Park Avenue Synagogue President and WHP Alum Natalie Barth (New York 16) reads a Proclamation from New York City Council during the Rededication Ceremony.
With the glow of our Hanukkah menorahs receding in our rearview mirrors, we may ask, what does it mean to rededicate? That was the question Park Avenue Synagogue asked a year ago in advance of completing our expanded and renovated campus.
When we completed Phase 1 in the fall of 2017 – the purchase and renovation of a nearby townhouse as the Eli M. Black Lifelong Learning Center – it was relatively easy to envision expanded educational programming capped by a street-filling, Torah dancing celebration. We doubled down on Jewish learning for all ages and stages of life. Our new building gave us space to strengthen our Congregational School, expand our Melton program, experiment with a weeklong Scholar-in-Residence program, become a pilot site for Reading Jewish Lives, increase travel education, develop new courses like Pathways: An Introduction to Judaism and offer learning on Sundays.
But the rededication question loomed large as we anticipated celebrating the completion of Phase 2, the revitalization of our main building, which encompasses worship and gathering spaces, classrooms and offices. We sat staring at a blank sheet of paper for a long time. Beyond the logistical questions of who would be invited, who would speak and on what date, was the meta-question of what did it mean to rededicate? As the leadership and clergy pondered rededication, my friend and Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove insisted that when we reopened our doors, we must not simply take up using our new spaces just the same as we had used the spaces they replaced. He pushed educators not to rest on past teaching modalities and laurels. He asked the clergy to think about alternative services. He challenged lay leaders to think about how innovative programming would affect the budget.
When all was said and done, “rededication” had far less to do with the physical space than with what we would do in it. I remember very clearly when the Vaad (our senior management/clergy council) committed to making our celebration more about rededicating ourselves to Jewish values than to dedicating the physical structure, even one that had taken millions of philanthropic dollars and infinite volunteer and professional hours to build. Recognizing that the celebration would take place just weeks before Hanukkah, the team took the Menorah as its guide and identified eight core values:
- Tikkun Olam/Repairing the World
- Klal Yisrael/Peoplehood
- Tefillah/Worship and Prayer
- Tarbut/Music and Art
- Limmud/Lifelong Learning
Under the leadership of our Rededication Co-Chairs, committees of professionals and lay leaders sprang into action. The entire fall semester of our synagogue’s programming was dedicated (pun intended) to rededicating ourselves and our community to these values. There were marquee events, including ones that invited members of our neighboring churches and mosques to participate, like our Lift Every Voice: Welcoming Diverse Traditions concert by Ray Chew and Cantor Azi Schwartz. There were smaller moments of rededication that occurred in daily minyan or in Friday night services. Our Rabbinic Fellow, WGF Alum Rabbi Steven Philp (Class 28), wrote a blessing to be read at the beginning of each event, class or service to reiterate the importance of rededicating ourselves to our Jewish values.
In the end, of course, there was a gala celebration, with candles representing the eight values lit in a supersized Menorah, invited dignitaries and speakers, a proclamation from the City Council of New York, a mezuzah unveiling, ribbon cutting and a party with latkes and sufganiyot. There was a rabbinic charge, music by our cantors and a hora that lasted well into the party. But we never lost sight that it’s not a building or buildings that create vibrant Jewish lives: It’s all of us, individually and collectively, dedicating and rededicating ourselves to our Jewish values, doing Jewish with other Jews, educating our children and experiencing our shared Jewish future together.
Wexner Heritage Alum Natalie Barth (New York 16) is the President of Park Avenue Synagogue. She also sits on the Georgetown McDonough School of Business Board and is a former trustee of UJA-Federation of NY and the Children’s Museum of the East End. She was Director of Operations and Business Management at Perella Weinberg Partners and a VP in Morgan Stanley’s Capital Introductions Group. Natalie can be reached here.
Photo credit to Larson Harley and Marissa Zackowitz.