Chairman of the Board Mark First Addresses the Congregation on Kol Nidrei
Chairman of the Board Mark First addresses the congregation on Kol Nidrei
Mark First, Chairman of the Board
September 24, 2023 ~ 10 Tishrei 5784
Our Journey Ahead
Thank you, Rabbi.
Good Yontev, everyone.
One of the most well-known stories in the Torah is of the Jews leaving Egypt, traveling through the desert, to ultimately arrive at the promised land. While at its simplest level it may be read as a physical adventure with a known destination, we know it is a journey about so much more – including freedom, overcoming adversity, and perhaps most importantly, the Jewish people’s relationship with God. And while for most of us, it is not a physical journey or one with a defined destination, we are each on our own journey – one of learning, personal growth and self-discovery, relationships, and spiritual beliefs, just to name a few. Park Avenue Synagogue is also on a journey, but the primary purpose of our journey is supporting you, our members and extended community, in your own Jewish journeys.
The Park Avenue Synagogue journey, which began over 141 years ago, has at times been fraught with challenges, such as waning membership, mergers, mortgage debt, and surviving the Depression. And yet through it all, Park Avenue Synagogue has reacted to the times, addressed the needs and desires of our members, and set goals to make us all better. Over the years and today, we have achieved thought, spiritual, and musical leadership from our world class rabbinic and cantorial clergies, as well as guidance from our committed lay leaders. We are grateful to these leaders, some of whom are here tonight and others who are not.
This was a sad year for Park Avenue as we lost three of those leaders, each of whom had a transformative impact on our institution. Joel Cohen, chairman from 1981 to 1984, guided us through the times following the initial expansion and renovation of our 87th Street building. Paul Corwin, president from 2013 to 2018, brought new life to our educational initiatives, including the start of our travel programs. And most recently, Marc Becker, immediate past chairman, who led us through the building renovation, the pandemic, and through the acceleration of our online community. A warrior-mensch as described by his friends and family, a colleague, a friend to so many . . . and the reason I am standing here today. Marc, you inspired us, and we will do everything we can to build upon your legacy, and to make you proud!
I would like to thank the current leadership of the synagogue – our Board of Trustees, Advisory Council, committee and ARMS chairs, and my Officer partners – Erica Friedman, Paula Gendel, Lauren Klein, Melissa Raskin, Stefanie Katz Rothman, Andrew Siegel, and our president, Lizzy Markus. We will be successful if we can do just a fraction of what those who came before us accomplished.
Last year at this time, I challenged you all to Engage, Connect and Support. I am happy to say, you didn’t just do it, you crushed it! Although the pandemic was ending, most people were still choosing to engage online rather than in person. That is no longer the case. Our in-person worship services, concerts, and educational programs were all very well attended. Our communal Shabbat dinner, Passover Seder, and Spring Gala honoring Marc Becker were all sold out. Attendance at our 20s and 30s events as well as at our newly formed 70+ initiatives also reached record attendance. And we restarted our travel program with successful trips to Israel, Portugal, and the South. We are one community but also a community of communities, and people are choosing to engage and connect in the many ways offered.
You also showed up through your generosity toward our Kol Nidrei Appeal. We cannot do all that we do without your financial support, as membership dues and tuition are not sufficient to cover our expenses, especially in an era of rising costs. I hear people say that we are a rich congregation, but that does not mean we can do it all, as the aspirations of our clergy and the demands, needs, and wants of our members keep the bar high, and rising. Thank you again for supporting us.
This past year we also made good progress in enhancing our operational capabilities, the foundation of which is our administrative team led by our Executive Director, Valerie Russo. Thank you, Valerie, for the team that you are building and the systems you are implementing. We also formed a series of task forces to evaluate how and what we’re doing in certain key areas, including our Congregational School and youth education, inclusion efforts, and interfaith programs, as well as others. These efforts are not broken, but rather we are assessing how we can do better, and how can we continue reaching upwards, a core tenet of Park Avenue Synagogue for many generations.
So, what about this coming year? We will do more of the same, as it is working, but we’re hoping to move forward in our journey, and I believe that begins with how we define what a synagogue is. A traditional model of a synagogue is a Beit Tefilah, Beit Midrash, and a Beit Knesset, or “house of prayer, study, and community.” Tonight, I would challenge us to consider a modified and expanded definition:
One where we strive to be a Home for Inspiration, Education, Relationships, and Caring.
Why a home versus a house? A “house” often connotes a physical structure, but many of our members engage online to learn and pray, and we have an extended community who connect with us from afar. A home extends beyond the physical structure to encompass the emotional, psychological, and personal aspects as well – a place where memories are created and relationships nurtured.
A home for four things:
First, Inspiration: the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something. We may be inspired by prayer, music, or the words and challenges of our clergy – all to help us along our journey. Our rabbinic team led by Rabbi Cosgrove, together with Rabbi Zuckerman and Rabbi Zauzmer, and our cantorial team led by Cantor Schwartz, together with Cantor Davis, are not only critical to our inspiration but central to who and what Park Avenue Synagogue is. We consider ourselves blessed to have you all as our clergy! Thank you.
Second, Education: the process of acquiring knowledge, skills, values, and understanding. Our educational programs – from our youngest, through our Early Childhood Center and Congregational Schools, all the way through to our Adult Engagement initiatives – are all doing well under the leadership of Rabbi Koffman, Rabbi Solmsen, Cantor Reisner, and their teams of educators. And the thought leadership of our clergy is impacting not just Park Avenue but also the broader Jewish community.
Third, Relationships: As I said last year, people often join Park Avenue Synagogue because of the clergy, educators, and programs, but stay because of their fellow congregants. Lifelong friendships, intergenerational relationships, people with shared experiences – there for each other in times of need as well as in times of celebration. It is what makes the magic of Park Avenue Synagogue work.
And last, and with added focus in this definition, Caring: the act of showing concern, kindness, compassion, and empathy towards others and providing support and guidance where it may be needed. Of course, caring has always been central to our life cycle events and at times of illness, and that will never change. And caring is and has been part of our broader commitment to being a welcoming and inclusive community. But what has become clear was that many of our members need support and guidance in addressing a broad range of life events, including mental health challenges, aging, and other of life’s happenings. To meet those needs, we have added a social worker to our PAS team to support the clergy, instill a caring perspective into our programs, and serve as a resource for our congregants. We are not trying to become or replicate the many successful social services organizations that already exist, but rather to help our members identify the right places where they can find the help and support they need.
A Home for Inspiration, Education, Relationships and Caring – what we are today but also what we hope to achieve. We are working hard to do amazing things.
Which reminds me of a story – about a guy named Goldberg, who had an amazing parrot. The parrot had heard Goldberg pray so often that it learned to say the prayers. Goldberg was so excited that he brought the parrot to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. The rabbi, who disliked birds more than dogs, only agreed to let the parrot in when he was told that it could daven. People started betting on whether the parrot would pray, and so Goldberg took wagers – which he said he would donate to the synagogue’s annual Kol Nidrei Appeal – wagers that eventually added up to $100,000. When the service started, the parrot was silent. And as the prayers continued, there was still not a word from the bird. When the prayers ended, Goldberg was not only devastated, but also $100,000 in debt. On the way home, Goldberg yelled at his parrot: “Why did you do this to me? I know you can pray . . . and you know you can pray! Do you know much money I owe people?” The parrot looked at Goldberg and finally said, “Do you have no imagination? Just think ahead. Can you imagine what the stakes will be like on Yom Kippur?”
Well, it is Yom Kippur and while we do not have any davening parrots, at Park Avenue Synagogue we are using our imaginations and thinking ahead. We are doing some great things, and again we need your support. Whether you are here in person or engaging online; whether you are a new member or part of a third-generation family; whether you engage in one class, one trip, or one High Holiday service a year; or whether you daven with us all year long. To our online community, thank you for allowing us to accompany you on your journey. Through you, our extended PAS family, we have created shared Jewish experiences and meaningful connections around the world. Thank you for supporting us again, and if you haven’t done so before, please consider doing so for the first time.
As I begin my second year as chairman of this beloved institution, I feel confident in pushing forward in areas of thought leadership, musical leadership, relationships, and caring. This is where our clergy and staff strive every day to deliver with excellence…all in support of your Jewish journey. We will continue to reach out, be here for you, and also reach within. I ask you to do the same, reaching out to us, to each other, and within, all as we continue to build our Home for Inspiration, Education, Relationships, and Caring.
On behalf of the Officers and Board of Trustees of our synagogue, I wish everyone Shanah tovah u-metukah, a good and sweet year, and Gmar hatimah tovah. I pray that all of our and your families are written and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of health, happiness, peace, and prosperity.