This past year was a time of transition for Beth Tzedec. After the retirement (but not the departure) of our beloved Rabbi Frydman-Kohl, we welcomed two new rabbis – The Anne and Max Tanenbaum Senior Rabbinic Chair, Rabbi Steve Wernick and Associate Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin. I’m very happy to report that it has been a seamless transition.
Last year, after a series of learning sessions led by Rabbi Wernick, we saw the inclusion of the Imahot in our prayer services. We welcomed a new caterer, Apex Kosher Catering. We held increasingly popular Kabbalat Shabbat services and dinners for families, with more than 200 people attending every month, building community. And we began to roll out our programs under the Centre for Spiritual Well-Being. It was shaping up to be a very successful year.
Then COVID-19 hit.
Our world literally shook in March when the government mandated that we close our building, and as a result, we were forced to rethink, refocus and reimagine how we continue to be a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community.
During this past year, a Visioning Committee, under the leadership of Mitch Max, was struck with the purpose of reimagining our vision and strategy in line with more current perspectives, and a view to building a Beth Tzedec that is as relevant for our grandchildren as it has been for our grandparents.
Our mission at Beth Tzedec is to inspire and enable our community to live meaningful Jewish lives. It is quite remarkable how prescient the work of the committee has proved to be. Our core values – connection, prayer, caring, meaning, authenticity and spirituality, remain our guiding touchstones.
Community and engagement are more important now than ever, and a refined and updated vision statement and guiding document will soon come to the Board, which will then be shared with all of you.
For the last 10 weeks, we have moved everything we do online – including daily services, programming, social gatherings, business meetings and special events, as well as for the first time, this Annual Meeting.
Daily Minyan has seen increased participation, Kabbalat Shabbat services have proven to be our most popular program and Havdalah services are broadcast from different homes every week.We also saw a new approach to Pesah, with virtual seders and resources provided by our Spiritual Leadership Team in an effort to ensure that the experience would be as engaging and inclusive as possible.
Online programs like Conversations over Coffee hosted by our rabbis, Daily Tanakh, Parashat Hashavuah, Zoom Pre-Shabbat Kiddush Club and Stephen Berk’s annual lecture have all proved immensely popular, viewed by literally thousands of people.
Shortly, we will introduce the streaming of services on Shabbat and Yom Tov. The Ritual committee had a fulsome discussion prior to providing the Executive and the Board with a recommendation to move forward. Rabbi Wernick’s decision to allow live streaming on Shabbat and the hagim was carefully considered and fully reported to our community.
Shavuot will be the launch of this initiative and we are committed to design, build and deliver the best virtual engagement opportunity possible. I anticipate there is going to be a learning curve, not only for the Spiritual Leadership Team and synagogue leadership, but also for congregants, and I want to assure you all that we will continue to be responsive to the needs of the shul community and toward that end, welcome your comments and concerns. The Ritual Committee continues to plan for the coming year and in particular, the High Holy Days.
Our Centre for Spiritual Well-Being advisory council, under the leadership of Rabbi Fryer Bodzin, began working on the focus and design of the Centre’s programming. I participated in a visioning exercise which highlighted the ever-present need for community. We could not have foreseen then, how just over two months later, that craving for community would be even greater given the requirement to be physically apart. People are feeling more alone and vulnerable than ever. The purpose for the Centre has become abundantly apparent and many members have received meaningful and supportive assistance. Rabbi Fryer Bodzin is helping to create a warm and caring place for our members, and is tirelessly implementing new programs through the Centre such as meditation and healing services, and bereavement groups.
When we shut our doors on March 12, the Spiritual Leadership Team, in conjunction with the Membership Engagement committee, chaired by Arlyn Zimmerman, made a concerted effort to reach out to the most vulnerable in our congregation through phone calls and providing assistance when necessary. The Spiritual Leadership Team and 90 volunteers make weekly phone calls to members to check in and to offer support.
We continue to focus on being a relational community, through efforts to talk with, work with, and at this point, virtually be with our members. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that the synagogue be here for our kehillah, and I want to reassure our membership that we are here to listen and that every individual and family will continue to be embraced and welcomed as members, irrespective of possible financial challenges.
Since the COVID-19 crisis began, the Executive Committee has also been functioning as a Crisis Management Team, meeting weekly to focus on three key areas – how to continue to create a caring community, provide financial stability and continue to engage our membership. We have had to make difficult decisions such as closing the building, staff contractions, reduction of expenses and a review and revision of all aspects of the budget.
In addition, we put our Assistant Rabbi and Cantorial searches on hold. I convened a Presidents’ group made up of the leadership of Toronto Conservative congregations in order to discuss common concerns and challenges related to COVID-19 and to facilitate best practices. We are working together to find avenues of cooperation and joint ventures.
I want to thank the Spiritual Leadership Team, who, under the leadership of Rabbi Wernick, ensure that our kehillah remains engaged not only in Torah, but with each other. Rabbi Wernick has proved to be an inspirational partner, providing direction, insight and innovations in these trying times. Rabbi Fryer Bodzin initiated the Daily Tanakh classes online and is a supportive and nurturing fixture at Daily Minyan. Personally, both Rabbis have provided me with continued guidance, support and friendship for which I am eternally grateful.
Hazzan Sidney Ezer brings his beautiful voice to uplift us in multiple prayer experiences.
Lorne Hanick, our Ritual Director, also a fixture at Daily Minyan, transitioned all the Bar and Bat Mitzvah classes online and has been instrumental in the organization of online smahot.
Yacov Fruchter, Director of Community Building and Spiritual Engagement, in addition to everything he normally does, has new roles organizing and engaging Small Groups.
Aviva Chernick joined Beth Tzedec as our Musical Artist-in-Residence and with her incredible voice and neshama, has been a wonderful compliment to Hazzan Ezer.
And to our beloved Rabbinic Intern, Rabbi David Lerner, who has been with us these past two years and who has worked so diligently with the Families Committee to help foster and bring greater success to the monthly Family Kabbalat Shabbat and Dinner, we extend a mazal tov on his ordination from JTS on May 21. We wish him, Alexis, Magda Rose and Levi much luck and happiness as they relocate to New York and his new pulpit.
Thank you to our Executive Director Randy Spiegel, who has been managing his team remotely since day one of the shutdown. He has been a wealth of information during these trying times and a great support.
Thank you to Daniel Silverman who, in addition to his role as Director of Education, is now our Program Coordinator and is responsible for the implementation and delivery of unfamiliar technology connected with our online presence. Tonight, he is the man behind the curtain, making Bernie and I look good!
And to Brian Dias, ever present and always smiling – thank you for taking care of our building with such love and respect.
I want to thank the members of the Executive – Cecile Zaifman, Oscar Zimmerman, Aaron Wine, Gary Elman and specifically Sheldon Rotman, who has been my sounding board for the last four years. And to Bernie Gropper, Chair of the Board – thank you for always being a calming influence, but also for being such a great partner in the work that we do on a daily basis for Beth Tzedec.
Thank you to all the members of the Board and our fabulous committee chairs - we are all steering this new reality together.
And thank you to my family – Michael, Emma and Zach. Your unwavering love, support and most importantly patience with the time that I’m away from you means more than you know.
We are all navigating through uncertain times – not knowing when we will be able to come together physically as a community. While our building may be closed, our virtual doors remain open – to pray, celebrate, grieve, laugh and learn together.
Our synagogue is not a building – it is a community.
This is our vision, our mission. This is Beth Tzedec.