Sunday, July 6, 2014

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 26, 2014

I said it last year in my first report as president of Adas Emuno, and I am pleased to be able to say it once again this year: The state of our congregation is strong.

Now, having said that, I don't mean to imply that it is the strongest it could be, and I don't mean to deny that we have faced and continue to face some serious challenges. What I do mean to say, however, is that Adas Emuno is still going strong, we have every reason to be not only hopeful, but downright optimistic about our future, and we, all of us, officers, trustees, clergy, and members of the congregation, should feel good about our accomplishments, should give ourselves the credit we all deserve for getting our congregation back on track and keeping it there.

Of course, we should also strive to do better. We must strive to do better. That is one of the major differences between Judaism and eastern religions. We don't just sit back and accept things for what they are. We say to ourselves, to others, to the world, we can make things better. We have to make things better. That's what we are here for. That is the spirit of tikkun olam.

I want to begin by noting that our congregation has truly been blessed to have a spiritual leader of the caliber of Rabbi Barry Schwartz. Over the past three years he has become not only the face of Adas Emuno, but its heart and its soul as well. We are indeed fortunate to have an individual of his energy, dedication, learning, intelligence, spirituality, and talent to guide our community.

I should also note that Rabbi Schwartz has been exceedingly helpful working with our cantorial and b’nai mitzvah tutoring staff over the past three years. While we are grateful for the contributions of each of those individuals: Student Cantor Alison Lopatin followed by Cantorial Soloist Nancy Beller-­Kreiger and b’nai mitzvah tutor, Cantor Estelle Epstein, we must acknowledge that this fluctuating arrangement did present challenges, not only due to the lack of continuity, but also in that the duties normally handled by one person were divided up, based on individual skill sets and availability. I would, however, like to especially thank Estelle Epstein, a cantor from the Conservative tradition, for doing a wonderful job as our b’nai mitzvah tutor this year, and for filling in as cantor for some of our b'nai mitzvah ceremonies.

The challenge we faced with our cantorial position is that our budget does not allow for us to hire an ordained cantor as well as an ordained rabbi, even with both of them working part time. And while we can afford a student cantor, there are more congregations that want to take advantage of what is, essentially, a paid internship, than there are student cantors. So every year that we enter the student pool at the Hebrew Union College (HUC-­JIR) we are in danger of being shut out, and put in the unpleasant situation of having to compete with other congregations. There is also the issue of continuity, whereby some of our b'nai mitzvah students might start out working with one cantor, and finish up with another. This is not an ideal situation and it is not one we wish to perpetuate.

We faced an even more serious problem this past year regarding our religious school. While significant progress was made in regards to the academic component of our school, resulting in our students being better prepared for their b'nai mitvah ceremonies, and receiving a better education overall, there was serious concern about the atmosphere and morale at the school. Finding a way to meet the challenge became the board's highest priority during the fall and winter months. We determined that the best way to get an individual of the highest possible quality, to establish continuity from year to year and a connection between school and shul, would be to combine the roles of religious school director and cantor in one person. As Rabbi Schwartz explained to us, this type of position, referred to as a Cantor-­Educator, has become increasingly more common in congregations in recent years. Combining these roles allows us to create a more attractive part time position with a salary that is appropriate for an ordained cantor. We put in the time and we put in the effort, and I am pleased to say that we were able to find an excellent candidate for that position, an individual of great musical talent and educational experience, who was officially ordained as a cantor by the Academy of Jewish Religion last month. Sandy Horowitz will be officially joining us in July. You can read more about her on ourcongregational blog, and you will all get a chance to meet her at her first Shabbat service with us on Friday, July 18th. I am confident that with Sandy's arrival, we all will agree that we have arrived at a wonderful new chapter in the long history of our congregation.

I want to thank our Ritual Committee Chair, Virginia Gitter, for all of the work she has put in over the past year. And I especially want to acknowledge our Religious School Committee Co­Chairs, the Vice­-Presidents Michael Raskin and Elka Oliver, for their heroic efforts in managing all of the problems and concerns of the past year, and the transition to the school's new leadership, as well conducting the search and interviews for two replacement teachers over the past month. I also want to thank all of the board members and congregants who helped us with the search process for our Cantor-­Educator. Several challenges remain, especially in bringing in new children for our school to fill the youngest grades, and I want to acknowledge Doris White, who is leading a task force to deal with this effort, in conjunction with our religious school committee co-­chairs. We also need new supervision for our temple youth group.

Another set of challenges that we have been facing has to do with technology, something that we don't normally associate with religious observance and education. But our website template is no longer current, and this important interface for our congregation has been in need of a makeover in a number of ways. At the same time, behind the scenes, our database software is old, minimally functional, and otherwise problematic. To meet this challenge, we conducted a search of available information technology services, and found an affordable and effective option in ShulCloud. We are in the process of transferring over our website and data, and once we make the transition, we will not only have an improved website, but be able to use electronic billing, email Yahrzeit anniversaries, email messages with formatting and attachments, allow members to edit their personal information (e.g., address, telephone, email, etc.), and more. I would like to see us make the transition that many other organizations have to reduce the amount of physical mailings of newsletters, announcements, etc., both to save us money and provide a greener alternative. We would of course, continue physical mailings for anyone who desires them. I want to thank Mark Rosenberg for his work as a liaison with ShulCloud, and in helping to make the transition, and Howard Goldstein for all of his work on the website and his labor on the transition to our new systems, and for his service as trustee these past years. When everything is ready to roll out, we will let our membership know, and hopefully it will all work out better than the healthcare websites did for our federal government.

While I'm on the subject of our online communications, let me mention that our congregational blog continues to be updated fairly regularly, mostly by me, and I would welcome any contributions that congregants would care to offer, be it essays or short commentaries, reports on trips, reviews, poetry or other forms of creative writing with a Jewish theme, art, photographs, videos, etc. And this seems like the appropriate point at which to thank Virginia Gitter for all of her work on publicity for our congregation, and for editing Kadima, our newsletter, in addition to serving as Recording Secretary for the past two years. I also want to acknowledge Lauren Rowland's artistic contributions, including the creation of different versions of our logo for various purposes. She has also started the process of setting up an online store for us where we will make available various items to purchase, such as t-­shirts and mugs, with the lovely Adas Emuno logo (you'll hear more about that in the near future). In addition to selling our own items and Judaica designed by others online, I want to remind you that you can make your purchases through the portal on our blog and website, and thereby send a percentage of the profits to us.

As I mentioned in my letter to the congregation this past February, we also concluded an extended review and revision of our congregation's
By-­Laws, led by trustees Norm Rosen and Fred Friedman. While this is hardly the most glamorous or engaging project, it was long overdue and much needed. Simply put, it is only right that the congregation as an organization act in accordance with its by-­laws, and if that isn't happening, either we need to change what we're doing, or we need to change the by­laws. And as I said in my letter, our By-­Laws affect how our congregation is administered and operated, and in fact make it possible for our congregation to be administered and operated. And in keeping with the democratic principles we all believe in, it is vital that our congregation be governed in accordance with the will of its membership. To this end, a special meeting of the congregation was held on March 20th, and the revised By-Laws (which were sent in the February mailing along with my letter) were approved by the membership. We also opened a discussion on the one issue that we deferred regarding the By-­Laws, concerning the rights and privileges of non­-Jewish members (neither Jewish by birth or conversion) of the congregation. The discussion was open and quite helpful, and we want to continue to hear your views on the subject at our annual meeting, and over the course of the coming year, with the goal of possibly amending that portion of our By-­Laws at next year's annual meeting.

And as I indicated in my letter, there has been quite a bit happening behind the scenes this past year. We have answered a variety of challenges, some anticipated and some not, and we have worked on some problems that needed to be addressed for quite some time.

At this point, I want to note that we remain healthy financially, with a balanced budget, as we continue to benefit from donations. Religious school tuition remains a loss leader, and rightfully so, as our school is so very precious to Adas Emuno. We are asking members to pay their dues earlier than we have in the past, or at the very least to make a commitment to do so, while never turning away anyone in need. This has not been a particularly good year for fundraising, in contrast to previous years, and we need to put more effort into events like the Talent Show from last year, and other fundraising initiatives, in the coming year. Still and all, we are doing fine financially, and I especially want to credit our Treasurer, Michael Fishbein, our Financial Secretary, Mark Rosenberg, and our Finance Committee member Doris White, for their work in this area.

All of the congregations in this area are facing demographic challenges, as the Jewish population here is decreasing, and we will have to do our best to meet those challenges. The good news is that the current situation underscores the strength of our congregation's model, as opposed to many other Reform temples, insofar as we are small, flexible, and not burdened by a high overhead regarding facilities and personnel. What we offer is not a country club (you can get that over at the JCC on the Palisades), but what people really need: community, intimacy, spirituality, education, and a center for social action.

Speaking of social action, I want to express my profound appreciation for Annette DeMarco's continued leadership as Social Action Chair. She has re­established our social action program over the past few years, and with the help of others, including Trustee Marilyn Katz, we have been fully engaged in tzedakah and tikkun olam, and this is essential to our mission as a congregation.

Some problems regarding the state of our cemetery in North Arlington came to our attention over the past year. Again, this is a problem that the board immediately set out to address by examining the exact state of our section, determining where there are problems (and discovering that they were not nearly as severe as had been reported in an article in the Bergen Record), and taking steps to remedy them. In doing so, we are fulfilling our responsibility to the generations that came before us, and also managing a resource that others may avail themselves of in the future. Thank you to Norm Rosen and Fred Friedman again, for leading the Cemetery Committee.

We continue to offer a variety of adult education programs, thanks in no small part to our Adult Education Committee chairs, again, Norm Rosen and Fred Friedman. We also have had wonderful musical events, including the return of Eugene Marlowe's Heritage Ensemble and the Yale a capella group, Magevet, thanks to the Edward M. Cramer Music Fund. Rabbi Schwartz's Shabbat morning Torah study group has been extremely popular and well attended. Doris White and I just started a monthly poetry reading that, weather permitting, is held in our lovely garden, maintained and improved upon by Fred Cohen, Michael Cohen, Rabbi Schwartz, and other Adas Emuno volunteers. On the subject of buildings and grounds, Michael Fishbein deserves our continued gratitude for all of the effort he puts in, inside and outside, and I also want to acknowledge the assistance of Virginia Gitter and Michael Raskin.

Our sanctuary, social hall, and religious school building are very important for us, but at the end of the day, Adas Emuno is not a set of buildings, it is a community of people. Adas Emuno are us, the congregation is the membership, plain and simple. I want to thank our membership committee chair, Michael Raskin, for his work in this area. As a small congregation, membership has always been our greatest challenge, maintaining enough members to continue to survive, and yet not growing so big that we lose the distinctive character that makes our temple different from every other temple. We need to continue to work on bringing new members in, to insure our survival into the future. And as the demographic challenges increase, we need to do better than we have been, in getting the word out, and in bringing new members in. One of my goals for the coming year is to undertake a full review of all of our membership materials, our letter and membership form, and the way we represent ourselves online. This can be helpful, but more important is for all of us to engage in interpersonal contact, networking, to attract new members. It takes a congregation to keep a congregation going.

It is not only the number of members that we have to be mindful of, but also their level of participation. As part of the revisions to the
By-­Laws, we have expanded the size of the Board of Trustees to 18, a number of some significance in our tradition. We need more members to get involved, to serve on the Board, and to serve on our committees. Some of the responsibility lies with the membership, as more people need to step up. But some of the responsibility lies with us, the leadership, as trustees and committee chairs need to do more to encourage participation. We all have to do better at this. And as the saying goes, many hands make light work. I do want to say thank you and welcome aboard to our new board members; I look forward to working with you, and I hope you find the experience one that is fulfilling and meaningful.

The old Yiddish saying, man plans, God laughs, comes to mind when I look back at my goals for the past two years. But as the First Law of Thermodynamics tells us, the amount of energy available in any system is constant, and therefore limited. In dealing with the challenges of the past year, I have not had the chance to make good on some of my goals, and I hope to be able to do so now in my second term as president. One is to do more active listening to our membership, which we did do with our special meeting, but which we, the officers and trustees, need to put more effort into. Another is to establish a Sesquicentennial Committee, charged with taking up the question of the future of our congregation. This would include planning for the future, setting up a Sesquicentennial Fund, and simply asking and trying to answer questions like, where do we want to be in 2021? What are our long term goals, aside from simply surviving? In addition to these goals, I would also like to set up an investment committee, which also would play a role in the future of our congregation.

By way of a conclusion, I would reiterate that we were faced with a number of challenges over the past year, we have met those challenges head on, and I believe we are very much the better for it. We are truly blessed with a wonderful congregation, and it is up to us, together, to show our appreciation for the blessing that is Adas Emuno, by acknowledging our accomplishments, solving our problems, taking care of the great gift that is our shul, always striving to make it better, and insuring that it will survive and continue to be a gift for the generations to come.

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