State of the Temple June 2020

Hello and welcome to the 2020 annual meeting.  I am Peter Howard, a Vice President of Temple Shalom.

I must admit, I was a bit nervous when I was asked to deliver the State of the Temple address this year.  Typically, one of the Vice Presidents will stand before the congregation, packed into the social hall, review our accomplishments, and look forward to the great things we’ll do next year.

This hasn’t been a normal year, and this won’t be a normal State of the Congregation address.  Instead of seeing you all in the social hall, I come to you live, from my dining room, for our first congregational meeting over Zoom.

Tonight, I’m here to tell you that the state of our congregation is strong.  Amazingly and incredibly strong.  Perhaps stronger than we realized.  And stronger than we were even a few months ago.  The strength of our community is more important than ever as it is helping us all navigate challenges that have upended what we considered “normal” a mere four months ago.  Regardless of what comes in the year ahead, Temple Shalom – this incredible community – will be here for you.

This has been quite year.  Take a moment and think back to all the amazing things that we accomplished as we celebrated Temple Shalom’s 60th anniversary.  Some may feel like a lifetime ago – it has been a along year.

We began the year welcoming Rabbi Ira Rosenberg, his wife Ariel and their two children, Lev and Nomi, into our family.  What a joy!  With his ever-present smile, Rabbi Rosenberg instantly connected with our students and brought his enthusiasm to our school.  And we saw the school thriving under his leadership.  Over the past few months, even more of you have experienced his joy, enthusiasm, compassion, and wisdom.

We launched the Temple Shalom Early Learning Center – realizing a longtime goal that helps us offer quality childcare and a pipeline of young families as prospective new members.  The ELC has more than doubled in enrollment – far more than we could have imagined.  It has been a delight to see so many young smiles in our building, and we cannot wait to reopen.  This dream came to fruition through the hard work of ELC Director Lisa Heiser-Polin and Assistant Director Carri Wasserberg, the leadership of Rabbi Ackerman, Mike Rubin, and Rita Klein, and enormous help from many others.

The Sisterhood and Brotherhood have been thriving, and vital to our community.  The Brotherhood continues to offer a series of engaging brunch speakers, supports congregants in need, and remains focused on strengthening the Religious School and supporting Temple youth.  The Sisterhood ran another moving women’s retreat and has also offered generous support to congregants in need, continued their book club, and much more.

Our Tikkun Olam committee organized a powerful memorial to gun violence victims, worked to make the Temple even greener, and continued working on refugee and immigration issues.  We celebrated a weekend of song with Musician in Residence Michelle Citrin.  And we sent the largest delegation in North America to the URJ Biennial convention, demonstrating that our congregation is among the most engaged and active in the country.

And that chill in the air would be coming from our building’s new, effective and efficient HVAC system.

And then, as we were looking forward to an incredible 60th anniversary celebration, the world moved under our feet.  We held an amazing Purim Carnival in mid-March, not fully realizing what was already underway and how profoundly our Temple, our congregation, our lives, and our world would change.

It was at that moment we truly learned what makes us strong.

When we made the decision to close the Temple building, we did so because we recognized that we could no longer operate safely in the new world of COVID-19.  We took a week-long pause, but we were not idle.  Our Clergy, Senior Staff, leadership team, staff, teachers, and many others, worked with deliberate haste and extreme thoughtfulness move our operations on-line, evaluating what essential services we needed to maintain and how we would offer them from a distance.  We owe them a tremendous debt of thanks for that work which has allowed us to do what we’re doing now.  Many members have told us that they are more connected and engaged than before we went virtual.

A few deserve special thanks:

Thank you to Rabbi Rachel Ackerman, whose wisdom has always led us to the right question – even if none of us know the answer – and who has continually reminded us how our Jewish values can lead us to where we need to be.

Thank you to Rabbi Ira Rosenberg, who has had quite a first year out of Rabbinic school, and who has stepped up to help lead our congregation as Rabbi Ackerman took parental leave.

Thank you to Rabbi emeritus Bruce E. Kahn, whose continued service to Temple Shalom reveals his deep love for this congregation and the love we hold for him.  This is Rabbi Kahn’s 40th year as a Rabbi of Temple Shalom.  Rabbi Kahn, Rabbi JoHanna Potts and Rabbi Jake Singer-Beilin (Bay-lin), have generously increased their Pastoral care and other support for this community while Rabbi Ackerman has been on leave.

Thank you to our Executive Director Susan Zemsky who has done an incredible job keeping our Temple running, keeping our building and our staff safe.  Susan and the team – Katherine Schnorrenberg, Cheryl McGowan, Sharon Winick, Erica Williams, and Kennette Mitchell – have done remarkable work.  And we thank David Diaz for maintaining the building throughout the closure.

We also thank all the teachers who worked so hard to move the entire religious school onto Zoom.

Thank you to Cantorial Soloist Emily Meyer and Student Cantor Lianna Mendelson who have found new ways to provide the music that brings our virtual gatherings to life.  We look forward to welcoming Student Cantor Mendelson back for one more year.

And thank you to President Mike Rubin who has led us through far too many meetings where we must figure out “and now what?”

Their deliberate and thoughtful approach has paid significant dividends.  We have been able to increase our strength as a congregation, providing a needed community, a moment to come together, and a rhythm and regularity to weeks that have lost many of the ways in which we mark time.

We moved our entire Temple onto Zoom.  We now have Friday night services with well over a hundred Zoom boxes.  There’s Zooming for our youngest to our oldest, with circle time, religious school, Torah study, adult lullabies, lunch and learn, cooking classes, dancing, and trivia.  This summer we’re even offering a virtual summer camp, Camp Kefli, with 15 different programs and our alumni and teenagers as leaders.  Behind the scenes, Alyssa Berez (Beh-rez) has served as Zoom maestro.

We’ve launched Shalom Cares, drawing upon our incredible members who are experienced mental health professionals to help us recognize, engage, and care for our mental health needs that the virus and prolonged quarantine has brought to the fore.  And we’ve had volunteers calling each and every member of the congregation, just to say hello and make sure we’re ok.

We’ve learned how much we mean to each other, how much we value our time together.

We’ve learned new ways to mark a birth and celebrate new additions to our congregation.  We held a Zoom baby naming with over 300 participants!  We’ve had to learn new ways to mourn, to comfort each other during this time of tragedy and loss.  We’ve marked what would have been B’nai Mitzvot.

Our tradition and our rituals encourage us to gather together, to be close with one another, to dance, to sing, to hug.  Now we can’t do those things without putting others in danger.

Our tradition also has another lesson that has guided us throughout this time:  nothing is more important than saving lives.  To save a life is to save an entire world.  No mitzvah comes before ensuring and protecting one’s own health and the health of others.  We must care for each other today so that we will all be able to enjoy a better tomorrow.

And, as we’ve been reminded in the past month, we must care for each other not just in health, but by recognizing the need for justice, by pointing out the seen and unseen ways in which bias and systemic racism do real harm to our family members, neighbors, and friends.

Today, our congregation is stronger than ever.  Together, we are weathering one of the most traumatic crises many of us have ever faced.  Our bonds have been tested, pushed to limits we never imagined, and we have survived.

But the road ahead is incredibly uncertain.

None of us knows how or when this pandemic will end.  None of us knows what to expect.  And most of it is out of our control.  We don’t yet know when we’ll be able to re-open our building and what we’ll be able to do safely.  We don’t know when we can have services together in our sanctuary.

Here’s what we do know:  we will follow the Maryland and Montgomery County safety guidelines, best practices informed by science, and the wisdom shared by the URJ and others in the Reform movement.  Most importantly, we will apply our own community’s values as we make decisions.

Knowing what we know today, we are planning to remain virtual through at least the end of December.  The best scientific guidance today stresses that the singing, chanting, reading aloud, and close proximity so central to our tradition cannot be done safely together, notwithstanding what certain government authorities say we may legally begin to do.  We will follow our values on what we should do.

Our clergy, worship team, and senior staff are already planning for meaningful Zoom High Holiday services, fall Zoom b’nai mitzvah, and a robust virtual fall semester for the religious school.  My family is looking forward to celebrating our son Oliver’s Zoom-Mitzvah in October, rescheduled from his original date this past May.

Should conditions improve with the development of a vaccine, more extensive testing, tracing, and treatment, or updated scientific guidance, we will reevaluate and be prepared to pivot.

To help us understand what we have been doing right and where we can improve, we’ve enrolled in a URJ COVID Response benchmark survey.  Yesterday, you received an email from the URJ.  Please read the email and take the 5-minute survey.

We also know that our budget outlook for the coming year will be difficult and hard to predict, but we have done our best with the information we have.  The reality is that we don’t know what the economy will be like over the next year, but we do believe that it will have an impact on our Temple finances.  We will continue to rely on your generosity to sustain us.  When creating our budget, we made conservative assumptions that will allow us to get through this year.  Treasurer Heidi Lovett will get into the details when we discuss the budget next.

Through the efforts of Susan Zemsky and Temple leadership, we were able to secure a Payroll Protection Plan loan from the Small Business Administration.  These funds covered two months of payroll and benefits for all our employees, including our administrative and support staff, our custodial staff, and the Early Learning Center teachers and staff.

We hope you will continue to be incredibly generous with your support for our congregation.  You have seen how important Temple Shalom is.  But we know – I know – that these times are tough and many of us face real uncertainty, furloughs, pay cuts, and layoffs.  Know this:  Temple Shalom will never turn anyone away because of financial need.

If you are in need of care or financial assistance, please reach out to Rabbi Rosenberg.  Our clergy, bolstered by our auxiliaries, have resources available.  It is as much a mitzvah to accept help as it is to give help.

Finally, I’d like to have us take a moment to recognize that even in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, we have a moral obligation to stand with those who are fighting systemic racism, whether we stand with them physically or virtually.  As our tradition teaches, none of us have an obligation to complete the work but we are obligated to do our part.  We have shared by email and on Facebook many resources for learning and organizations for you to consider supporting or through which you can consider actively engaging.  And we will be looking internally as well and invite you into dialogue about our community.

Rabbi Rosenberg will lead a community conversation on race next Sunday, June 28th.  Shalom Cares plans to follow this initial program with additional discussions and learning opportunities.

Our congregation has a deep, enduring, and powerful commitment to social justice.  Our Tikkun Olam committee is active, overcoming our social distance to bring the world closer together.  The Board just approved the launch of an effort to work with the URJ’s Religious Action Center’s “Every Voice, Every Vote” campaign to ensure that every voice is heard in the 2020 elections.  You will be hearing more from the Tikkun Olam Committee soon.

By continuing to stand for social justice, we’re drawing on our history, our movement’s history.  We plan to be involved for the long run, working within our Temple community, alongside our neighbors, and in our community at large.  If you want to get involved – whether in our congregation or in the community, I urge you to do so.  Please reach out to Rabbi Rosenberg, Susan Zemsky, or the Tikkun Olam committee who can help you find the most appropriate outlet for your energy and passion.

Over the past 3 months, we’ve faced unprecedented challenge.  As a result, we are stronger, closer, and more committed than ever before to maintaining the connections that make our Temple Shalom such a close, caring family.

None of us knows what the coming year will bring.  What we do know is that we’ll face it together, and get through it together, and be stronger as a result.

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