This is a bittersweet moment for me. By the time you receive this article it will be about one week until our congregation’s annual meeting and the end of my term as president of Bet Ha’am. This has been one of the most exciting and most challenging periods of my life. I think it is fair to say that the past 13 months have been an adventure of sorts for all of us. The kind of adventure we never envisioned and in which we never wanted to participate. As lay leader of this synagogue, it has been a wild ride.
I have reviewed the minutes from pre-covid board meetings. What a different tone they took when compared with those of the past 12 months! We brainstormed our goals for the year. We created a position for and welcomed a new, non-voting board member, member of SPORTY, our youth group. We were full of optimism; we started gaining momentum for engagement improvement. We acknowledged and began to address serious financial concerns given our years-long flat membership numbers and fundraising income. Not a good combination when salaries, benefits, and building costs rise steadily year after year.
Covid hit hard and fast. On Sunday, March 15, 2020, the board retreat was held in the social hall with a few people participating by Zoom. Religious school was cancelled. That week the decision was made to cancel all in-person activities at Bet Ha’am and have staff work remotely. By that weekend Shabbat services and religious school were held virtually. Staff learned to complete their work from home and meetings were held by Zoom. Trainings were held to help our volunteer teachers figure out how to hold classes online. Volunteers started online programs and many members joined a newly formed Mitzvah Corps to help people in all sorts of ways. The team working on our major fundraiser changed course and a very successful event was held entirely online. Board members found that the 1-meeting/month they were told to expect was not, in fact, how it was going to go. We had numerous ad-hoc board meetings to discuss issues related to Covid-19 and finances. There was plenty of frustration, stress, and anxiety.. But all things considered, we did very well.
A Re-opening Task Force was established to plan for a safe return to in-person events. They spent, and continue to spend, many, many hours researching, discussing, and setting guidelines to recommend to the board. This group has met frequently over the past year and their work is not yet done.
I set out on this journey with two major goals. The first was to improve membership engagement and the second was to improve our financial standing. Many of my goals for membership engagement were wiped away when covid hit. Instead, we moved quickly and relatively smoothly to an online world. While not nearly as satisfying as seeing each other in person, we worked with what we had. If you haven’t attended worship services since the summer, I urge you to try again. They have grown in richness and meaning as we become more and more proficient in our virtual processes.
Our immediate financial circumstances have improved, thanks in part to two PPP loans. However, these obviously do not address our long-term needs. Over the past year the board of trustees and our rabbi have become more committed to and actively engaged in fundraising. I am proud to say that we had 100% board participation in a Close the Budget Gap initiative that netted over $8000. Rabbi Saks and some board members have been working on another initiative to raise money. These are not one-time events. Both the board and Rabbi Saks have committed themselves to active fundraising as a permanent part of board and rabbi responsibilities. There are some projects in the works and more to come. We have also joined the JCA and several other Maine Jewish institutions in participating in the Harold Grinspoon Foundation Life and Legacy project to build our endowment. You will be hearing more about that effort over the next year.
I hope you will attend our virtual annual meeting on Tuesday, May 11. We will vote on the nominating committee’s slate of incoming board members. I anticipate Sylvia Most will be elected President, and I will transition to Immediate Past President. At that meeting we will discuss possible changes to our dues structure. So, if you want to learn about options the board has been discussing and have a say in changes to our dues structure, please register! It will be held by Zoom.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to lead the Bet Ha’am Board of Trustees for these past two years. Thank you for trusting me with this responsibility. While I look forward to evenings without meetings, a significantly smaller number of emails to be answered, and no agendas or articles to write, I am a bit sad to be done with this part of my journey. But I will not be gone, not a chance. I’ll still be around, actively participating, helping where needed. Like everything else in life, the more I give, the more I get. I will always care, will continue to give, and continue benefit from all that Bet Ha’am is.