Sunday, July 26, 2015

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 25, 2015

This is the third time that I have reported to the membership on the state of the congregation, and what I said in 2013 and 2014 holds true for 2015: The state of our congregation is strong.

To be clear, over the last three years that I have had the honor of serving as president of Adas Emuno, we have faced a number of difficulties, we continue to face some very real challenges in the present, and no doubt will need to face new ones in the future. But we are strong because we are facing up to those difficulties and challenges. We are strong because we have been solving problems and making progress on many fronts. And most of all, we are strong because of the talent, the skills, the caring, and above all the dedication of our amazing little community, our assembly of the faithful.

One year ago, our most pressing concern was our religious school, and the Board of Trustees made it our highest priority to make sure it had the kind of leadership that our congregation, our members, and above all our children deserve. Traditionally, Adas Emuno has had three key part time positions, that of Rabbi and Cantor, our clergy, and the third being our Religious School Director. On the suggestion of Rabbi Schwartz, we decided to combine the positions of Cantor and Religious School Director, and conducted a search for a Cantor-Educator, the title now used for such a combined position. The search concluded successfully, and Cantor Sandy Horowitz became our new Cantor-Educator last July.

I want to make it clear that the Board had great confidence in Cantor Horowitz's ability to take on the role of Religious School Director, but as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. So it is only now, with the completion of the 2014-2015 school year, that I can say for a fact that our confidence was not misplaced, that Cantor Horowitz has proven to be a splendid Religious School Director, and for the first time in recent memory we have been able to find the right balance between maintaining a warm and welcoming atmosphere for our school and providing our students with the quality of academic instruction that they need. I should add that credit also goes to our dedicated teachers, teacher's aides, and parent volunteers, and our Religious School Committee, co-chaired by Elka Oliver and Michael Raskin this past year.

Of course, Cantor Horowitz was hired to be our cantor as well as Religious School Director, and the combined role of Cantor-Educator was meant to bring some stability to what had been a juggling act of student cantors, cantorial soloists, and b'nai mitzvah tutors coming and going each year. In this regard as well, what had been a problem in previous years was no longer a problem this past year. And anyone who knows Adas Emuno knows that our congregation has pretty high musical standards, and so it is particularly gratifying to know that Cantor Horowitz has not only met those standards, much to our membership's satisfaction, but has in fact exceeded them. And so, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you to Cantor Horowitz, who has poured her heart and soul, and many more hours of work than she anticipated, into our congregation.

I have referred to our clergy as a dream team, and I know that our membership is quite familiar with our Rabbi, Barry Schwartz, and we are very grateful for the many gifts he brings to our congregation, for his intellectual acumen, for his talent as a teacher and educator, for his dedication to social action, for his devotion as a caretaker (often in ways unnoticed and unacknowledged) of our shul, as an advisor and counselor, and above all, as our spiritual leader. I want to take this opportunity to say thank you, Rabbi Schwartz, for all that you do, and to let you know how much you mean to us. And in the past I have neglected to mention Debbie Schwartz, our rebbetzin, but I think that she deserves a word of thanks as well.

For the past year, from the High Holy Days through to Shavuot, on every Friday evening, on Saturday morning B'nai Mitzvah services and Torah Study sessions, and on Sunday morning Religious School model services, we have been enjoyed a quality of clergy leadership that is nothing short of exemplary. Credit also goes to the work of the Ritual Committee, chaired this past year by Virginia Gitter. And looking towards the future, I am very pleased to report to you that this past year both Rabbi Schwartz and Cantor Horowitz have signed multi-year contracts that take effect this July, so that we can look forward to continued stability and continuity in the coming years.

Following the membership's approval of our amended By-Laws last year, we were able to expand our Board of Trustees, and we have been especially invigorated by the addition of several new board members, including Sandra Zornek, Jody Pugach, Susan Grey, and Judith Fisher, all of whom are religious school parents. Last year, two other board members took over as officers of our congregation, Elka Oliver as Vice-President, and Marilyn Katz as Recording Secretary. It has been a real pleasure working with all of them, as well as with our longstanding board members, past president Virginia Gitter, Michael Raskin, Annette DeMarco, Norman Rosen, Lauren Rowland, our Financial Secretary Mark Rosenberg, our Treasurer Michael Fishbein, and Doris White who serves as our bookkeeper. Thank you all for your continued service to Adas Emuno. And thank you as well to Fred Friedman, who stepped down from the board during the past year. We had the opportunity to honor Fred at a special Shabbat service on May 1st, which turned out to be a truly memorable and moving evening, but it doesn't hurt to say thank you, once again, on behalf of our congregation.

I would like to mention some of the new initiatives and special events that took place over the past year. For example, we had an Adas Emuno Religious School Family Meet and Greet last August, and then in September we launched our innovative new Tot Mitzvah program, led by Doris White. We also launched our Poetry Garden group last summer, meeting once a month in the Adas Emuno garden when the weather was warm and dry, in our sukkah during the Sukkot festival week, and in the social hall the rest of the time. I want to thank Doris White again for helping to lead the group, and note that, apart from its own merits, it can serve as a model for other special interest groups within the congregation to set up regular meetings. You don't need a large group to make it happen; in fact a small group works best.

And speaking of groups that meet in the social hall, we play host to the Bergen County Chapter of the American Recorder Society, letting them use our social hall each month for a nominal fee, and they treated us to a marvelous outdoor concert in our garden last September. Hopefully, we can make this an annual event. Our tradition of hosting wonderful musical events continued this past May with the return of Eugene Marlow's Heritage Ensemble.

This past year we enjoyed many fine Adult Education programs, thanks to the efforts of committee chair Norman Rosen, and his co-chair Fred Friedman, and it would be too much to mention all of the events they organized here. Instead, for my part, I just want to note that we had some seasonal fun on November 1st with a screening and discussion of the feature film, World War Z, and on April 11th with a screening of the documentary, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, which was followed by a very lively discussion and debate. I believe that the format combining film screenings with discussions is one that works very well for us.

One of the high points of this past year was the return of Adas Emuno Has Talent, which serves as a fundraiser for our Religious School. As was the case the first time we held this event in 2013, this past January's talent show was a marvelous showcase for the gifts of our membership, young and old alike. Special thanks go to Elka Oliver for her leadership in organizing this event.

I have to say that it was a personal thrill for me to be able to write an original Purim spiel that, if nothing else, saved us the cost of purchasing one from someone else, as we've done in previous years, and to have it performed not once, but twice. Thank you again to our clergy and Ritual Committee for expanding our celebration of this joyous holiday, and while it may need some tweaking, I think the idea of performing the spiel twice, once on a Sunday morning for the Religious School, and once as part of an evening Purim service, is a good one. I also hope that we can make "The Schnook of Esther" available for purchase to other congregations, to maybe raise a few extra dollars for our social action fund. And thank you to Elka Oliver and Virginia Gitter for organizing and directing this year's production.

Speaking of Virginia, when she initially proposed bringing back our congregational Seder on the second night of Passover, she met with some resistance and negative feedback, or at least some misgivings about the feasibility of the event. She listened to the comments, acknowledged them, and proceeded to organize the event anyway, and it turned out to be a great success! One of the questions raised was whether enough people would be interested in and willing to attend a congregational Seder, and it turned out that we had to turn people away. Another question was the cost, but Virginia worked out a way to keep it reasonable. And the third was whether the Seder itself would be well organized and meaningful, and as led by Rabbi Schwartz, it most certainly was. So thank you again to our Rabbi, and thank you to Virginia for your vision, and your willingness to see it through!

At this point, I would like to acknowledge the hard work of the chair of our Social Action Committee, Annette DeMarco, and emphasize how important our social action initiatives are for Adas Emuno. And I must acknowledge the chair of our Buildings and Grounds Committee, Michael Fishbein, for his work regarding the repair, maintenance, and improvements of our facilities. I also want to say thank you, on behalf of the congregation to Fred Cohen for his continued work on our garden, and to Richard Allichio for his volunteer work on behalf of our events and fundraisers.

Regarding publicity, again Virginia Gitter deserves our gratitude for her work on the newsletter and mailings, as does Lauren Rowland. As for our transition to a new website and database service, this is an area in which we have not performed as well as we should have, and I regret the delays, and take responsibility for them, the president being the goalie whose job it is stop the buck right here. I am very grateful to Mark Rosenberg for his work with the ShulCloud service, and to Sandra Zornek for picking up the ball that others have dropped, and taking us to the point where we are almost ready to roll out the new system. Expect to hear more about it later this summer. I'll just add that I've been doing my best to maintain our congregational blog, which serves as something of a record of our activities as well as publicity for Adas Emuno, and I would welcome others to contribute to it as well. I also want to mention that I have been writing occasional op-eds for our local periodical, the Jewish Standard, and the primary reason I'm doing so is that each piece includes an author blurb that identifies my association with Adas Emuno, and thereby gives us a little bit of extra publicity.

Two important policy initiatives were completed this year that bear mentioning. One was the development of our new Safe Child Policy for our religious school, an effort led by Elka Oliver. Another was the establishment of a new Family Service and B'nai Mitzvah Service Attendance Policy, the product of extensive discussions on the part of the board, Rabbi Schwartz, and Cantor Horowitz.

I began this report by acknowledging that we do face some serious challenges, and I would be remiss if I did not identify them to you. The way I see it, there are three main challenges, and I think it would be helpful to review them in order of priority. The first and most important challenge is membership. Congregation Adas Emuno is its membership. We are a nonprofit corporation, yes, but at the core we are an assembly of the faithful (that's what adas emuno means), we are a community, we are a congregation. And our membership has been in decline, partly due to better bookkeeping, but also in real terms. We face demographic challenges regarding the Jewish population in this area, as well as challenges that are shared by congregations of other faiths and traditions. In the past, it was sufficient to take the attitude that, if you build it, they will come, but that is no longer the case, and we need to put more effort into outreach, and to reach out to areas beyond Leonia and the towns that immediately surround us. The challenge of membership is one both of recruitment and also retainment, and in that regard, we as the leadership of the congregation need to do a better job of communicating with our membership, and of listening to what our members have to say. At the same time, I want to renew my plea to our members, to keep in mind that this is a do-it-yourself temple, that we welcome, indeed need your input and participation, in all aspects of our synagogue's life. If there's something we're not doing, or something that we could do better, please, by all means, let us know, but also let us know what you are willing to do to help out. And as I've mentioned before, please remember to be an Adas Emuno ambassador, and help us to bring in more members.

The second challenge that we face, one that is related to the first, is declining enrollments in our religious school. We can still survive for an extended period of time with declining enrollments, and in theory we can survive indefinitely without a religious school altogether. But what we have seen happening with our sister shuls is that when a congregation closes its religious school, it will eventually close its doors as well. The two may be separated by many years, even by a decade or two, but the long term health of our congregation can be measured by the health of our religious school. Moreover, religious education for our children, including b'nai mitzvah preparation, is at the heart of our mission as a synagogue. As I have noted, the Adas Emuno Religious School is now in the best shape that it has ever been, so now is the time to get the word out, to do more in the way active recruitment.

Our third major challenge is financial. This is related, in part, to declining membership, which means a decline in membership dues. It is offset by declining religious school enrollments, because tuition does not completely cover the costs of the school, but subsidizing our children's education is a longstanding policy of our congregation. For the short term, we are in good shape financially, given our three properties and savings. But we are spending more than we take in from dues, fees, tuition and donations. In part, this has been due to the need to deal with maintenance and repairs that were put off during leaner financial times. We also have been dealing with personnel changes that only now have become stabilized and predictable. Obviously, we cannot continue to spend more than we earn indefinitely, so we need to arrive at a financial formula that works for us. For this reason, the board has approved the raising of dues and tuition for the coming year. The decision was a difficult one for the board, with the impact on membership an important concern. I want to emphasize, however, that the raises are modest, and that we have avoided raising dues and fees for the past several years, for reasons that include concern over the country's economic downturn. But the board recognizes the importance of a balanced budget, and it remains a fact that we are still a bargain compared to other temples in the area.

We are also looking into ways to increase our fundraising efforts, which have included the use of the Benefit smartphone app and the Blue Moon Mexican Café Community Night last month, thanks to Sandra Zornek. And to echo Susan Grey's Yom Kippur Appeal, "Please consider giving generously this year to sustain the special life we have created here at Adas Emuno."

Of course, we are also looking into ways of cutting costs. And unlike many of our sister shuls who are also dealing with the same problems regarding membership, enrollments, and finances, as a small congregation we do not have the high overhead they do, in regard to staff, maintenance of facilities, etc., so we go into this new financial climate already lean and mean. That is why we ask for less in the way of dues and tuition. But still, it is important to recognize our fiduciary obligations.

The bottom line, however, is that our finances have to be a lower priority than our school, and our membership, and we need to spend money, prudently of course, in our efforts to increase our enrollments and our membership. People come first. Our shul cannot survive with money and no members, and our school cannot survive with money and no students. But it is possible to survive with members and students, even without much in the way of financial resources.

My intent is not to convey a sense of doom and gloom, but rather to explain why I would prioritize membership above all, followed by our religious school, and only then followed by financials. And in setting up this hierarchy of needs, I don't mean it as an absolute, but rather as a suggestion that can guide us in making decisions for the future.

I also want to emphasize that, in noting how we are experiencing declines in membership and enrollment, that they have been gradual, and that they are, in my opinion, reversible. We have a truly exceptional congregation, everyone who experiences it says so. We have every reason to be proud of what we have here, to be proud of what we have achieved here, to be proud of what we are. And we have every reason to do all that we can to insure that this extraordinary legacy that we have inherited from others who came before us can be passed down to future generations.

We are now a little more than six short years from our sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of the founding of Congregation Adas Emuno. Let us look forward to celebrating that milestone with a congregation that is stronger than ever. And in the words derived from the Psalms, May Congregation Adas Emuno go from strength to strength.

No comments:

Post a Comment