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Annual Meeting 2019 Remarks - TBK President Steven Chaba

Anual Meeting 2019 Remarks
TBK President Steven Chaba

During most Annual Meetings – at least in my memory – the President of the congregation has made spare remarks, and the bulk of the speech regarding the Temple’s current and future state has been provided by our senior rabbi.

Tonight will be a bit different. Rabbi Stein will present his reflections and vision for our future during the service later.

But I will be taking this time to present an expanded discussion of our present and future from a more structured – and structural – perspective, in keeping with the notion of a business meeting of the congregation.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that, like many religious organizations, TBK has experienced both great successes as well as notable struggles over the past generation or so. The successes have been generated by world-class clergy, dedicated professionals, deeply caring volunteers, and a warm and giving congregation. The primary source of that struggle – maintaining our finances and membership – is common to virtually every type of organization that does what we do – operate a faith congregation. The struggle is driven mainly by demographic trends, both geographically and socially.

Depending on who you ask, it has led to somewhere between ten and thirty years’ worth of challenges in creating a balanced budget, and then maintaining that budget over the course of the fiscal year. Some years, we’ve done better, other years worse. We’ve taken various steps over the years. We’ve raised dues, and while many members continued to support TBK, some folks responded by either resigning outright or requesting relief. We’ve cut or reassigned staff, and our ability to deliver the programs and services we exist to deliver has been impacted accordingly. We’ve re-purposed parts of our building to take on full-time tenants, including two other congregations and two schools, which brings both revenue and problems of its own. We’ve spent funds to meet short-term needs that ideally would have been used to build long-term stability.

And now we come to the beginning of another fiscal year, and another Annual Meeting where we will present a budget proposal that contains a mix of certainty and uncertainty, of challenge and opportunity, of hope and doubt. We can make it work, if we can engage everyone, from the lifelong members to the congregant who joined last month.

But it’s no way to operate, year after year. And tonight I will propose our starting down a path to a different direction. There will be no bombshell announcements tonight, no drastic measures already taken or in the works. Not yet, anyway. What there will be is the realization that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

To that end, I will discuss two major points that will be our areas of focus for the upcoming year. One is intended to strengthen our ability to manage the Temple’s business in the short to medium term – the next two to three years. The other in intended to help us find a thoughtful, analytical way forward for the longer term.

The first area is the proposed budget and its components. Over the past several years, we have scoured our expenses for places to economize, cut back or redeployed our assets and resources to improve our position. While we will continue to look for every opportunity to improve in these areas, consensus is beginning to form around the idea that there isn’t really much left to cut on that side of the ledger, at least not without significant negative impact on our current programs and services and our ability to deliver them.

Just about a year ago, we first publicly introduced the concept of a voluntary dues model, the model that came to be known as Give To Your Heart’s Content. This was done after extensive research and consideration on the part of a dedicated group of congregants, who studied the experience of other URJ congregations who had adopted such a model. Over the past year, we’ve rolled that model out, and our congregation has responded in almost the exact same way as other congregations before us, and with virtually the same results. That’s good, and it’s not so good.

It’s good in that it proves the suitability of the model in Rochester and at TBK. It’s good in that the response, both in terms of participation and in terms of revenue, is consistent with expectations.

What is less helpful about the model is that it has so far proven to be almost completely revenue-neutral in the short term – exactly as other congregations have seen. That’s an improvement for us, as the former dues model was slightly negative year over year, both in terms of membership and revenue. We’re not in a position where neutral is sufficient.

The material that accompanied the roll out of GTYHC was clear in what was required – absent all other sources of revenue, it would require about $2100 per member unit per year to fund the current budget. Our previous dues model had its last fixed “full” amount at nearly $2600. Of our congregation, only a percentage of our membership units were contributing at that rate. That is not unexpected or unacceptable, and it is consistent with relevant data available from the experience of other URJ congregations. But we’re in a different business than the country club, the cable TV company or the home owners’ association. We exist to serve spiritual needs, but spiritual needs and the financial resources within our community are not always tightly aligned. That said, we are the same as any other business in that we have bills to pay, and those to whom we have obligations have every right to expect us to meet those obligations in an upright and timely fashion.

So we eliminated the defined fixed dues, and folks have responded. We’ve had a number of members who have told us that they were ready to resign entirely, but are able to continue supporting TBK at a different level in this model. We have had fair success in attracting net new members who no longer see that figure above as an impossibly high barrier to participation.

The other aspect of a voluntary support model is that it no longer contains a mechanism for automatically increasing a member’s commitment amount. Under the previous model, the Board could vote to raise dues and a larger amount appeared in people’s statements. Now that part of the equation is voluntary as well.

And we must be careful to understand that, like other certain types of business operations, many of our expenses bear very little direct correlation to our revenues. The cost of heating and cooling the building varies only a little whether the building is full, half-full, or empty. The costs associated with running a service like we will tonight are mostly the same whether the service is attended by fifty people or five hundred. For this reason we need to place new emphasis on the revenue side of the equation.

And so, while we look to define a future that can be sustained, we still need to sustain the present. We have multiple means to do that, and we’re going to need all of them. We are currently working closely with our major constituencies within the Temple that raise and maintain funds to see where we can ask them to increase their support while maintaining their own sustainability and remaining true to their own missions. We are exploring additional rental agreements, which, if they come to fruition, will result in our having utilized all the space in the building that could be used for such purpose.

And now, we are asking the entire congregation to get directly involved as well. In the GTYHC materials, we clearly stated what it takes to sustain our operations. While we are grateful for every commitment made, we still have a gap. That gap amounts to about $200 per member unit for the upcoming budget year. Given analysis of our budget to actual over the past couple years, we can reasonably expect that over the next two to three years, absent significant structural changes that would significantly impact operations, we will find some costs savings in certain areas, and those savings will be offset by greater expenses in other areas – such as increased security, and that this gap will remain.

Obviously, we can’t require anyone to participate in closing such a gap. Unlike a home owners’ association, we can’t say “Well, the sidewalk in front of your condo needs to be replaced, so here’s a bill and a due date.”

But we can ask, in the spirit of a voluntary support model. We can ask that those who have given to their hearts’ content consider our TBK home and find a willingness to help close the gap.

In the statements that will be mailed early in July, you’ll see an additional line item, called “Our Hearts Are Willing”, and that will be in the amount of $200, spread out over the year based on however you currently provide your support (annually, monthly, etc).

That’s the short-to-medium term. Given continued prudence in our expense management, the measured and considered support of our key constituencies and the willingness of our congregation, we can navigate the next few years this way.

And that leads to the longer term. In the almost year that I’ve been privileged to be your President, I’ve engaged numerous congregants concerning the Temple’s future, and have been advised on multiple occasions, “Well, what you need to do to fix things is . . . “

Within this room tonight are accomplished, intelligent and successful folks, including more than a few who’ve run businesses themselves. I don’t have to tell you how that sentence was completed, you can likely create a list of the half-dozen most likely recommendations I’ve received off the top of your head. But here’s the catch: When I ask the person offering the suggestion a simple two-word question in response, the conversation tends to come to a screeching halt. And that question is simply, “Then what?”

Temple B’rith Kodesh has a purpose, a mission, an Overarching Goal. To be a kehila hedosha – a holy community. And being a holy community requires people, and space, and programs. If we eliminate the space, the people or the programs in a knee-jerk fashion to cut expense, we necessarily change who and what we are. If we’re going to do that, it should instead be the result of a thoughtful, considered process, a decision taken with open eyes and willing hearts.

I’ve spent my entire working career as an analyst. I’ve built business cases to present to those whom I reported to, saying, “This is what you should do, this is what it should cost, this is the return you can expect, these are the resources needed to implement.”

It is my intent to foster an effort in the coming months to do the same for Temple B’rith Kodesh. To deeply, carefully and thoughtfully explore what our future might look like, and most importantly how we can structure that future to meet two non-negotiable criteria: First, does it either continue our existing mission and purpose (or alternatively does it support an acceptable change to our mission and purpose) and second, is there legitimate reason to believe that it’s financially sustainable over a five to ten year window?

To accomplish this analysis, I’m in the process of chartering a series of working groups. These groups will be co-chaired by a current member of the Board of Trustees and a past temple President, Sisterhood President, or other member of the TBK community who have held significant leadership positions in that past. These groups will be small – each on the order of three to five members total, so as to be nimble and able to quickly address both operational and logistical issues in getting their work done. And each will have a clear, narrowly defined task, so that they can focus on thoroughly vetting the question at hand and coming to a thoughtful and in-depth conclusion as to whether the idea under consideration meets the criteria above. The individual tasks will fall into one of several categories of exploration: Revenue enhancement, expense reduction, operational models, programs, space utilization.

The two-to-three year short-term window described above is our estimate of the time frame this long-term effort will require to develop, vet and then implement. None of the contemplated areas of exploration are “quick fixes”. If there were quick or simple fixes, they would already have been implemented and I'd be congratulating everyone for having addressed the issues instead of speaking to you about it in future tense this evening.

I’m pleased to report that, of the past Presidents and other leaders I’ve approached, every single one so far has signed on to support this effort. Our clergy and staff are all in to provide their perspective. Tonight, I’m soliciting your support as well. It is my hope that these groups will consist of people who both care deeply about TBK’s future and also have subject matter expertise that can be brought to bear.

All of my professional analysis career has centered around computing systems, because that’s my gig. I’m not a real estate person. I’m not an architect, or an accountant, a development director or a rabbi or an educator. But I’m confident we have the expertise we need within our congregation to seek out these answers. And just as I’m confident that our hearts are willing to bridge the gap I spoke of earlier, I’m similarly confident that our hearts and minds are willing to seek out a future worthy of Temple B’rith Kodesh’s rich history.

We just finished celebrating our 170th anniversary. I’ve started (informally anyway) referring to the effort I just described as “TBK180”, the notion of building, growing and changing towards our next decade and beyond.

Our ancestors (both spiritual and genealogical) were emboldened by the opportunities the future offered. In 1848 they created a congregation out of nothing but a love of God and the Jewish people. Another generation created a space on Gibbs Street, while another transformed a great gift from a congregant into the building we call home today. None of what they did was easy or simple. Let us be similarly emboldened to embrace the challenges of today’s TBK. Let us likewise create a TBK for the next generation and generations to come, a TBK that is strong enough to stand in leadership and caring enough to be worthy of recognition and praise.

With your help, we will do just that, now, in our own time.

I look forward to working with you to make it happen.

Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780