In governance, president

By Dr. Harvey Schipper, President.

One year ago, as this group of lay leaders took up its responsibilities we were a congregation if not divided, then deeply disquieted.  Though the proximate issue was about rabbinic change, the deeper concern was about two things: that much about Temple had been taken for granted, perhaps neglected, and the very nature of our lay leadership was defective.  It was clearly time to return to our moral and historic roots, revitalize, and position ourselves for the future.

The mood is different at Holy Blossom now.  We hear in many ways that Temple has begun to stir.  It is again a welcoming place. Instead of a Kevlar tallit, I have a teapot in my Thursday office where congregants, staff and visitors come to talk, get involved and share problems and ideas. Our spirits are lifting and we have the energy to aspire.

Let me share with you my vision of Holy Blossom 5 years from now.  We will be a congregation of 2000 or more families (member units to be more precise), who are inspired by what we do, and proud to be associated. Our new building by its nature will foster relationships and Jewish community.  It will be the nerve centre of our mission, an engaging place that bridges distance to bring us together; to pray, to learn and to share.  Temple will bring the world to us, and more important reach us where we are; in our homes, on campuses, even in our cars. Holy Blossom will be the congregation where the engagement of our spiritual experience, the breadth and depth of our learning at all ages, and our astuteness and energy in meeting the social issues we chose to engage are a beacon to the community.

This is predicated on a single proposition: Reform Judaism, Holy Blossom style, has a unique and compelling moral message that can engage each generation, on its own terms, to make our lives better and the world a better place.

Making that proposition live has three elements: spiritual commitment, untrammelled excellence in ritual, education, and social action, and the belief that what we do is a direct expression of the relationships we foster among us.

So how do we get from here, to there?  Holy Blossom may be a very special congregation in the history of this community and of the Reform Movement. Yet the fact is that the Jewish world has evolved faster than we have. Whether we cite the Pew Report, which documents a broad-based decline in Jewish affiliation across the United States, or our own experience, it is clear that doing what we have done in the past will not serve our future. Not for the first time in our history we have to think and act anew, to reinvigorate, to turn around.

I borrow the phrase ” turnaround” from the corporate world to make an important point.  In a typical “turnaround”, there is a fundamental assumption that the institution is worth preserving, and can, given change. (I don’t think any of us doubt that given the buzz of the High Holidays and the continuing beat of day to day activities.) To achieve the turnaround, we have to go back to basics. What is our identity? What distinguishes us as a Reform congregation? Historically, we have represented the summit of excellence in spiritual leadership and guidance, education, and social action. Those values still hold true. Yet our congregational survey tells us that our identity is neither clear, nor expressed or both.  Board Member Merle Kriss leads the drive to produce a new Statement of Identity. It is a vital benchmark against which our activities are to be measured.

Informed by our Statement of Identity, our new vision has several key elements.

The first is new leadership, both lay and professional. To that end we are well on the path toward welcoming our new Senior Rabbi.  Rabbi Jordan Helfman has already had a transformative impact as our new Assistant Rabbi. The selection process for a successor to our Executive Director, Benjamin Appelbaum, who has served us so capably for more than a decade, is also well underway. Our Board has much new blood. It has embraced rules and procedures as well as a Code of Conduct, all of which articulate its serious responsibilities. New bylaws, updating our governance structure, will come to the congregation for discussion and approval this term.

The second is the vessel for our activities, our physical renewal project. Construction is scheduled to begin after the high holidays in 2014. Several elements of the Board decision-making process have enabled us to move forward with confidence.  First, last fall we undertook a comprehensive review of the Renewal Project, examining it from its beginnings, reviewing and testing the fundamental assumptions which underlay the project: the need to repair our physical plant, our vision of Temple size and function looking forward, the demographics of our neighbourhood and our membership, and our plans to sustain and grow our membership.  Second, we ‘re-qualified’ our donor base, reviewing and updating each pledge. Third, we tested the waters with potential new benefactors, who are enticed by the new energy and sense of community we, all of us, are working to foster. Fourth, designing the project in two phases appears to have enabled us to meet the key financial thresholds established by the Board some time ago. The plans are evolving quickly.  The congregation is broadly engaged.  We are on the way.

The third element goes to our essence: Jewish lifelong learning.  That means all aspects of our educational offerings, from tots to seniors, from congregants to our professionals. Our learning has to be deeply rooted in our Reform heritage, yet immediate in its relevance, and brilliant in its execution. If we are to be the beacon, our leaders of lifelong learning must inspire and engage as extraordinary educators.  We can’t be limited by our walls, neither for our members who wish to learn, nor for those from whom we hope to learn. This year we have made beginning steps. Next year we must come up with a comprehensive forward-looking education plan that we can execute. It is a major Board task.

For years we have taken our members for granted. We’ve been less than respectful and engaging in welcoming them. Sisterhood and the Volunteer Engagement Task Force are moving rapidly to make sure that members of our congregation can find fulfilling leadership roles. Shortly we will be filling, after too long a delay, our Membership Department Chair.

We are making progress. But I return again to the “turnaround” theme. I am talking about money. Some have said we have ignored a looming fiscal debacle, or perhaps slightly less damning, we have pushed it to the next administration, and the next and the next.  Let me tell you that is not so. The professional and lay leadership worked tirelessly to balance a budget.  We looked at every cost, every activity and every immediately accessible source of revenue.  We realized a one time gain of $500K by disposing of an unneeded asset.

Our budget shortfall comes from three things; membership losses, hesitant giving, and the consequences of many decisions made after undue delay. The turnaround will come because we, you, all of us create a great forward vision, bring the best people lay and professional to bear, and make it happen.  We have started that.  It will take several years before we fully realize the fruits of our efforts. Meanwhile we have a serious fiscal problem. Our expenditures substantially exceed our revenues, and are likely to do so for a while. The Finance Committee, those working in development, the professional staff, and the Board are focused on that challenging reality. We are looking for innovative solutions, and are assembling a task force to present options to the Board by spring.  I am pleased to announce that David Baskin, a Past President will lead this task force, along with other extraordinary, talented members of Temple.

We need to increase our membership, though the model of membership may change. We need to be a more giving congregation, and the avenues for that activity need to evolve. We will explore alternative revenue sources, partnerships and alliances. We need to look very closely at how each and every one of our activities align with our vision. It is not a matter of cutting our way to growth. We will set our sights clearly on a future vision and map out the steps to get there.

Temple is rich with extraordinary talent.  The past year has been a revelation to me.  Our rabbis and cantors, teachers and volunteers are amazing.  They hold this place together. When we have needed talent or expertise, we simply go down the membership list, and in any area of endeavor; accounting and finance, construction, law, media and communications, human relations, education, we find willing talent many layers deep. Your President is the guy who calls meetings, and my extraordinary Board colleagues take their work very seriously and make things happen.  I am deeply indebted to them.  They each contribute in their own ways, to what is a very demanding challenge.  Engage them.  Celebrate them.  Encourage them, and thank them.  They are extraordinary.

As a note to this conversation, and in keeping with our existing bylaws, the Board will be appointing Department Chairs at its first meeting of the new term.  These are will be our Department Chairs:

  • Administration: Earl Lipson
  • Development: Vanessa Yakobsen
  • Education: Gail Silver
  • Finance: Ronna Rubin
  • Jewish Living: Alberto Quiroz
  • Membership:  Ann Rosenfield
  • Worship: Dr. David Greenberg

In addition, also in keeping with both the existing bylaws and those emerging from our governance review process, I will be asking the Board to appoint two additional Officers: Owen Duckman whose portfolio is the all-important rabbinic transition process, and Phyllis Denaberg our current Vice-President whose ability to sense the spots where fine tuning is necessary and engage the right people is, for me, a priceless asset. My goal in accepting the Presidency a year ago was to position this place for the future.  Your Board now has leaders who come from our next generation and who are taking up the mantle.

We are building this place, as did our forefathers, not for now.  It is for our children. We balance the now and the future. We need you. I am confident that with your involvement we will come up with a plan that is vibrant, future embracing, and compelling, not only for current members but for the broader community. Once we do that, finding the fiscal means to sustain that goal will be possible.

There are many voices that say the cathedral synagogue is dying.  “The future is small and hamish,” they say.  In that light a vision of 2000 families seems out of touch.  It is not.  It says that size plus diversity and a deep sense of community opens options and possibilities far beyond the reach of others.  It is in our essence to take the risk.  It is not our nature to wait for the future and follow.  It is our nature to anticipate the future and help make it happen.

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