Annual General Meeting Speech

Annual General Meeting—Sunday, June 5, 2016
President’s Report: Neil Abramson

abramson neil 2015 web

As your president, I am pleased to report the first year of my two-year term of office. In summary, it was a significant year in the life of congregation and a very productive one. We continue to employ an absolutely superb senior staff made up of our rabbis, cantors, executive director and our director of congregational learning.

We continue to be blessed by extraordinary lay leaders: from our outstanding team of executive officers, several of whom came back to leadership after many years absence to serve with me, to our very talented and diverse Board of Directors, to our shivah and minyan leaders, Shabbat greeters, Torah chanters, High Holy Days captains and ushers, Pulpit and Service co-ordinators (Lawrie Lander, Allan Kalin, Joanie Shiner and Richard Albert) and many, many committee and task force members. What an extraordinary group of individuals who are dedicated to the service of our beloved Temple.

So with this amazing team, what did we accomplish?

Programmatically, the highlights were:

In September, our clergy led a community-wide S’lichot service at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. (neither shul nor show) It was a packed house and extremely positively received.

In October, the clergy, our executive director and I travelled to the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) Biennial convention in Orlando. There, our clergy led that same format of worship service for hundreds of Reform Jewish leaders from around the continent. I attended various meetings of presidents of large congregations from around the movement from which I took away a great deal of useful information.

Within a few weeks of the Biennial, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the URJ, honoured us by spending an erev Shabbat here at Temple. He met with our young adults and was simply blown away with their capacity and their potential. We then hosted a dinner for community leaders bringing the Reform community together at Temple; and then Rabbi Jacobs gave an inspiring sermon from our bimah. What an extraordinary night for Temple Sinai.

Next, you, the congregation, spoke up on behalf of the plight of Syrian refugees, and we your lay leaders responded. Your Board of Directors voted to sponsor a family of refugees. We have worked in partnership with Jewish Immigrant Aid Services (JIAS). We raised funds and furniture for a family of five, who, we understand, will be here later this year or early next year. Already, numerous Temple members have agreed to be responsible to assist them with the challenges of day-to-day living: apartment rental, grocery shopping, medical appointments and the like.

And finally, a mere two weeks ago, Rabbi Dolgin and I, along with a handful of lay leaders and congregants, flew to Israel and donated one of Temple Sinai’s Torah scrolls to a fledging liberal congregation in Be’er Shevah. It was an incredibly moving experience. There was a beautiful erev Shabbat service outside under a white tent, and then we danced with the Torah under a chupah down the streets of Be’er Shevah before placing the Torah in its new home. Why this congregation? Because it supports a mixed “Jewish-Israeli Arab” school. The congregation’s leader had the temerity to meet in her home with individuals who want peace, and as a result, she was the object of hate and death threats. And so, we decided we needed to support her, to support them, in the most meaningful way we could, and so when I addressed the congregation on that Erev Shabbat two weeks ago, I told them about Temple Sinai’s early days as a fledgling congregation when a very young Rabbi Jordan Pearlson would fly up to Toronto on weekends and festivals and stay in congregants’ homes. I told them of our commitment all these years later to Liberal Judaism, to Torah and to tikkun olam. I could go on and on about our visit to Be’er Sheva, but I won’t.

Against that background of extraordinary events, our clergy and senior staff continue to plan and carry out innovative programming and worship services for every group and for every level of interest.

And now I turn to the governance of the congregation, our Nominations Committee’s mandate has been broadened so that now they attempt to recruit and select for election to our Board, individuals with a wide array of experience, talents and interests. The makeup of our Board reflects their efforts. They are also now engaged in trying to develop new leaders, one of my main objectives during my presidency. As such, they hosted an evening of potential leaders at which of few of us spoke, ideas were exchanged and seeds were planted. They are continuing with this important work.

Finally, as you’ve heard me say and as I have written, the long-term financial health of the congregation is of critical importance. I appointed a task force composed of extraordinarily credentialed individuals, chaired by Jeffrey Singer, to study, in depth, our financial position and to make recommendations for the future. In fact, they did just that and early this year their report was provided to your Board. Already, we are well underway to implementing various recommendations from the Financial Task Force. When I was at the Biennial in Orlando, I learned that there is virtually no congregation of our size, anywhere in the movement, who does not employ a full time professional fundraising person. Some congregations employ two such individuals. The Financial Task Force similarly recommended that we employ such a person. And so we will.

The job description is being created, and the details will be voted upon by the Board hopefully in the fall. That was the first significant recommendation of the Task Force. Second, the Financial Task Force identified that we don’t seem able to communicate to the community at large all of the wonderful things we do. In turn, this naturally affects membership. Thus, I have struck a ‘Value Proposition’ Task Force (for lack of a better name) that is chaired by a professional marketing person and member of our Board, Lori Miller Pike, which has begun looking into this challenge.

Third, the Financial Task Force identified that our school is a particular cost to us, which obviously we would want to maintain, but our preschool is something the requires far closer scrutiny. How much does it cost? Does it serve mostly our members or non-members? Does it create new members for us? What is the effect of increased competition in the neighbourhood? And so on. As a result, I appointed a Preschool Task Force chaired by one of our vice-presidents, Shari Zuckerman, to study these issues. I anticipate that she will report to the Board in the fall. And fourth, the Financial Task Force identified our real estate as our greatest asset. Thus, Brian Costin, an experienced real estate lawyer and a Board member, has agreed to chair a task force to look into alternate possible uses of our land. While it may be a very long way away, nothing would make me happier than for us to be able to sell off our parking lot to a developer for millions of dollars who would guarantee us ample underground parking in the new tower that he would plan to build there.

All of the foregoing is about securing our long-term financial health. But what about the day-to-day? Our Board understands how important is our financial health, and so it passed a motion endeavouring to do away with deficit budgets in the years to come. As significant a step as that was, it didn’t satisfy me personally. When I was last on the Executive 10 or so years ago, we had agreed that there would be no deficit spending. But over time other priorities prevailed. My view is simple, we can’t spend what we don’t have. And so, with the support of various members of the Executive, I went to our executive director and said whatever you do, I want a balanced budget. It wasn’t easy, but last week your Board approved the first balanced budget in many, many years.

And finally, to ensure we can continue that endeavour for years to come and arising out of recommendations of the Financial Task Force, I have appointed a task force, chaired by our Board member Sarah Sternfels, to look at and to create criteria for determining when we should charge for programs.

And so, in my view, it has been a significant year. We have led and participated in programs and experiences that have never before occurred in the history of Temple Sinai, and at the same time, we have prioritized and taken concrete steps to ensure, Temple Sinai’s short-term and long-term financial health.

It has been, by every measure, a very fine year.

That is my report.