Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The State of the Congregation

From the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

A Message From Our President

Dr. Lance Strate

The State of the Congregation 

President's Report Delivered at the 

Annual Congregational Meeting 

June 27, 2013

Every time I can remember watching the President of the United States deliver the annual State of the Union address to Congress, it seems that the opening line is always, "the state of our union is strong." A year ago, I did not expect to be in a position to make that sort of statement at the next annual Congregational Meeting, so I am especially pleased to be able to say to you now:

The state of our congregation is strong.

In Jewish tradition, we say that the most important thing is that you have your health, and for any organization, health is connected to finances. And to be honest, I had some significant concerns about our finances a year ago. While we gained a little breathing room with donations the year before from the unfortunate dissolution of Sons of Israel in Leonia and Temple Beth Am in Teaneck, we have had a history of running at a deficit year after year. Obviously, such a practice cannot be sustainable unless, like the government, you can print your own money, so it was important for us to be budget conscious, and place greater emphasis on fundraising than we had in the last year or two.

I am therefore pleased to report to you, as we near the end of our fiscal year on the 30th of this month, that it looks like we are breaking even this year, and maybe even coming out a little ahead. I think this represents significant progress, for which I take no credit, but rather thank the entire board for their careful and conscientious oversight of our expenses. And I especially want to credit our Treasurer and Buildings and Grounds Chair, Michael Fishbein, our Financial Secretary Mark Rosenberg, and our Finance Committee member Doris White, for their work in this area.

As I mentioned, fundraising is essential, and along with many individual donations and events that made a modest profit for our shul, our congregational Talent Show held this past April 20th not only contributed to our bottom line, but was an enormous success as well. For that, I would like to thank Virginia Gitter and Elka Oliver, and the many religious school parents who volunteered their time and efforts. I am also pleased to note that we continued our tradition of an annual Chamber Music Concert, now known as the Edward M. Cramer Memorial Chamber Music Concert Fundraiser, hosted by Robin Cramer, and we are very grateful to Robin for continuing to open her home in support of our synagogue. I would also note that we are renting our social hall for a children's reading program our of Rutgers University on Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays; it started last Sunday and will continue through July. Aside from providing a little extra revenue, this is an experiment for us to see what is involved in this kind of arrangement, as it is an important option for us to help make ends meet. We have also added portals on our website and blog for and a Judaica store. So far, our returns have been quite modest, but every little bit helps, and I want to remind everyone that if you are buying anything from Amazon, make your purchase through our portal and you'll be supporting Adas Emuno, as we'll get a little cut; we even get a small amount if you just look at items through our portal. And please take a look at our Judaica store, they really have a wide selection of attractive items for sale.

I also want to take special notice of a fundraising effort on the part of Ollie Racciatti and Julian Pecht, which began as a joint mitzvah project for their bar mitzvahs. It was an ambitious project to hire a sofer, a Torah scribe, to restore one of our damaged Torahs. And we are all so very proud to note that they have met their fundraising goal this spring, and the restoration process is now underway. I also want to take this opportunity to note that we do need to purchase more prayer books, because we don't have enough for many of our b'nai mitzvah ceremonies. About thirty more are needed, so please donate to the prayer book fund. I also want to kick off our Sesquicentennial Fundraiser this fall; I had hoped to do it last year, but we still have a little time before it's the year 2021. And in conjunction with that, while I am not at liberty to reveal the specifics yet, I do want to inform you that we have recently received a very generous donation to the religious school and congregation that makes our financial outlook all the more positive.

Our By-Laws mandate that we present a budget to the congregation for approval, but this requirement has not been practiced here for many years. But this year we will be doing the right thing, and present you with a budget, one that we all can work from in the coming year. This is a first step, and we should get better at in subsequent years. We are also sending out bills a little earlier this year, and as I have noted in a Kadima column, our billing is almost a year behind schedule. Most synagogues require payment for the coming year before releasing High Holy Day tickets, whereas we look for members to be paid up for the previous year, and then bill everyone after the holidays. We have taken a small step to move the timetable up, and I would like us to continue to do so gradually over the next few years to get up back in sync. Doing it all at once would amount to asking for two years worth of dues for many members, which would present a hardship for many, so a gradual shift makes the most sense.

Financial health is important, but it is pointless unless we are spiritually healthy. And as a congregation, this has much to do with our spiritual leadership, and I think we all know how lucky we are to have Rabbi Barry Schwartz leading our congregation. Attendance at our Friday night Shabbat services has been exemplary, and the number of people who show up for the Saturday morning Torah study that he leads puts many larger temples to shame. He continues to make important contributions to our religious school, this year launching a family learning component, working with the b'nai mitzvah and confirmation students, and contributing in so many ways, from presenting thoughtful and inspiring sermons, to offering individual instruction and counseling, to participating in community events, to helping to keep the place tidy when need be (which is not part of his job description, I just admire the fact that he is not a prima donna). I am therefore pleased to inform you that Rabbi Schwartz has renewed his contract for the next two years, and hopefully he will remain with us for many more years to come.

This past year, Rabbi Schwartz was joined by student cantor, Alison Lopatin. For the coming year, we were unable to obtain a student cantor from Hebrew Union College, and will be utilizing a Cantorial Soloist instead, along with a separate b’nei mitzvah tutor . I will let our Ritual Chair, Virginia Gitter, tell you more about them, and thank you Virginia for chairing the Ritual Committee and leading the cantorial search. I would just note now that, whether this particular individual works out or not, it is good to know that there are alternatives to hiring a different student cantor every year, and there are alternatives that might provide us with more stability in the long run. Although this model will cost us significantly more than it would with a student cantor, this has been taken into consideration in preparing the budget proposal for the coming year, and we will be mindful of the cost as we look ahead to the year after.

Our Religious School is the jewel of Adas Emuno, and we began the past year with a new Religious School Director, Annice Benamy. Annice has worked hard to help generate more publicity for our school, for example by holding an ice cream open house last summer. And in response to concerns that our students were not being adequately prepared for their b'nai mitzvah, she worked hard to make our curriculum more rigorous and structured. I should also note that she has been kind enough over the past year to fill in as a cantorial soloist at numerous services. She has shown great energy and enthusiasm in carrying out her responsibilities. I will also acknowledge that the transition has had its challenges, and the board is aware of that, and will work to continue to improve our school over the coming year. I cannot help but note with great sadness the recent passing of David Benamy, husband of Annice, who contributed so much to our synagogue in the short time that he was with us, from making balloon animals at our children's events, to helping out with our computers and technology, to blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, to starting up a Youth Group for us, and serving as Youth Advisor. We all join together in mourning his passing. And I hope we can join together to see that his efforts on our behalf were not in vain.

I want to thank Amy Chartoff for her work as chair of the Religious School Committee, and note that for the coming year we intend to have significantly more board involvement in the committee, and will be looking for significantly more involvement on the part of the parents as well. This is an area in which we need to improve, and will improve, in the coming year. I also want to acknowledge Rebecca Kind-Slater for her work on events and activities for families with young children, and her efforts regarding preschoolers. In particular, I think we are all very proud of the fact that Rebecca and Annice successfully applied for the Union for Reform Judaism's Communities of Practice program on Successfully Engaging Young Families. Annice attended the first meeting in Chicago, and she and Rebecca continue to be involved in this effort, and welcome others to participate as well. Events like Super Sukkot Sunday, the Apple Picking Outing, and the Purim Carnival are great fun for everyone involved, and very much a sign of health for our congregation.

On the topic of education, our adult education program has been booming, thanks in no small part to our Adult Education Committee chairs, Norm Rosen and Fred Friedman. We have had a lecture on the Israeli legal system, movie screenings and discussions involving a documentary on Jewish boxers as well as the celebrated film Connected last summer, musical presentations on the Jews of India and the Yiddish theater, and classes in beginning Hebrew taught by Annice Benamy, and Yoga taught by Mia Howard. We have also continued to be blessed by outstanding musical performances, including the return of the Heritage Ensemble last December (and look for them to make it a threepeat this coming November 16), and the wonderful visit from the Yale a cappella group Magevet in January (and we are working on bring them back for an encore early next year), not to mention the music played by Rachel Musleah as part of her presentation on the Jews of India, the wonderful musical talent displayed at our talent show, the ever lovely sounds of our chamber music concert, and Diane Cypkin's performance of Molly Picon's Yiddish theater music. I want to acknowledge Robin Cramer again, and the Edward M. Cramer Music Fund, for supporting so many of our programs, and thank you as well to the Cramer Music Fund Committee.

Our adult education and religious school events are important not only in service to our members and the community, but also as ways to provide us with more publicity and increased visibility. A year ago, a refrain that we were hearing over and over again was that no one knows we're here. And while I can't claim to have completely overcome that problem, I believe we have made great strides over the past year. Our events have been reported on in Leonia Life, the Jewish Standard, and the North Jersey Record, as well as being posted in various places on the internet. I want to than Virginia Gitter, chair of our publicity committee, for her public relations work on behalf of Adas Emumo, as well as editing our newsletter, Kadimah, overseeing our mailings, chairing the ritual committee as well, and serving as recording secretary. I also want to acknowledge Rebecca Kind-Slater's contributions regard online publicity. On our own website and database, thanks go to Howard Goldstein and Kim Merlino for the work that they've done. I must concede, however, that I had hoped to be much farther along in bringing our internet services up to date, than we are now, and this has been one of the goals that we have fallen short on this past year. Our database software is less than adequate and lacking in most basic features (we can't even format our email blasts in any way, let alone add a flyer as an attachment). And our website needs a complete overhaul. This has to be a priority in the coming year, and we need volunteers who can help with the work. Even our congregational blog, which has largely been a one-man show for me, is not all that it could be because no one else is working on it. We also need to look to the internet as a cheaper and more ecologically sound alternative to mailings and printing a newsletter on paper, at least as an option that members can choose.

Our temple's image is important in making people aware that we exist, and in communicating a sense of the kind of congregation we are. To that end, one of the great lifts of this past year has been the design of a new logo for Adas Emuno by Lauren Rowland. This lovely and original image gets across the strong sense of community, participation, and the hamishe spirit that distinguishes our shul. It immediately has added great life to our letters and documents, and to our website and blog. We also have been long aware of the need for better signage, and Hurricane Sandy did us a favor by destroying our ugly, old, barely visible sign. Thanks to Lauren Rowland and Amy Chartoff, we have a beautiful new sign, one that features our distinctive logo, and we have added the lettering on the portico to make us easier to spot and identify as folks drive by. There are more improvements to come. We need to make them to improve our image, and to show to others and to ourselves that we care about our temple, that we're not a congregation in decline, but one that is vital and evolving. Of course, as we move forward in this way, we also need to remain fiscally responsible.

Buildings and grounds are an important part of our image, and again I want to thank Michael Fishbein and his committee for their hard work. I think we are all very pleased by the addition of the cabinets in the social hall, which provide for better utilization of space, give us more storage room, and allow us to place the garbage can out of the line of sight and people's paths. The addition of air conditioning to the social hall was also much needed, given the reality of global warming, and the increased use of the space during the summer. Thank you to Michael Raskin for his help on that front. I also want to note the continued improvements to our little garden area outside, really a wonderful feature of our grounds.

If we are not for ourselves, who are we? But if we are only for ourselves, what are we? One of the true highlights of this past year has been the revival of our Social Action Committee, led by Annette DeMarco. From Shelter Our Sisters to Bonim Builders to clothing drives, to opening our shul for those in need in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, to food drives and taking a turn at the food kitchen in Hackensack, to making lunch for Americorps volunteers, to collecting eyeglasses, pet food, and hosting a blood drive, Adas Emuno has been present and counted for in regard to tikkun olam, and I think this is one of the great success stories of the past year. So thank you again to Annette, to everyone on the Social Action Committee, and to all of our volunteers of Adas Emuno.

Perhaps the most important measure of our health is our membership, because Adas Emuno is the assembly of the faithful. And it may surprise you to hear me say that Adas Emuno does not have any members, but don't worry, I say that because Adas Emuno is its members. And at a time when all of organized religion is in decline, it is rather remarkable that we have held steady in our membership numbers. Of course, it would be nice to get a little bit bigger, but under the circumstances, it is no small feat to hold your ground when everyone around you is losing theirs. I want to thank our membership committee chair, Michael Raskin, who also serves as Vice-President, and takes care of relations with the Leonia community. Michael has also served as chair of the nominating committee this year, so we are all grateful for that service as well. And I want to appeal, once more, to you for your help. We need our members to be active and engaged, to serve on committees, perhaps even to serve on the board. If you're interested, don't be shy, let us know. If you have something to offer, don't be shy, let us know. And if you want to volunteer yourself or someone else, don't be shy, let us know. We need to give Virginia a break.

In regard to our organization, it has been many, many years since the by-laws of our congregation have been reviewed, and amended. This was another of my goals for this year, and I want to thank Fred Friedman and Norm Rosen for leading our by-laws committee, and working to bring them into alignment with current practices. I had hoped that we would have the proposed revisions ready in advance of our annual meeting, so that they could be put to a vote here, but unfortunately we fell short of that mark. But the work is nearly done, and we will have to hold a special congregational meeting in the fall, to discuss and vote on the proposed changes, and to further consider the role and rights of non-Jewish members of the congregation, a subject that requires consideration and deliberation on the part of our membership.

There are two additional goals that I set out last year that I do not feel have been adequately dealt with. One is planning for the future, and along with setting up a Sesquicentennial Fund, I will be establishing a Sesquicentennial Committee, charged with taking up the question of the future of our congregation. Where do we want to be in 2021? What are our long term goals, aside from simply surviving? It is essential that we think about the future, and our 150th birthday provides the perfect focal point for doing so. The other goal is listening. By that, I mean that we, the leadership of the synagogue, need to actively listen to the membership. It's not that we're deaf, I hasten to add, we certainly have been listening as much as possible, that's part of the job of being a trustee or an officer. But we need to be more proactive about it. I think having a congregational meeting about the by-laws will be helpful, and so will meeting with small groups of members to hear their concerns.

In conclusion, then, our congregation is strong, and I believe that we are moving forward, that we are better off today than we were a year ago, that we are getting stronger, and can get stronger still. In the end, our greatest strength is ourselves, what we each can individually offer in service to our shul, and what we all can accomplish by working together. So let's roll up our sleeves, all pitch in, and make this the best possible congregation that it can be. And may God bless you all, and God bless Adas Emuno.

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