I’d like to share with you my remarks from Wednesday’s Annual Congregational Meeting:
It is truly an honor to offer some updates and insights at the Congregational Meeting of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel for the 30th time. It continues to be a tremendous privilege to serve this sacred community, and I want to begin by thanking all of you for making TSTI what it is and for entrusting me as you have.
This was another challenging year. While people are increasingly done with Covid, it’s clear Covid is not quite done with us. I’m grateful to work with the best professional team of any synagogue, as well as volunteer leadership that understands the power of partnership. Thanks to all of them, we have been able to navigate through difficulties—such as this January’s Omicron spike—and continue to offer a packed schedule of programs, education, and worship. It hasn’t been easy, but because of this extraordinary team, we have been—and continue to be—up to the challenge.
For these reasons and more, I can confidently say that the state of our congregation is strong.
This year we have successfully run two different preschool tracks, returned to in-person learning for our Religious School, and have seen our teen programs—STISY, our Madrichim Program, and Hebrew High—all continue to flourish. My profound thanks to the preschool’s team of Carol Paster, Jennie Rubin, and Lauren Byers, Religious school’s Mindy Schreff, Songleader, Shawn Fogel, STISY’s Tracy Horwitz, and Hebrew High’s Adam Baranker. It is because of the collective work of these talented people and their dedication to TSTI that our schools and programs are so successful. I am grateful to work with each of them.
This year we added two part-time positions to the senior staff. Communications Manager, Jodi Rotondo, and Membership Manager, Alicia Karlberg. Jodi and Alicia have brought a new and exciting perspective to our staff. Their expertise in their areas has already begun to make a difference, and I can’t wait to see what they have planned for next year.
Moving back into the building has been a challenging endeavor, but thanks to the unflappable Beth Blackman, we’ve been able to accomplish this with relative ease. There are many new changes happening in the building, including the screens in the sanctuary and chapel, and we now have permanent seating in the campground for outdoor worship and programming. It has been a huge lift but Beth has made it look seamless. I want to personally thank her for all she does and for the selfless way she does it.
As we returned to the building, we took the opportunity to think seriously about what we do and how we do it.
The Disability and Inclusion Task Force, headed by Susan Nasberg-Abrams, has continued their important work of ensuring we are as inclusive and welcoming as possible. I am particularly grateful to them for the amazing programming they did during Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
This is an ongoing effort and, as part of it, long-time temple member Marvin Schwinder has created a new reading desk and candle stand for us. Dedicated in honor of Past President Annette Littman’s milestone birthday a year ago by her children, (with a formal dedication in a few weeks) the new reading table can adjust to various heights. This means the table can be lowered if the individual speaking from the bimah is in a wheelchair. That is no small thing, and it furthers the work our leadership did some fifteen years ago when we sought to make our bimah and sanctuary more accessible.
Our Families with Young Children Group, led by Lauren Byers, has also flourished this year. As we’ve slowly returned to in-person gatherings, they have facilitated some wonderful opportunities to build community among our younger, and youngest, members.
I want to publicly acknowledge the extraordinary work Rabbi Klein has done with both groups, in addition to all of her other rabbinic work.
Returning to in-person worship has meant that our young people have, once again, been able to mark their milestone moments on their bimah. Doing so during Covid has been a challenge. In the last three weeks alone we have postponed two B’nai Mitzvah due to family members contracting Covid, but we have made it work.
More accurately, Cantor Moses has made it work. It hasn’t been easy but, thanks to Cantor, we’ve done it. And I am confident that when the next curveball comes at us we will deal with it, as well.
I would be remiss not to mention that both Rabbi Klein and Cantor Moses have been asked to be on the small, exclusive planning teams for next year’s rabbinic and cantorial conferences. It is a sign of the esteem in which both are held by our colleagues across the nation.
I look forward to seeing all of you as we celebrate Cantor Moses’ first decade of service to TSTI next month.
I want to publicly acknowledge our young people, particularly the aforementioned B’nai Mitzvah this year. They have missed out on so much over the past two and a half years, but week after week, when they take their place on the bimah, they are nothing short of inspiring. They are well prepared and poised, and the lessons they share in their divrei Torah, their speeches, have offered insights and moral lessons that our nation sorely needs. They are wise beyond their years and we need their voices now more than ever.
And our young people are kind.
A quick story, if I may. When one of the recent B’nai Mitzvah had to be postponed I received an email from an upcoming B’nai Mitzvah family. They wrote, “We heard what’s happening and we would be more than happy to turn our child’s single into a double.” When I said that I was touched and moved but would not want to take anything away from THEIR child, I was told, “But it was our child’s idea and the two are already speaking and figuring out how to divvy things up in case that’s the direction we go.”
THAT is one small example of who and what this community is. At a time when there is more rancor than ever in our public discourse, our KIDS still understand what it means to be mensches. That does not happen by accident. It happens when kids see their parents behaving like mensches. And we have a whole lotta mensches at TSTI.
I want to add a few words of thanks.
Thank you to Cantor Suzanne Hamstra for spending these last two years with us. Cantor Hamstra came when the pandemic was already in full swing, so few people actually got to meet her during the first year she was here. Despite that, because of who Cantor Hamstra is, without actually meeting her in person, this community fell in love with her.
And for good reason. Cantor Hamstra is an amazing musician, has a remarkable voice, is incredibly wise, and is warm and caring. We are sorry to see her go but are excited that she’ll begin her first position as an ordained Cantor this July at Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, DC. They are one of the preeminent congregations in the country, and they already know how lucky they are to have Cantor Hamstra.
We are excited for Cantor’s next chapter and we are excited to welcome our next student cantor, Lainie Zell, this September as we continue to participate in, and benefit from, our relationship with Hebrew Union College.
Thank you to TSTI co-presidents, Elise Joy and Marjie Terry. Every temple president faces challenges but I think—other than Max, who saw us through the first year and a half of the pandemic—no president, at least in my tenure, has faced as many challenges as Marjie and Elise. Thank you Marjie and Elise for your tireless, and I mean tireless, efforts on behalf of the congregation, and for making sure that each decision you make is in keeping with our temple’s mission statement and Jewish values.
Thank you to Prime Connection, Adult Ed, the Arts Committee, the Social Justice Task Force, our amazing Refugee Resettlement Team, our Caring Community, RAC-NJ, and so many more for all of the amazing programming you’ve done this year. We’re grateful for your creativity as we work toward building a new post or not-yet post-pandemic normal.
Finally, I want to say a word of thanks to Sunny Seglin.
Sunny has been my right hand and my external brain for the entirety of my time as Senior Rabbi. She is one of the kindest people I know, and I have always been grateful to know that, for example, when someone who has experienced a loss needs help making arrangements, they have had Sunny’s kind, caring hand to help them navigate the many decisions that have to be made. Sunny is also incredibly patient. (But she’s put up with me for more than three decades, so you all already knew that.)
Sunny will be retiring at the end of June. It is a huge loss for the temple and for me, but I can imagine few people as deserving of the slower pace of retirement than Sunny. I am grateful that Sunny and Mark will remain a vital part of the TSTI family, and I look forward to all of us gathering at the last Shabbat service of June to honor and thank her.
When I arrived in 1992 the building was wide open. People entered and exited through any of its approximately 5,000 doors.Over the years we slowly increased our security. About three years before the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, I became concerned about a small increase in antisemitic activity in the country. We hardened our building, added cameras, began limiting the doors we use, and began hiring armed security guards. Because of the work we’d already done, when the shooting in Pittsburgh occurred, while synagogues across the nation scrambled to implement security protocols, we simply had to review what we already had in place.
But as you are all aware, during the pandemic, while we were separated for two years, the hatred directed toward our community exploded. Those who had long held hate in their hearts suddenly felt emboldened, and they took the opportunity to express their vile beliefs without hesitation.
We don’t have time to go into the numbers, but the ADL’s 2021 Audit on Antisemitism is beyond troubling and nothing I ever expected to see here in the United States. The antisemitic genie was allowed out of the bottle and, sadly, it is not going back in any time soon.
That is why, with the exception of school drop off and pickup, the only doors we now use are the ones by the Gellis Plaza, and why you will see the security desk moved to that area. And it is why many of you have endured the inconvenience of having to wait to be buzzed in. (I am sorry for the inconvenience… and I’m not sorry for the inconvenience.)
It’s also why a number of us have already participated in security training, and will continue to do so in the coming year. We’ve also deepened our relationship with local law enforcement and are continually reviewing our security protocols.
At least for the time being, it would be irresponsible for us not to have security present whenever we gather.
But security isn’t cheap. Just a few years ago we spent less than $[redacted] a year on security. That may seem like a lot but that only included security at large gatherings. By our best estimate, the need for security whenever the building is open will be six times that, or about $[redacted]. That is unsustainable if funded through our operating budget.
That leaves us with three options.
We can have programming and not have security present. Which is unacceptable.
We can cut down and limit our programming, leaving the building dark two or three days a week. Which is also unacceptable.
Or we can build an endowment that will generate the majority of the funds we need AND will prevent us from needing to struggle to find funding for security each and every year. In my opinion, that is the only viable option, and the only way that we can do our part NOW to secure the congregation for the next 20 years and beyond.
And there is good news on this front.
Back in March, I began raising these concerns with a number of people and sharing my conviction that we need to build an endowment in order to continue to do what we do and be who we are. My hope was that community members would also see the need and, perhaps, help build the endowment through donations above and beyond their normal financial support of the temple.
As of this moment, we have raised only half of what I believe we need to raise, but it is already remarkable.
In all seriousness, this is not a fundraising campaign in the traditional sense. We are not doing a formal campaign, because I don’t think we have to in this community.
Why? Because this community has already shown how strong we are over these last two and a half years.
Because this community understands what it means to be responsible for one another. You showed that with the almost universal cooperation and partnership in implementing and maintaining our Covid protocols.
Because this community understands the seriousness of this moment and that to do anything less would be irresponsible.
So I will be direct in a way I have never been with regard to fundraising. We need to raise this money. Because the world we’ve re-entered after two years of lockdown is a different one than the one we left. The threats are real and this is one of the tangible steps we can take to help make sure that each person, whether a preschooler or a member for 70 years, is as safe as possible when they enter the building.
And, if I’m being perfectly honest, we don’t have a choice. Like paying our electric bill, this is simply something we need to do so that all the other wonderful programs and activities can continue. And there is so much happening… in just the next few weeks, in fact.
For example, Hebrew High graduation is this Friday night. This is an amazing group of young people and your support will mean a great deal to them.
Next month, in addition to celebrating Cantor Moses and wishing Sunny well in retirement, we will have a special havdalah marking our 10th Grade Confirmation.
And, of course, we will once again have a table at PRIDE.
All the details for these events will be posted in TSTI Today in the coming weeks.
So while the challenges we face are real and ongoing, the good that is happening in our congregation is also real and, ultimately, that is why we do what we do. And NONE of it would be possible without all of you.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen