President's Message


Shelley Hittinger



JUNE 12, 2013

            When I first became President, I received a lot of advice. But perhaps the most prophetic advice that I received came from our past Presidents who told me that ultimately, as the President, you will be required to address the dichotomy between continuity and change in synagogue life.  We live in a world of change.  It's hard to remember life without cell phones, apps, the internet and email.  But in times of change and uncertainty, it is natural to reach out for the familiar; because we find it to be comforting. In our congregation, even when there are the smallest of changes, we find them to be unsettling and our first response is to resist. However, working together as a community, we have been able to evolve over the years and have become stronger for the effort.

            During the past year, and as I mentioned in my "Connections" newsletter article, a number of opportunities for change have arisen.  We regard these proposed changes as initiatives aimed at improving congregational life and helping to achieve needed efficiencies and financial savings in our operations.  These changes will enable us to ensure a solid foundation for our future.

            Our Frank Lloyd Wright synagogue building is an international icon.  It has been designated a National Historic Landmark and is a digitally preserved cultural heritage site.  Our synagogue is mentioned in almost every book concerning Mr. Wright and it is the subject matter of an entire book by Joseph Siry. We are proud and often amazed at the notoriety that our synagogue building has attained.  But to many of our members and guests, it is a source of consternation because of its lack of accessibility. You recall the challenge made by Rabbi Glanzberg-Krainin at High Holiday services last year. He asked this congregation to provide the funds needed to make the sanctuary accessible in a way that preserved the dignity of each person passing through its doors. I am pleased to report that we have made significant progress toward this goal.  The Capital Campaign has received a pledge toward the costs of achieving accessibility and, at the February Board Meeting, the firm of John Milner Architects presented a proposal for the installation of an elevator behind the Main Sanctuary in an existing stairwell.  This plan will allow accessibility to both the Main Sanctuary and the Sisterhood Sanctuary. We expect to receive the contract for the first phase of this Project, which is design development and calculation of construction costs, in the next week or so.  We hope that other congregants will also be inspired to offer the additional funds still needed for completion of this project.

            As a community, we are very fortunate to benefit from another Capital Campaign gift which will help us to improve our financial management, evaluate our human resources needs and examine our governance structures. Through the generosity of Steve and Ricki Fisher, we have retained The Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University's School of Business to provide the expertise to achieve these goals.

            In the area of financial management, Howard Soloman is chairing a committee to work with a consultant from LaSalle to critically examine all aspects of our financial management, software, finance staffing and financial reports. The committee will meet over the summer and after the High Holidays, it will report to the Board, and obtain the Board's strategic input.

            Changes in personnel have always generated an emotional response in our congregation. Historically, we have simply filled positions as they became vacant, often without looking at our Congregation's actual needs. At present, we find that our staff has grown organically rather than strategically, and we have an organizational structure that is difficult to comprehend. I have appointed Jerry Segal to chair a committee to work with another of the consultants from LaSalle to make the following determinations concerning our organizational structure: 1) can it be streamlined and reconfigured; 2) are the right players in their assigned slots; 3) can we achieve a higher level of staff response to the Congregation and 4) what is the most cost effective organizational model for the current size of Beth Sholom for the near and mid-range future.  This Committee will also be reporting to the Board in the fall.

            In connection with the evaluation of our governance structures, we have taken the first steps to have our Board more involved in strategic planning. This process began with a Board Retreat held on April 7th.  The Retreat, which was well attended, was led by Dr. Laura Otten, Director of the LaSalle Nonprofit Center. This year, we have also attempted to restructure Board reporting to allow more time for discussion of congregational issues, instead of a recitation of congregational events. Again, this is the beginning of a process which will continue well into the future.

            Our search for a new Hazzan was a big challenge this year. The Cantor Selection Committee received 30 applications. Four of the candidates were invited to come to Beth Sholom for a weekend however, two of those invited accepted other positions. We were privileged to have Cantor Hadash and Cantor Green each join us for a weekend.  It was gratifying to see the congregational response to the visits of each of these Cantors. All of the services and events during the two weekends were well attended and the response rate on the surveys was outstanding. However, after completing its due diligence, the Committee determined not to proceed with Cantor Hadash's candidacy and, Cantor Green ultimately withdrew his candidacy.  The Search Committee under the able guidance of our Chairs, Arthur Frankel and Mimi Schneirov, spent countless hours discussing, deliberating and attempting to identify the best Hazzan for our congregation for the long term. A heartfelt thank you to all who served on this Committee for your dedication to this daunting task.  While there was no shidduch this year, we will continue to search for a new Hazzan next year. We ask for your patience as well as your input as we again attempt to indentify a qualified Hazzan who will be an asset to our clergy and who will help lead us into the future.

            Knowing that we were not going to have a new Cantor for next year, we have already retained an excellent Cantor for the Main Sanctuary for the High Holidays. We have retained Hazzan Adi Wyner, who is also an Associate Professor of Statistics at the Wharton School at Penn.  There were about ten people at his audition in the Main Sanctuary and everyone was favorably impressed with him.  In addition, our cellist will be returning for Kol Nidre in the Main Sanctuary. Of course, Shalom Zachmy will continue to spend High Holidays in the Fischman Auditorium as he has done for a number of years.  In other music related news for next year, Hazzan Tilman is planning a trip to Cuba with the Men's Choir and the Neshama Band.  An organizational meeting for this trip was held last week. In addition, our Rabbis are looking at other options for enriching the musical life of our congregation and we will be reporting to you as plans become firm.

            Our community is also changing.  One of our biggest challenges is addressing the fact that our membership base is diminishing because: 1) our members are aging; 2) the demographics of our surrounding community show a decline in young Jewish families; and 3) among the Jewish families in this area, there is a high percentage of unaffiliated famililes.  This issue is not unique to Beth Sholom.  All of the congregations in the Old York Road Corridor share a common interest in making this area an attractive destination for young Jewish families. We are also searching for ways to reimagine Conservative Judaism for the 21st century.  One of our approaches in this regard, was to look for ways to collaborate with AJ, to create more meaningful Jewish experiences and events for our respective members.  As you probably know, we already have a joint high school program, joint youth groups, a joint annual theatrical production, and our members have come together to worship at Sunday Evening Minyan and, on Selichot and other Hagim.

            We believe that it is time to consider greater forms of collaboration, and achieve efficiencies and cost savings for both congregations.  Last month our Board of Directors voted to merge our Religious School with AJ's school starting with the 2014-2015 academic year.  We feel that a joint school will offer our children the best of both congregations and help to create the critical mass of students and resources so important to a vibrant educational environment. Additionally, both congregations will be working with educational professionals to re-imagine the school and its curriculum, infusing it with best practices and cutting edge ideas from religious schools all over the country. This effort will be chaired by Arnie Lurie, who will work with our professional staff and a lay committee. Arnie, I thank you for undertaking this huge project.

            Let me take a moment now to recognize our wonderful professional staff. I want to thank both of our Rabbis for their wisdom, guidance and service to the Beth Sholom community. I also want to thank all of our departmental Directors and the other members of our staff who have worked diligently to keep our synagogue running smoothly. I want to express my gratitude to all of the Officers, members of the Executive Committee, Board members, Committee chairs, Auxiliary Presidents and PTO Presidents for your efforts to make Beth Sholom a strong and vibrant community. Finally, let me thank everyone who has volunteered in any capacity during this past year.  It is only through the volunteer efforts of our members that we are able to provide all of the services and programs that we have come to enjoy. We simply could not afford to provide all of these offerings, without the many hours so generously donated by our volunteers. Finally, a special thank you to my husband, Carl, for his endless patience, constructive suggestions and perpetual support.

            It is quite clear that we have a full plate of challenges, initiatives and projects for next year.  With your continued support and commitment, we will be up to the task and, we will continue to flourish. Linda Ellerbee, the well-known author and news reporter, provides great advice as to how we should regard change.  She states: "What I like most about change is that it's a synonym for hope.  If you are taking a risk, what you are really saying is: I believe in tomorrow and I will be part of it." I look forward to working with all of you in the coming year as we move from strength to strength.

Thank you and have a restful summer.

Respectfully submitted,

Richelle D. Hittinger