Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha marked a turning point for the better last week at our Annual Meeting by voting overwhelmingly to hire Rabbi Jeffrey Myers as our incoming Rabbi. His tenure begins August 1st and I’m looking forward to having him as our new spiritual leader.
For the past year, day to day challenges have required non-stop, difficult decision-making, but I’m finding solace in the lay leaders, whose wise counsel I relied upon and in being able to see the forest for the trees, at last.
In preparing this article, I realized we need perspective to see where we came from in order to fully appreciate where we are today. Last year at this time I had just signed the letter of intent with the JAA and community rumors were in abundance that our synagogue was closing and the building was going on the block or under a bulldozer. Instead, we used the JAA letter as a catalyst to spur important and unprecedented discussions among seven Reform, Conservative and Reconstruction congregations about how to better employ the underutilized space occupied by Jewish institutions in the East End. This was in keeping with recommendations for developing community partnerships from both our own internal strategic planning committee and the UJF sponsored facilities study.
One year later, those initial steps, which created so much uncertainty at the time, are beginning to prove fruitful. After exhaustive research, the JAA decided to pass on our property. The publicity surrounding a possible deal between our two organizations, however, piqued Chatham University’s interest in partnering with us. Their desire to use our building for programming during the week with an eye to taking over the operational costs of the facility and even providing necessary enhancements are all positive. After all, do we really need to own and maintain the building as long as we have the perpetual rights to use it? As your president and former Treasurer, I can tell you that keeping and maintaining the building on our own is unaffordable. At this writing, talks with Chatham are ongoing and there is serious interest from their end. We will be testing the compatibility of juxtaposing a university environment with a synagogue this fall when Chatham starts daytime, week-day programming within our walls.
A second positive development also came from last year’s Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s sponsored meetings of the seven East End synagogues to think about our respective futures. New Light congregation took the first step by opting to move into our building this fall. We are thrilled with this decision, which will help create a “metropolitan” model of multiple congregations under our roof. As a reminder, it was in 2015 when our strategic planning committee recommended this as a solution to our anticipated future needs, and this was also the choice most preferred during our congregational straw vote in January of 2017. We have yet to see which path Congregation Dor Hadash takes, but we remain hopeful they stay in our building so they can participate in the rebirth of a Jewish center at the corner of Shady and Wilkins. Regardless of their choice, we still have space to accommodate other congregations in this building, with whom we are in conversation.
We are also getting our financial house in order. One year ago I was communicating that, almost seven years after the merger of Tree of Life and Or L’Simcha, we had lost 40% of our members, which left the personnel line in our budget too burdensome for our cash flow to support. This was particularly true with respect to Rabbi Diamond’s salary and the fact that numerous attempts by leadership to negotiate an adjustment in his compensation to bring it more in line with our finances failed. Fortunately, a clause in his contract allowed us to part ways prior to the contracted 2020 end date. Unfortunately, that left us with paying Rabbi Diamond a year of severance equivalent to his regular salary, but it set the stage for our successful rabbinical search, about which we are very excited.
Obviously over the past year, uncertainty was abundant. Questions about the building, the future of TOL*OLS and how are we were going to find a Rabbi all combined to make congregants feel wary. Only when you step back to see the “forest” can you visualize the positive place where we are today. The Rabbinic Search Committee has provided us with extraordinary new spiritual leadership in Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, the “metropolitan” model will begin to take shape when New Light moves in this November, and our financial situation has undergone an important correction. As our relationship with Chatham matures, I look forward to telling you how that is benefiting our community as well. Small rental agreements with groups looking to hold week-day meetings in our space, such as AARP and Weight Watchers, are also helping the bottom line. “Certainty” is reappearing at TOL*OLS.
I know many of you have adopted a “wait and see” approach regarding your continued support of TOL*OLS. I will tell you that is a wrong approach, which reflects your fixation on the past year’s uncertain “trees.” I am telling you all the good news about the exciting new “forest” and asking for your emotional and financial support in keeping us up and running and giving us time to allow all the good things that are starting to pick up steam to fully develop. I hope you will give Rabbi Hazzan Meyers an opportunity to win you over, that you will stop in and appreciate the fresh new bustle that will be happening in this building this fall, and that this update has provided you with enough information to persuade you that our future is worth supporting, in so many ways.