Tuesday, July 19, 2016

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 16, 2016

The State of the Congregation

Having reported on the state of the congregation to the membership three times already, I feel like something of a broken record in saying for a fourth time that the state of our congregation is strong. But this fourth time around, I have no reason to break with tradition, even if it is a tradition of my own making. So I am happy to report to you that as of June 2016, the state of our congregation remains strong.

At the same time, I cannot help but begin by noting that our strength is diminished by the loss of our former Trustee Fred Friedman less than a week ago. I know that if he were still alive, he would be here with us tonight, and would undoubtedly have something to say during this congregational meeting. He would have questions to ask, observations to share, advice to give, and criticisms to make us just a little bit uncomfortable, and keep us on our toes. Fred was more than a good congregant, more than a good board member, more than a good committee chair—Fred was a good citizen. We don't often talk about citizenship in the context of our shul. It's a concept that we associate with secular society. But a synagogue is not only a house of worship, and more than a house of study—it is also a house of gathering, a house of assembly, a beit knesset. And Adas Emuno, our assembly of the faithful, is not only a congregation, it is an organization and a community. And wouldn't we all think and act a bit differently if, instead of talking about membership, we talked about citizenship?

You might say that the difference between members and citizens is that members are asked to pay dues. But citizens are asked to pay taxes, and before the modern idea of dues-paying members, ancient Jewish tradition required us to give a portion of our income (or agricultural produce) to the Temple in Jerusalem and the priesthood, and then to the synagogue and congregation. The practice was adopted by Christians and Moslems, and in English is known as tithing (meaning giving ten percent of your income). And I am not recommending we return to that system, but I am saying that, as citizens of Adas Emuno, we are obligated to support our shul, in part materially, through dues and donations, and also through participation and service, just as citizens of a nation are called upon to serve their country. It is very easy for us, given the kind of culture we inhabit, to think of ourselves as consumers, reducing Adas Emuno to the level of products and services that we purchase. But we ought to think of ourselves as citizens, with rights, and with responsibilities as well.

I like to think that Fred Friedman is looking down on us right now, and smiling and nodding. He understood, as much as any one of us, the value, , and necessity of service. He understood the importance of standing up for our congregation, helping to bear its weight on his shoulders, and helping to carry it forward into a future that he will not see, knowing that others had done the same for his own benefit. I am truly grateful that our congregation was able to honor Fred a little over a year ago, at Friday night Shabbat, because honor is the only coin in which service can truly be rewarded. And we can continue to honor Fred Friedman by thinking about our own, individual congregational membership as citizenship. And as Fred's service extended beyond our congregation, and Adas Emuno is a part of the larger Jewish community, I would like to propose a further honor in his memory, that we institute a Fred Friedman Award for Jewish Citizenship, to be presented annually for outstanding service to the Jewish community. I welcome your feedback during our congregational meeting, and will ask our trustees to approve the proposal at the board meeting to follow.

While I'm on the subject of our Board of Trustees, I want to acknowledge that one of the main reasons why the state of our congregation is strong is our board, our officers and trustees, whose dedication, hard work, and talent is truly extraordinary. As a small shul that has no support staff, no office manager, no executive director, no administrative assistant, our board is a working board, and our officers and trustees step up time and time again, and I want to say thank you to each and every one of them. As some of you know, over the course of the last four months of 2015, I spent most of my time down in Philadelphia as a visiting professor at Villanova University, and this meant that the board had to carry on to a large extent with an absentee president. I want to make it clear that I was under no illusions that I am in any way indispensible. I know, perhaps better than anyone, how much harder other members of the board work than I do. I'm often in the role of that guy who says, "I'll just supervise," or "you have my moral support." So I had no concern about the board functioning without me, but I do want to express my gratitude to each and every one of our officers and trustees: our past president Virginia Gitter, our Vice-President Elka Oliver, our Financial Secretary Mark Rosenberg, our Treasurer Michael Fishbein, our Recording Secretary Marilyn Katz, and our Trustees, Annette DeMarco, Susan Gray, Jody Pugach, Michael Raskin, Norman Rosen, Lauren Rowland, Doris White, Sandy Zornek, and our recent addition to the board, Ronald Waxman.

It has been a great honor for me to serve as president of Congregation Adas Emuno these past four years, and an even greater honor to be asked to serve another two-year term. I have accepted the nomination because I am told that I am still needed, and I believe I am still capable of serving in that capacity. To be honest, part of me would be happy to serve for much longer, because I love this congregation and want to do everything in my power to keep it strong. But for that reason, I also know that it would be much healthier for Adas Emuno to have new leadership, which is why I believe that this should be my last term in that office.

I want to express my appreciation to Elka Oliver for her contributions as Vice-President, and Mark Rosenberg for all that he does as Financial Secretary, and thank them both for being willing to continue on for another two-year term. I especially want to acknowledge Michael Fishbein for his double duty as Treasurer and chair of our Buildings and Grounds Committee. Michael is stepping down as Treasurer, so I want to thank him for his years of service in that capacity, and thank him as well for being willing to remain on the board as a Trustee. I also want to acknowledge Carol Bodian for volunteering to serve as a Trustee. Marilyn Katz is completing her two-year term as Recording Secretary, and is now ready to take on the office of Treasurer, so I want to thank her as well, and to thank Susan Grey, who is willing to take over the role of Recording Secretary.

In the case of small organizations such as ourselves, it becomes easy to rely on having the same individuals fulfill the same roles for year after year after year, and then react with panic when they are suddenly unable or unwilling to continue. So changing officers and committee chairs is good for our congregation, it is good preparation for moving up in the chain of command, and I believe that we have grown stronger over the past four years regarding the future of our congregational leadership. I also note that our new by-laws allow for 18 board members, we have been gradually increasing the size of the board, and our now just one shy of our goal of יח (chai). There is room for one more on the board, and room for many more on our committees. And let me express my gratitude to our committee chairs for their hard work, to Virginia Gitter for the Ritual Committee and the Publicity Committee, and in regrards to our publicity and overall public image, to Lauren Rowland for her graphic design work; to Annette DeMarco for the Social Action Committee; to Elka Oliver and Michael Raskin for the Religious School Committee; to Michael Raskin again for the Membership Committee; to Norman Rosen and Jody Pugach for the Adult Education Committee; to Norman Rosen and Judith Fisher for the Cemetery Committee; and to Michael Fishbein again for the Buildings and Grounds Committee, with an added thanks to Fred Cohen and Rabbi Schwartz for their continual work on our wonderful garden; and to Michael Rask for taking change of snow removal, and relations with Leonia's law enforcement and local government officials.

I also want to say thank you to Sandy Zornick for chairing the Internet Committee, and for finally getting us integrated with ShulCloud, both the membership database and the website, as well as the new email distribution system. This has taken a long time to implement, but now that it is finally in place, we can truly say that we are a 21st century shul.

We also have a fundraising committee, chaired by Susan Gray and Sandy Zornick, and last fall the Treats and Treasures fundraiser hosted by Modiani Kitchens in Englewood was an enormous success. Special thanks go to Richard Alicchio for taking the lead in proposing the fundraiser, and insuring that it was a success, as well as for all of his help the whole year round in securing donations from local merchants for our events. Thank you as well to the core committee that made Treats and Treasures a success, Virginia Gitter, Annette DeMarco, Jody Pugach, Sandy Zornek, Doris White, and Marilyn Katz. Finally, let me express my gratitude to Virginia Gitter one more time, for chairing the nominating committee in her capacity as the only past president active on the board, and thank you to the committee members, Annette DeMarco, Kim Merlino, Michael Raskin, and Beth Ziff.

The past three times I have reported on the state of the congregation, I have always begun with our clergy, and I hope that Rabbi Schwartz and Cantor Horowitz do not feel slighted that I decided to mix things up this year. My esteem for both of them knows no bounds. We are so very fortunate to have the spiritual, intellectual, musical, and educational guidance of these two gifted and godly individuals. I am not only so very grateful to serve as president of a congregation that boasts of this dream team, but I am particularly thankful that this past year was the first of my presidency in which I did not have to concern myself with either a search for a new cantor or religious school director, or a new contract for either of our clergy. The stability that we now enjoy has been elusive for many years, and this is another sign of our strength as a congregation.

I know we are all very grateful for our Rabbi, Barry Schwartz, for his extraordinary spiritual leadership, for the quality of education he provides for our children and our adults, for the high level of discourse he brings to every D'var Torah he delivers and every Torah study session he leads, for his deep dedication to social justice, for his devotion as a caretaker in a manner above and beyond the call of duty, for his compassion and concern as an advisor and counselor… And for his wife Debbie, who adds so much spirit and thoughtfulness to our congregation.

And I know we are all grateful to Cantor Horowitz for bringing so much joy and light to each and every service that she graces with her voice, and her presence. We are a musical congregation, with an ear for talent, and it is delight to have a sweet singer of Israel of such outstanding ability. And we are equally grateful for her caring, understanding, and acumen as our Religious School Director. Our children have never been in better hands. And I also should acknowledge our wonderful teachers, our ever-helpful madrachim, and our ever-present parent volunteers.

One minor initiative that I want to mention at this point is the need for a new sound system for our sanctuary. Our present system is old, does not work all that well, and is simply not adequate for our current needs. We need to replace it before the High Holy Days, and we have time to do so, since they do not begin until October this year.

I have been saying that the state of our congregation is strong, and I stand behind that assessment, but I also acknowledge that we face some serious challenges. They are the same challenges I outlined last year, challenges involving membership and finances. Our membership has been declining slightly, and given that Adas Emuno is its membership, its citizens, that is cause for concern. We have lost some of our senior citizens, and while they are being replaced, in large part due to the fact that some of us are inexorably moving into that category, we need to find ways to attract more members of all age groups. If we could increase our size by just 20 or so families, we would be just fine. Membership is closely related to religious school enrollments, and here too we need to get the word out about the wonderful religious education that we offer, and the warm and welcoming congregation that we are.

As for our finances, they are directly related to our membership. The good news is that we are in good shape for the immediate future. The concern is that our expenses exceed our income, meaning that we are eating into our reserves. We have time to address this problem, but it will require doing better in regard to both membership and fundraising. We have made good progress on fundraising this past year, and we need to build on that success to insure the sustainability of our congregation for the future. Clearly, we need everyone working together on all of these concerns, helping to find ways to attract and retain new members, getting the word out about all that our religious school and our synagogue has to offer, working together on fundraising activities and finding ways to increase our donations above and beyond the basic dues and tuition that we ask for. We need our membership to respond with citizenship, and help us to answer these challenges in the coming years.

Congregation Adas Emuno was founded on October 22, 1871, and our little shul on the hill has kept going and going, all the while maintaining our small, intimate, haymishe community. That is because, despite all odds, we are a strong congregation, one that is blessed by the spirit, the ruach, of its members past, present, and future, and by something greater than ourselves. We are now a little more than five years away from our sesquicentennial, our 150th anniversary. It is time for us to begin planning for the celebration—and we really want it to be a great one, don’t we? And while we prepare to celebrate our 150 years, let's also do what needs to be done, to insure that Congregation Adas Emuno will be still growing strong for 150 years more. May it be God's will that it be so.

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