent is facing, we endeavor to find you – because you always have a home at Park Avenue Synagogue.
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 all seize this moment and open our tents to each other and all those who wish to enter. Thank you.