Presidential Remarks, Annual Meeting, Temple Emanu-El, June 2019 -Dr. Al Cohn

14-06-2019 16:06


When I was asked to join Temple Emanu-El’s executive board six short years ago, I leapt at the opportunity to help vision for our future in partnership with Rabbi Miller, Rabbi Haas, and Cantor Roskin. It was a clergy trio-dynamic that seemed to have boundless potential and was overflowing with knowledge of our congregation, our community, and issues facing southern Reform Judaism. Over the past two years, two of those three long-standing clergy underwent changes in their professional trajectory and no longer serve our Temple as they once did.  While we have all been well-cared for by Cantor Roskin alone this past year, we have been without a permanent Senior Rabbi for two full years, and the absence of this role is palpable. Following Rabbi Miller’s retirement, our Temple followed best-recommended practices, paused, hired an interim Senior Rabbi, and worked on an honest assessment of who we were as a Temple and what we wanted moving forward.  Through the retroscope, Temple Emanu-El’s ability to pivot towards a common goal and work collaboratively with one another is so very evident and our Temple has so much to be proud of.  The maturation and growth of our Temple that has occurred over the last several years are noteworthy, and it has been such a great fortune to witness and participate in decisions and dialogue at such a critical and exciting transition in our Temple’s history.

From 1941 until 2017, our Temple has benefitted from the longstanding leadership of only three rabbis, each of whom spent their entire career devoted to the care of the Temple Emanu-El family.  In 2017, When Rabbi Miller retired after 27 years of service, our congregation began a process of introspection and dialogue that questioned who we were, what our priorities were, and how we saw our future.  A comprehensive assessment ensued that resulted in a rabbinical application that accurately described who we are as a Temple and, in turn, allowed us to interview with some of the most outstanding Reform Rabbis across our nation.  When the dust had settled, after 20 months of work, dozens of interviews, multiple on-site visits, and countless hours of conversation, in December of this past year, Temple Emanu-El enthusiastically selected Rabbi Adam Wright as their next Senior Rabbi. Finding and attracting a Rabbi of Adam Wright’s caliber has been no small task, and there are so very many people who have played such critical roles. As we ready for the arrival of Rabbi Wright and his taking the helm as the spiritual leader and next Senior Rabbi of our Temple, please allow me to once again publicly thank and acknowledge all of the members of the Senior Rabbi Search Committee and the four committed individuals who served as chairman during its two-year term, Joel Piassick and Jack Aland, along with Helene Elkus and Glenn Fleisig. Thanks to each of you and your dedicated committee members for all of your efforts.  Temple Emanu-El and the entire Birmingham community will undoubtedly benefit from the fruits of your labor.

This past year has been a successful and productive year for Temple Emanu-El on so many levels.  An unequivocal key ingredient to the success and level of engagement felt by so many is a direct consequence of the actions of our Temple’s esteemed Cantor of twenty years.  Dr. Jessica Roskin and her self-suggested willingness to step up her role as the sole clergy presence to our congregation of 600 families helped bridge this transition year in a way that only she was capable of doing.  Her knowledge of our worship service, our families, and what our unique congregational needs are provided consistency and stable presence for all of us this past year. In a sea of change and transition at Temple Emanu-El, Cantor Roskin, on behalf of all of us, thank you for being there for us.  Thank you for your long-standing, ongoing commitment to the families of our Temple; thank you for being our voice during moments, past, present, and future, were we need one; and thank you for your willingness to take on increased responsibilities of all sorts while we searched for an appropriate partner to help you nurture and support the spiritual needs of our Temple family.

I cannot wait to see what great things await our Temple under such a fantastic clergy dynamic as Rabbi Adam Wright and Cantor Jessica Roskin: leadership and perspective that spans a generation-gap, precedented behaviors that grow membership by organically fostering engagement, and a mutual understanding of the critical array of issues facing our Temple and Jews in America.   A special thank-you to my fellow board member, Ronne Hesse, who has taken on the role of “Birmingham Bubbe” and is spear-heading coordination of the many different sub-teams necessary to ensure that Rabbi Wright and his family have a seamless transition into our community.  Rabbi Wright and the senior leadership at our Temple remain in regular communication, have plans for a senior leadership retreat, and have already shown an impressive ability to collaborate and communicate as a young team.  I know that we all look forward to welcoming him, his wife, Rachel, and their beautiful, daughter, Lilian to Birmingham upon his arrival later this month.

In addition to two amazing clergy members, next year’s Senior Leadership team will be filled with other outstanding professionals who will continue to complement our Temple’s mission to seek, engage, and transform.  Lynda Gutcheon, our Interim Education Director, has been engaged in a second year with our Temple to work alongside Rabbi Wright, whom she has known since before he applied to Rabbinical School.  Their mutual respect and knowledge of one another, along with their ability to work towards a common vision will allow for our youth & education programming to achieve new successes and even better focus.  In addition to continuing her amazing work with the Hebrew & Sunday School curriculum, her second year will allow similar focus on our Discovery School. Lynda will be an important voice at the table, as leadership gives thought to transition options for this critical, full-time educator position.  She is a consummate professional, and her impact on our youth & educational programming is evident on so many levels. If I never understood the importance of what a full-time professional Jewish educator can bring to a Temple, I certainly know now.  Our Temple is so very fortunate to have you, Lynda, and we appreciate all that you have done and continue to do to benefit the youth at our Temple.

Temple Emanu-El’s lay leadership and clergy remain committed to the relevance and impact of a full-time Director of Engagement as a means toward fostering meaningful connections amongst our Temple family members. I am thrilled to report that Monika Singletary will remain on staff next year at our Temple, and will serve a second year in the key, evolving role of Director of Congregational Engagement. This new and experimental position has proven to be uniquely helpful as our Temple puts more attention and organizational energy towards Tikkun Olam and social action opportunities, along with small group initiatives, like Temple Circles, that strive to help all of our Temple members maximize their experience by focusing on inclusion and increasing connectivity.  We expect this position to gain additional focus under Rabbi Wright’s tenure and continue to believe that this position is critical to the long-term health and benefit of our congregation.  As a testimony to this belief, for the second straight year, all of the professional compensation associated with this position has been privately funded by a small, committed group of Temple donors and leaders who simply believe in the purpose of this role and have a personal desire to see the position funded for a second year for the benefit of the entire Temple. I offer my heartfelt thanks to the individuals who have made her position possible for this upcoming year.

Our Temple continues to benefit immensely from the abundant support we receive from the Grafman Endowment Fund, and we have worked hard over this past year to prioritize collaboration amongst our boards and transparency of our fiscal decision making. Jann Blitz, Candy Meyerson, and the entire Grafman board of directors have gone to extraordinary efforts this past year to ensure that our Temple continues to have the funding necessary to offset the impact of clergy salaries, keep the cost of family dues affordable, and provide innovative new programs that benefit all demographics of our Temple.  You have heard from our Treasurer how hard we have worked to be good stewards of our Temple finances.  Our budget for the coming year has been scrutinized and assessed by all of the relevant stakeholders and all parties feel invested in and comfortable with the fiduciary assumptions made.  There are so many individuals who have put in so much of their time to craft policy decisions, input data, scrutinize details, and help ensure that we have been able to maintain our healthy, current fiscal position.  In addition to the devoted and impactful hours spent by our Treasurer, Kerry McInerney, I am indebted to the amazing help provided by our Accounting Manager, Danielle Barnett, along with our bookkeeper, Rebecca Wisotsky, and the ongoing, weekly assistance offered by Lori Weil, whose historic and day-to-day knowledge of our Temple finances is nothing short of invaluable.  Heartfelt thanks to Joel Piassick and his ongoing role with the FRDC, who continue to provide instrumental analysis and oversight of Temple long-term expenses and guide sensible policy and personnel decision making.

I am thankful for and grateful to our Executive Director, Robin Gottlieb, along with all of her staff who work so tirelessly every day to ensure that all the details of Temple life are tended to. As Temple activity increases, so do the needs of building upkeep, security, and staffing.  Robin wears many hats and she has been another invaluable stable presence during our rabbinical transition. Our Temple is blessed to have such committed individuals tending to its needs, and if you have not personally thanked our administrative assistants, Anita Winslett, Stephanie Lowe, and PJ Vining, custodial staff (Ben, Mark, Jackie, and Art), and our security guards for their efforts and help, please find an intentional moment to do so. They are an amazing and dedicated group and we are lucky to have them all work here.

This coming year will see an abundance of activity:

We will need to give thought to long-term staffing decisions for the following year 2020-21. How do we transition from an interim educational director to a more permanent solution?  Of paramount importance is an updated, three-year financial forecast that allows us to better understand our available resources and make informed decisions.  This will be an important early priority to allow for responsible decision making that will need to occur by the end of this calendar year.

Like Temples throughout the country, our expenses continue to increase at a rate that outpaces our dues increases and membership growth.  We will continue to be honest and realistic with our revenue-generating abilities and continue to think of creative ways to bring in additional revenue sources. If we desire our Temple to be a place of relevance to future generations, then it will be critical that we make ourselves relevant to young families who will want to call this a home for their families.  That means providing a Jewish education that excites and engages, offering desirable opportunities for our teens and post b’nei mitzvah young adults, and this means maintaining a dues structure that is reasonable for young families.  For these options to remain viable options, this will mean looking critically at opportunities to collaborate with neighboring synagogues and consider how to share both costs and resources in a manner that benefit our Jewish community as a whole.

Security will remain a top personal priority for all of your Temple leadership over the coming year.  Rest assured that we remain in regular ongoing conversation with local and federal agencies and that we have routine walk-throughs to ensure best safety practices. Sadly, long-gone are the days of “all door unlocked and open.”  We continue to work with security recommendations to limit the number of entries in use, continually evaluate and improve security measures, and we have the ongoing desire to have a more visible security presence in the back alley, along with the inner atrium, on a regular basis.  In the wake of the most recent shooting at the Chabad in California, next week we will have a scheduled visit for a security walk-through and will be working through how to best implement additional security measures to ensure that we are doing everything we should be doing to provide a safe place for us to gather, learn and worship.

Be on the look-out for other great things.  Our Brotherhood has donated all necessary funding to provide an up-scale digital sign to be used in our Atrium.  This will be a wonderful tool for disseminating information, directions, and photos of the great things occurring at Temple Emanu-El.  Big b’nei mitzvah class next year with 20 b’nei mitzvahs occurring from July 2019-2020 including two brother/sister double b’nei mitzvahs. Discovery School is packed and slated to provide Jewish pre-school education to 65 young children, 22 of which are Jewish, up from 7 Jewish children enrolled at the beginning of this year. Our Temple building continues to act as “a house of worship for all people” and we continue to provide a place to worship and gather for the Trinity Zion church who has been displaced following the Christmas Day fire that burned their church. It is our honor to play a small part in helping our neighbors and look forward to sharing their joy when their rebuilt church is ready for their return.  We are excited and already in early-planning stages for another annual fund-raiser gala to celebrate all of the wonderful hopes and happenings that are occurring here at our Temple, and our Tikkun Olam committee remains in full gear with great plans and growth expectations over the coming year.

I know that this speech has gone on for far too long, but it cannot be helped that there is a lot to report on.  All of these “going on’s” would not be possible without the help and efforts of your most dedicated Temple Board.  I am especially indebted to my executive board, Ben, Robert, Charlie, Jackie, Lisa, and Kerry, who spend so much time focusing on the betterment of our Temple, and to my advisors, Ronne & Sherron, who provide fantastic perspective and feedback on a weekly basis.  To our departing board members, Laurie Elmets, Becky Gordon, and David Nomberg, I thank you for your commitment and time; to our new board members, Barbara Aland, David Askenazi, Ashley Lewis and Drew Weil, I look forward to a productive year of collaborative conversation about how we can continue to ensure that Temple Emanuel puts its best foot forward as a critical regional Jewish voice and the state’s largest Reform Temple.  I remain humbled and appreciative for the opportunity to serve a leadership role at our Temple, and I wish all of us a hearty mazel tov on a successful past year and a bright future ahead.

Shabbat Shalom.