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On June 2, 2016, I became the President of Washington Hebrew Congregation, and on June 3, 2018, my term will end. It has been a wonderful two years for me. So much has happened for which I am proud, however, I certainly recognize that the vast majority of what takes place at Washington Hebrew Congregation is because of our exceptional clergy and professional staff. I am grateful for the opportunity I have had to work with such talented and dedicated people. To prepare for this column, I reviewed the speech I gave at the Annual Meeting in June 2016 when I was installed as President. In that speech, I presented three goals for my term as President of the Congregation.
My first goal was to make sure our synagogue functions in a cost-effective and efficient manner. Looking back on the past two years, I am proud to say that the Board and the Budget and Finance Committee have exercised strong financial stewardship. Highlights include the adoption last July of a budget that calls for a sustainable 3.5 percent revenue transfer from Board-restricted and permanently restricted endowments, and we are committed to keep the transfer at that level in future years. We have also been blessed by continued and increasing participation in Yad B’Yad – WHC’s Annual Fund. In fiscal year 2016-2017, 22 percent of member households made at least one contribution to Yad B’Yad, which raised over $400,000, helping support all that takes place at WHC. As an organization driven by our commitment to tikkun olam, we have also adopted a policy that will ensure our entire portfolio is invested in ways that are consistent with our mission. Embracing values-based investing is a meaningful step for the Congregation and sets a standard for others to follow. We are also just finishing the migration to a robust new database system that will give WHC staff and clergy an invaluable tool that will benefit the Congregation for years to come.
My second goal was to use our strength, influence, and voice as one of the most prominent Reform synagogues to make the world a better place. Over the past two years, we have done that in ways large and small.
Our clergy, in addition to providing pastoral care and guidance and leading our Congregation in worship, have demonstrated that they are trusted partners both within our faith and in the interfaith community. Faith Over Fear dialogue dinners gave us the opportunity to form lasting interfaith connections as we rotated between Temple, the National Cathedral, and the ADAMS Center. And when Rabbi Lustig personally invited Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah — an internationally respected 85-year-old Muslim cleric — to speak at Temple, several dozen clergy from various faiths and their congregants joined us in February to hear the sheikh’s first-ever address at a Jewish house of worship.
Our lay leaders have also demonstrated their desires to help heal the world. During the past year, WHC launched the Good Neighbors Initiative. This largely lay-led effort will provide a newly arrived refugee family with assistance and support during their first year in America with the goal for them to become self-sufficient within a year. A few months ago, the Board of Directors made another mission-driven decision, and we now proudly display banners outside Temple and the Julia Bindeman Suburban Center that proclaim our opposition to gun violence.
Our commitment to common sense gun control — and our youth — was never more apparent than on Friday, March 23, the evening before the March for Our Lives. That night, we hosted more than 200 teens and opened our doors to hundreds more at “Shabbat for Our Lives,” a musical service and vigil led by teens, which also engaged dozens of WHC adults as volunteers. It comes as no surprise that WHC’s teenagers are passionate about social justice and connected to their Judaism. Our Confirmation program is growing, and students have told us that they are not ready to end their connection to WHC’s Upper School in tenth grade, which has led to the creation of our successful Post Confirmation program for high school juniors and seniors. From our Early Childhood Centers, which are embracing a common set of best practices at both locations, to our Religious School, which has expanded its inclusion program, WHC offers our young people unparalleled opportunities to learn and grow Jewishly.
My third goal was to ensure that Washington Hebrew Congregation continues to be relevant in the lives of our members — both long-time and new. Through the creative and consistent efforts of our clergy and staff, we have seen not only an expansion of our programming but also more of our members engaged. Tikkun olam, worship, social events, and more, give all of us at WHC — no matter our age — opportunities to connect.
For instance, monthly Tot Shabbat services and family dinners at Temple and JBSC, generously co-sponsored by the ECC Parent Committees, have seen their attendance grow exponentially. These family-friendly events draw not just the families from our early childhood centers, but also their friends and young families from the community looking to connect and expose their children to Judaism and Jewish traditions.
We are also engaging young professionals. Each month, about 200 people attend WHC’s Metro Minyan — a monthly Shabbat experience for adults in their 20s and 30s that is typically held at a Metro-accessible location. As a testament to the strength of this program, the Jewish identity of the attendees, and our Congregation, when a Metro Minyan was held at Temple early this year, it drew over 175 people. This certainly gave reason to challenge the oft-heard statement that millennials will not travel to Macomb Street to worship as part of their WHC community. The dinner that followed that service featured authentic Syrian cuisine catered by Foodhini, a local business that creates sustainable jobs for immigrant and refugee communities through food. Proceeds from the suggested $10 per person donation benefited WHC’s Good Neighbors Initiative, a connection that the Metro Minyan attendees embraced.
It was also a great source of pride to experience WHC’s first — and second — annual Rosh Hashanah Community Onegs. Held before and in between services on Rosh Hashanah day, the Community Oneg, an event which grew from a Board member’s suggestion, filled Edlavitch Hall with information, resources, and people showcasing all the opportunities WHC has to offer. It was a successful paradigm shift for our Congregation, and the feeling of community among all who participated made it a very sweet way to start the New Year.
I have truly enjoyed getting to know so many of you during my term as President. On the night of my installation, I mentioned in my speech that Debbie and I wanted to host Shabbat dinners at our home for WHC members, staff, and clergy. It began as a glimmer of an idea: to have monthly dinners where the tables could form “organically” by enabling WHC members to register for a dinner without knowing who else would attend. It resulted in 16 dinners for more than 160 fellow congregants in our home, two Tot Shabbats (one at Temple and one at JBSC), and the Metro Minyan that took place at Temple. These evenings, as much as anything else, will remain highlights of my term.
I look back on the past two years with pride. I am grateful for all that we accomplished during my term. We introduced novel programming while we continued to serve the members of Washington Hebrew Congregation and fulfill their spiritual needs by providing a connection to our rich and beautiful heritage, just as we have done, year in and year out for 166 years. Of course, there is still much left to accomplish, and I know I leave my post in capable, dedicated hands. I hope you will join me at the upcoming Annual Meeting on Sunday, June 3 when Nell Shapiro is installed as the next President of the Congregation. I look forward to supporting her and future leaders in years to come.
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