Inaugural Address 2020: President Hank Bernstein

Thank you, Michael, for your kind introduction and for serving as my mentor and guide throughout this last year, helping, along with Rabbi Maderer, to prepare me for this role. I believe I now have a more complete understanding of my role, and, from what I’ve seen, if I can be as devoted and diligent in my service to this sacred congregation as you have been, Michael, I will feel my leadership is successful.

I first came to Rodeph Shalom High Holy Day services in 1971 as a Penn freshman forty-nine years ago. Sophie Gordon, Rabbi Wice’s sister, was a member of my home congregation in Louisville, Kentucky, where five generations of my family, including my great-great grandfather Henry, had sat in the family pew. Sophie Gordon suggested that I go to Rodeph Shalom, as she said it was very similar to our temple—she was so right—the service, the music, and the old sanctuary at RS immediately felt like home.

My family was always active in the Temple in Louisville. Prayer, education, volunteerism and tzedakah were modeled for me by grandparents and parents, from whom I learned that being Jewish was not just something you were, it was something you strived to live each day of your life.

About twenty years ago, after the death of a close friend, one of those transitional nodal moments, I took my annual accounting of myself during the High Holy Days, saw that there was something that had been missing from my life, and decided to return to my true self, as the rabbis say. I began to come to services regularly and then after a while, started to attend Torah Study. Prayer and study, each in connection with others, entered my life again.

I was asked to be on the board during Fred Strober’s tenure as president, then asked to be assistant treasurer, then treasurer, VP, then president-elect. I have been a member of the finance, audit, and investment committees, and have had the privilege to serve on the senior rabbi search and lead the executive director search, visioning group, and recent cantor search. And now, Hineini, here I am ready to serve RS as president.

I can say that my natural trepidation about taking on the leadership now sometimes reaches biblical proportions because of the challenges we all face—the double-whammy of a pandemic that threatens our very lives, and a recession that threatens our livelihoods and the financial health of important businesses and institutions, including this synagogue.

I am comforted by the fact that this sacred congregation has faced and overcome incredible obstacles in its 225-year history—including disease, wars and recessions—and RS has survived and thrived.

I am comforted that we have visionary clergy and staff who work seemingly around-the-clock to ensure that our Congregational activities continue, especially in these times of emotional and financial upheaval. They lead the way and show us that our congregation’s vision and mission—spiritual strengthening, education, caring community, social action, and connection—are even more important than ever during this difficult time.

I am comforted that this congregation has a strong board of directors and board of advisors who are actively engaged and continually lend their skills and expertise to the congregation that they cherish.

And I am comforted by our members who are engaged in all aspects of our congregational life and whose support is critical.

Without the stressors of the current time, my presidency would be one that emphasizes financial sustainability. It is now even more important than ever that we continue to take action in the areas that the board has identified—growth and retention in membership, growth in our endowment, growth in facility usage, and growth in our special purpose funds. Each of these is being worked on currently by staff and lay people.

It’s important to me that everyone know that I do not want to be perceived as being tone deaf here.

Of course, what is of utmost importance to leadership at this time is the health and spiritual well-being of our congregants. As Rabbi Maderer has said, we need to lead, we must serve as an example and vigilantly model appropriate action, and we must act in such a manner that keeps our congregants and our greater community safe.

But even in these times, we cannot lose sight of financial realities that face our congregation.

The most important financial consideration most immediately facing the congregation is this coming year’s membership commitments. Membership commitments are vital this year—these revenues fuel our operating budget and are needed more than ever as we endeavor to pivot and rethink all our activities. We understand and appreciate that there will be congregants who will need to pull back this year—but if you are able, please consider increasing your membership commitment.

I think it may be important for you to know the sacrifice reflected in this coming year’s budget that each of our senior staff has voluntarily made: Rabbi Maderer has volunteered a 12% decrease in salary; Executive Director Jeff Katz has volunteered a 7% decrease in salary; and other senior staff have voluntarily forgone planned annual contractual increases. In addition, other staff members will not be receiving a merit or cost of living raise in this fiscal year, as part of the budget tightening measures that the board of directors has approved.

At the same time, there have been no budgeted increases in membership commitments for congregants at this challenging time.

I ask everyone to please serve as the congregation’s advocate and ask other congregants to support RS as their top priority, or at least as one of their top priorities—we need, now more than ever, to ensure the future operations of RS; the important values, vision, and mission of this community; and the voice of Reform Judaism in this city.

Our clergy, our Executive Director Jeff Katz, and our professional team responded very quickly to the necessity of continued connection without physically gathering—and from the very beginning of our Zoom offerings, we’ve seen growth in the number of folks attending services, Torah Study, and other RS activities—there is a yearning for connection and spirituality that RS has been meeting in this period of isolation, and we must continue meeting that need in the normalized future for those who cannot make it to our facilities. We need to make livestreaming one of the tools in our toolbox that we use to gain and maintain membership. Of course these are new costs to our budget—if you are interested in helping to fund this important project, please see me!

In closing, I want to thank you for the privilege of serving this sacred community. During periods of uncertainty in my life, I have challenged myself by remembering the words of my bar mitzvah portion, Beshalach—the Israelites are faced in front with a wall of water and behind them the approaching Egyptian chariots, and they are afraid, they complain, they want their old lives back and are immobilized. God says to Moses, “Why do you cry to Me; speak to the children of Israel that they go forward!”

May we as a sacred congregation continue to move forward!

Thank you.

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