It is my privilege to address you tonight on the state of the Shul. I am pleased to report that the state of the Shul is strong, strong and getting stronger. Or, as we say in Hebrew, Chazak, chazak venitchazek.
This is not just a cliché.
We have just gone through one of the most significant transitions in WJC’s history and have come out stronger. The process of searching for a new Senior Rabbi last year, transition events over the summer and into the fall, and the High Holidays could not have gone better, and really brought our community together. I could not be more proud of what we have accomplished.
In Rabbi Arnowitz, we have found a new Senior Rabbi who is a great fit for our congregation and has hit the ground running. I applaud the tremendous efforts of Rabbi Arnowitz and Tami at personal outreach to our congregation. The energy and enthusiasm that they bring to our Shul is palpable. We are poised to move forward into a bright future under Rabbi Arnowitz’s leadership.
I also want to recognize Rabbi Segelman for his incredible leadership and teamwork during this transition period. Experts on rabbinical transition planning advised us against having Rabbi Segelman and Rabbi Arnowitz overlap for a year; they warned it could could lead to difficulties and complications; but because of the extraordinary person Rabbi Segelman is – and Rabbi Arnowitz as well – it worked seamlessly. We are all indebted to Rabbi Segelman, not just for his service to our community for the past thirty-two years, but for the humility, grace and selflessness he has shown during this transition period. Please join me in expressing our sincere thanks to Rabbi Segelman for his extraordinary service to our community.
Among our many blessings is a great senior leadership team, consisting of our two Rabbis, Cantor Goldberg, our Executive Director David Goldstein, our school directors Aleza Kulp and Ann Pardes, and our custodian Jose Fonseca. Those of you who experienced the celebration of Jose’s 30th year at WJC over the summer know what a memorable occasion that was – and how much Jose means to the fabric of this Shul. We thank all of our Senior Staff, not just for what they do to make the proverbial trains run on time, but for making WJC a special place.
We are also blessed with a strong bench of emerging new leaders, many of whom are in this room and came up through the terrific Sulam program led by Larry Thaler. The emergence of new leadership, perhaps more than anything else, demonstrates that we are a thriving congregation and gives us hope and optimism for the future.
Without diving too deep into details, I’d like to spend a few moments going over some metrics. We are currently at 466 membership units, roughly the same as last year at this time. This may not sound great but it reverses a significant year-to-year decline we had experienced in prior years. We have seen a spurt of new memberships over the past few months from a number of sources, including families with children in our ECC and Religious School.
Our schools have also been thriving. We currently have approximately 180 children in our schools, including 91 in the ECC, 157 in “Religious School and 30 in Hebrew High. The ECC and RS numbers are up. Our Hebrew High numbers are slightly down, but better than one might have expected given the belated departure of our former Hebrew High director. That we are in as good a place as we are with Hebrew High under these circumstances is due to the extraordinary efforts of our Teen Leadership Committee, David Goldstein and Rabbi Arnowitz. In the coming year, stabilizing our teen pre-planning and finding a new Hebrew High director will be a high priority.
We had a $25,000 budget surplus last fiscal year thanks to the efforts of our outgoing Financial VP, Larry Thaler. The budget is now in the capable hands of our new Financial VP, Yale Zoland. Key to meeting our budget targets in the coming year will be the response to our Kol Nidre appeal and the upcoming Gala in honor of Rabbi Segelman on May 17. If you have not already made your Kol Nidre pledge please do so now, and put the Gala on your schedule. We look forward to seeing you all there. We also ask that you make your contributions to the Rabbi Segelman memory book before Thanksgiving.
The issue of security has become a primary consideration of our leadership team and has had a significant impact on budget. You will hear a report from our Security Working Group on the details of our security plan later tonight.
I’d now like to turn to the issue of the culture of our Shul. When I was preparing this address I asked David Goldstein what he thought were the top things that made us special and differentiated us from other synagogues. I expected him to mention our musical services, Purimspiel, our award-winning art gallery, our championship softball team and the like. Instead what he said was:
“caring, knowledgeable, highly skilled clergy”
“consistent effort at creating a community of shalom bayit”
“ability to take risks consistent with need to exemplify a Conservative Judaism that is evolving with the times”
And he said he had heard these same things about us as far back as 1988.
David’s comments reminded me of the quote attributed to management leadership guru Peter Drucker – “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” What is and has always been special about WJS is its culture.
So what is that culture?
It is the ability to blend faithful adherence to Jewish tradition with innovation and change.
It is the ability to manage change and evolve without corrosive discord.
It is our incredibly strong and committed lay leadership and love of learning.
As we move forward into the future we must be continually mindful of these values.
I’d like to spend a final few minutes on a vision for the future. As you know, we are conducting an endowment campaign to provide our future leadership with the flexibility it will need to be creative and meet the evolving needs of our membership. Ian Winters, co-chair, with Larry Iason, of the endowment campaign, will provide you with a report on the campaign later this evening. We thank you in advance for your generosity and support for this important project.
This year, we will also be conducting a search for a third clergy after Rabbi Segelman retires. I will be appointing a search committee to work with Rabbi Arnowitz and Cantor Goldberg and the Spiritual Life Committee to define the role of a third-clergy and embark on the search process. We will keep you updated on the progress of those efforts.
Our friend and congregant Andy Feldman recently sent me an article entitled “Expensive Dues Aren’t The Only Reason People Don’t Go To The Synagogue.” The author asked people on Facebook what keeps people from being more involved in synagogue. One respondent said: “Many [Jewish leaders] are asking ‘How can we get people more involved in our synagogue” as opposed to asking ‘How can we get people more involved with Jewish life.’”
That resonated with me. Some of you have heard me talk about a book by the Hillel Director at University of Pennsylvania, Michael Uram, called “Next Generation Judaism.” In his book Urum says we need focus less on recruiting and more on “connecting;” to envision ourselves an impact organization, not a club; and to define success as the difference we make in people’s lives, not other metrics. I believe if we connect with people on a deeper level and help to enrich their lives as Jews they will want to be part of us and to contribute to the success of our mission. How to translate these ideas into practice is a continuing challenge that awaits us.
In conclusion, as I see it, we are in a good place and moving forward toward a bright future. Chazak chazak venitchazak.