Thursday, April 30, 2009

Three Initiatives and 10,000 Doors

It was Albert Einstein who said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity."

This philosophy has guided Jews through many turbulent times. The Talmud records one rabbi laughing jovially while walking on the embers of the destroyed Second Temple because, within the destruction, he could envision the seeds of a future restoration. Jewish history is replete with examples of how, in the words of Psalm 118, the stone cast aside by the builders later becomes the cornerstone of something bigger and better.

So it is that during these very trying times, our leadership has not stood still. Acting wisely, deliberately and with fiscal conscientiousness, the Board of Trustees has initiated three projects that will have a long-term positive impact on Beth El and the entire community. Any of these three would alone merit headlines, but taken together, they represent a visionary outlook that will set us up well to take advantage of the many challenges that will remain long after the recession has receded.

The three initiatives are:

1) The renovation of our social hall
2) The creation of a new senior position of Programming Director (and we’ve hired a superb candidate to fill that position in Ariela Pelaia).
3) The decision to open a nursery school in the fall of 2010.

All three initiatives were studied carefully at the committee level and were approved overwhelmingly by the board. There are many people who deserve our gratitude for their hard work and due diligence in enabling these dreams to become reality; a special thank you to Gary Gladstein and Judi Schnelwar Gladstein z’l, who have been the driving force behind the social hall project.

I’ll leave it to others to go into greater detail about the three projects; in this space I’d simply like to share some reflections on what, cumulatively, these initiatives will help us accomplish:

1) We’ll be able to be a full-service synagogue as never before, touching the lives of our congregants “from womb to tomb” with quality programs. The portfolio of our Programming Director will include singles, young couples, teens and interfaith families, helping us to build on the successes we’ve had this year in attracting these groups to programs like the acclaimed “Kosher Sex” series, Shabbat @ Home and, beginning this May, our much anticipated Shabbat potluck dinners. We’ll also be able to build on the fantastic outreach programs we’ve provided for those seeking employment, and the major successes we’ve had at drawing empty nesters and retirees to lectures and Synaplex events. Never before has our synagogue been so relevant to so many in need.

2) Young families will have a greater opportunity to affiliate affordably with a synagogue while enrolling their children in a Jewish nursery school of the highest quality. National surveys show that only half of Jewish families send their kids to a Jewish preschool. There are excellent ones already in our community, but these statistics and anecdotal evidence tell us that there are large numbers of Jewish families out there to draw in, many of whom will be attracted to the particular blend of tradition, openness and inclusiveness that Conservative Judaism offers. There are many Jews moving from other places where nursery schools and synagogues are synonymous, who want their children to have the experience of seeing the rabbi and cantor visit their child's classroom regularly and take them into a sanctuary, where they can be amazed at the glittering Torahs and majestic ark. We'll be the first synagogue in Stamford to provide them with that opportunity. And I can't wait!

3) With the best facility for Kosher celebrations in this area (and one of the few of this size in the entire tri-state region), combined with our priceless sanctuary and the marketing expertise of Steve Lander, the new social hall will generate the outside income necessary to sustain our growth without adding costs.

4) These initiatives will solidify our reputation for cutting-edge innovation, making Judaism come alive on every level. Ironically, in welcoming Craig Taubman back this month for the Cantor’s Concert (I hope to see everyone there!), we are celebrating that very fact. For it was Taubman’s last visit, his first-ever NY area “Friday Night Live” in January 2000, that changed us forever. On that night we experienced the chance to “Sing unto Adonai a New Song,” and we encountered ancient prayers as if for the first time. Taubman’s visit made us a more vibrant congregation (see the seminal article I wrote immediately following his visit). That’s good for Stamford, for the Conservative movement, Israel and ultimately for everyone. The world needs a vibrant Jewish people.

5) The ripple effect of these initiatives will buoy membership, Hebrew School enrollment and fundraising; but this is less about numbers than it is about mission, less about the sustainability of a single institution than long-term viability of the Jewish people. It’s as simple as this: the more we thrive, the more Jews will move here. The more we reach out to untapped sources of the unaffiliated, as only we can, the stronger our little corner of the Jewish universe will be. The more we demonstrate to the world the warmth of our pluralistic vision, the purity of our ethical values, the authenticity of our strivings, the better our entire community will be. For ours to be truly a model Jewish community, we need an excellent JCC, and superb federation and JFS, scintillating schooling alternatives - and the best possible Orthodox, Reform and Conservative congregations. We’ve come a long way toward that goal in recent years. Just look around you! Now we need to do our part, to make TBE as great as it can possibly be.

I’m pleased that we have partnered with so many local Jewish organizations this year on so many vital causes; we are committed to continuing to do so. I look forward to building on our partnering successes as we move ahead in this rapidly changing landscape, forging together a Jewish community with multiple gateways of entry, replete with a warmth derived from a sense of interdependence and common vision.

You might have seen a magnificent new marketing campaign by the United Methodist Church called "10,000 Doors" "What if a church wasn't a building," the campaign asks, "but thousands of doors?" The same can be said for a synagogue, and for a Jewish community. The more gateways, the better. The more people saying "Welcome! Please come in!" the better. For too long, synagogues have been waiting for families to find their way in. Now we are committing ourselves to seeking out those families, some of whom may be seeking us without even knowing it.

Our new programming director, renovated social hall and the Temple Beth El Nursery School will go far to making that vision of 10,000 doors come to fruition, not just for Temple Beth El, but for our entire community.

I'm so proud of our leadership and our membership for having the strength of spirit and unified vision that have been forged by President Gary Lessen.

Yes, In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

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