July 3, 2020
Honor the Past and Embrace the Future
Temple Leadership and Covid-19 Update
Dear Temple Family,
We hope this email finds you well and safe. As a follow-up to our Annual Congregational Meeting last month and with summer in full swing, the clergy and Leadership Team want to continue to keep you updated on what is happening at Temple Emanu-El.
As you can imagine, the first half of 2020 has proved itself difficult and painful. The Covid-19 pandemic forced us to change completely our way of life and worship experience. Despite these challenges, Temple-Emanu-El remains a vital and vibrant institution and will always strive to enhance our Judaism, as well as serve as a sacred light to our community. We have not wavered in our intention to serve our congregational family, the Jewish people, and the city of Birmingham. The level of enthusiasm and engagement in our services, programs, and classes over the past few months has been remarkable. During times of uncertainty and adversity, being part of the Temple Emanu-El family helps us all to find meaning and continue building lasting Jewish experiences. We cannot thank you enough for your ongoing support.
Though we hoped to open the building for in-person worship in mid-July, our Physician Task Force recently advised us to continue to pause in-person worship experiences indefinitely because of the recent increase of Covid-19 infections. While Temple Emanu-El remains open for necessary activities and meetings, all visitors are now required to wear masks and undergo a CDC recommended screening before entering the building. Furthermore, after extensive and thoughtful conversations, the Executive Committee and Clergy team have made the difficult and heartbreaking decision not to conduct any of our High Holy Day services, including Sukkot and Simchat Torah, in person. The Senior Staff and Clergy have already begun to build new exciting ways to expand and customize a virtual High Holy Day experience; we will conduct focus groups and surveys to ensure that our worship experience will complement our spiritualty and Jewish ethos. We will be inviting you to help us, by giving us your thoughts and ideas. Our goal is not just to create another webcast – but, with your input, to fully capture the meaning, the majesty and the holiness of our High Holy Days.
The great rabbi and physician, Moses Maimonides taught us, “Maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God. Therefore, we must avoid that which harms the body and accustom ourselves to that which is helpful and helps the body become stronger.” We are obligated by the commandment, pikuah nefesh: safeguarding one’s life takes priority over everything.
In synagogue life, June traditionally signifies the end of our program year. The Clergy, Senior Staff, Board Leadership and our partners at the Grafman Endowment Fund generally spend time reflecting and planning for the upcoming year. During this time of planning, we evaluate our congregational needs and organizational structure, and especially staffing. In particular, we want you to know that:
- July 1st marked an exciting time at Temple Emanu-El as Cantor Robert Wittner joined our Clergy team. In addition to his incredible musical talent, he is warm, engaging and has the innate ability to easily connect with all demographics.
- Lynda Gutcheon returns as our Director of Education at the Gail & Jeffrey Bayer Religious School. Monika Singletary also returns as our Director of Engagement and Membership. Monika recently earned her master’s degree in Educational Leadership from The William Davidson School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
- Executive Director Robin Gotlieb will not be returning following her medical leave of absence. Robin has served the congregation and Temple Emanu-El for a total of 16 years. Robin was instrumental in the development and growth of our congregation, and we thank her for her service.
- Evaluating what is best for the future of our congregation, we have decided not to engage a new Executive Director. Rabbi Adam Wright will supervise all Temple operations. Thankfully, we already have outstanding personnel who will expand and lead in their respective portfolios. Monika Singletary will add to her current engagement responsibilities, now overseeing the supervision and coordination of membership relations and Temple communications. She will be assisted in her responsibilities by Kathryn Pautler.
- The Leadership has named Danielle Barnett the Director of Finance and Accounting. The past year, as Accounts Manager, she has proven her strong leadership and financial acumen, especially during the pandemic and staff absences. Danielle will continue to collaborate with Jann Blitz at the Grafman Endowment Fund and implement the Temple’s policy of financial stability, forecasting, and transparency to our congregants.
- Ben Singletary has been promoted to Facilities Manager, and will oversee the recruiting, on-boarding, training, scheduling, and supervision of all custodial personnel. He will monitor and negotiate supplier and vendor relationships, working in collaboration with Rabbi Wright, the Board Leadership and the Building Committee. He will also coordinate security services for our congregation.
- Judy Edwards and Kathryn Pautler continue to excel in their support staff roles. Judy continues to support the Clergy team and Board Leadership, as well as serving as the staff administrator of the Gail and Jeffrey Bayer Religious School. As noted earlier, Kathryn will continue to help maintain daily synagogue operations and communications working closely with Monika Singletary.
We believe that this new organizational structure is the best path forward for our congregation. We will continue to evaluate our staffing and make changes if needed by evidence-based recommendations.
“Honor the Past and Embrace the Future” is our motto, appropriately defining how we plan to approach the coming year — with patience, determination and creativity. Together with your Temple and Grafman Endowment Fund leadership, the senior staff has already planned an amazing year filled with innovative programs, adult lecture series, and worship experiences. We will explore our intellectual curiosities through our love of Torah and loving-kindness will continue to permeate, not only our sacred walls but the city of Birmingham. And, always know that your congregational family will be here for you to catch your tears and assist you by word and deed.
Thank you for your continuing support, commitment and engagement during this pandemic and staff restructuring. Temple Emanu-El is 138 years old and has been through so much during its history. However, through it all we know that we can always take on a challenge because we are here for one another. As the Mishnah reminds us, “We are not incumbent to finish the duty, but neither are we free to neglect ourselves from it.” Let us together keep on doing our duty.
Rabbi Adam M. Wright Robert Berman, President
June 16, 2020
Our clergy and leadership want to open our Temple back up as soon as possible, but it is essential that when we open that it be done safely and responsibly. As of today’s numbers, UAB has its highest number of cases reported in a single day, with 1000 people testing positive for the virus on June 15. Throughout the entire state of Alabama, there remains a concerning growth in cases despite a slight downward trend in mortality. We are hopeful to open the building for modified worship experiences by mid to late July. Our Reopening Task Force continues to give us weekly updates and best practices for our congregation. Please know that Temple Emanu-El is open; we recommend small groups, physical distancing, and masks when meeting in the synagogue.
April 21, 2020
I hope this message finds you well. It has been a month since the COVID pandemic has impacted our lives, and I continue to find myself both thoughtful and longing for the ease-of-gathering that all of us took for granted just weeks ago. As this pandemic has affected both our personal and professional lives, Temple life and personnel have also sadly not been immune to the impact of this unprecedented event. While our building remains closed for routine gatherings, our clergy and professional staff continue to put considerable effort and energy into virtual gatherings and on-line resources that create novel opportunities for engagement and connection amongst our Temple family. Whether streaming Shabbat services, attending online Torah study or accessing web-based Passover resources, Temple leadership remains committed to creative approaches that keep us both connected and protected.
Your temple leadership remains uniquely committed to enhanced communication during this period of uncertainty. Over the past weeks, both the Temple’s board of directors and the Grafman Endowment board are in the act of placing phone calls to every single Temple family to ensure that they are safe and that they have the resources necessary to keep them healthy during this lengthy quarantine. To that end, I wanted to take a moment to bring our congregation up-to-date with several additional points of communication that feel overdue and important to know:
Cantor Robby Wittner: As previously communicated, Temple Emanu-El is thrilled to announce the addition of Cantor Robby Wittner to our Temple clergy. Cantor Wittner, and his wife, Alex, will join our Temple family in July, and we look forward to facilitating opportunities to introduce them both to our congregation in advance of their physical arrival this summer. Stay tuned for virtual opportunities to connect with this amazing vocal talent and wonderful, young couple. Heartfelt thanks and gratitude to the work of our Cantorial search committee for all of their efforts in finding such a wonderful complement to our professional team.
Annual Meeting: While our annual meeting was previously slated to occur on May 15th, in light of the likely current need for social distancing to extend into the early summer, the annual meeting has tentatively been rescheduled for Friday, June 12th. Whether this meeting will occur in-person or by-proxy is yet to be determined, and rescheduling/pushing-back the date of the annual meeting will allow for a more well-thought-out contingency plan if we are unable to meet in-person. We will certainly keep you updated about our plans related to this meeting and appreciate your understanding and flexibility with the decision-making process.
Temple Gala: It remains our heartfelt intention to reschedule our annual Gala at some point in the fall and specific reschedule dates and details will be forthcoming. We remain anxious and excited for the appropriate moment for our Temple family to celebrate our ability to reunite in our beautiful building once again.
Discovery School: At the March Temple Board Meeting, our Discovery School taskforce presented a motion to the Board with the difficult recommendation to close the Temple’s Discovery School permanently as of June 30, 2020. In short, the Discovery School has been facing significant financial challenges during this academic year. Our existing program had long prided itself on its ability to provide both full-time care as well as partial-week care that was customized to meet the needs of the individual families. The open-ended and fluctuating enrollment model that had previously worked, in combination with the need to strictly adhere to recommended student: teacher ratios, ultimately created a model where unless enrollment was over 65 students consistently, tuition from enrollment was not able to cover the necessary teacher salaries. This financial disparity was only made recently apparent as the Discovery School budget was more appropriately analyzed and dissected as a separate entity, apart from the general Temple budget, over the last two fiscal years. This decision has been an extremely difficult decision with every effort made to critically analyze opportunities to keep the school viable and operational. Temple leadership is all-too-aware that closure of our Discovery School will inevitably produce hardships on families and teachers who have been long-standing advocates and supporters, and we do not make this decision without an earnest belief that this decision is in the best interest of the Temple’s long-term viability, mission, and purpose.
The parents and staff were notified, by letter, of this decision on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. By the end of that week, the decision to temporarily close Discovery School because of the virus had been decided, as well. The school has been closed since March 16th. The Discovery School families paid tuition in March and partial tuition for the month of April, and as a result, we have been able to pay our teachers’ salaries during the last two months. The likelihood that pre-schools will be permitted/encouraged to re-open prior to June is looking less likely as we approach those summer months.
We have tried to serve both our congregational families and our larger community families with the highest standards of preschool education. Providing a high-quality, Jewish preschool experience to families with young children continues to fit with the mission and purpose of our Temple. It is our plan to reflect on lessons learned from the Discovery School, and re-evaluate how we can best provide this service in an intentional, thoughtful manner that is both designed for the needs of our families and sustainable for the Temple’s long-term support.
Federal Stimulus Package/PPP loan: When the stimulus package was announced, both the Temple and Grafman Endowment Fund promptly moved forward to apply for the stimulus-related funding to assist with staff salaries and overhead expenses. To date, despite getting all of our financial paperwork submitted within the appropriate timeline, neither the Temple nor GEF has received any guaranteed confirmation of funds related to the submission of our PPP loan/grant application.
Executive Director: Our executive director, Robin Gotlieb, remains out on excused leave through the next several weeks. Please direct any relevant questions or concerns to Kathryn Pautler at [email protected] so that we can ensure that the needs of our congregants are being addressed as accustomed.
We are here for you: Despite the unique set of circumstances, the Temple is doing everything we can to make ourselves accessible and available to our families. B’nai mitzvah lessons continue to occur online with our clergy using teleconferencing technology. Lifecycle events are being dealt with in an appropriate manner and pastoral services continue to be provided. We continue to broaden the array of online educational opportunities provided, and we are working to ensure that your Shabbat experience can be as meaningful in your home as it is when you are in Temple. Our administrative team is working in close collaboration with select Board members to help with budget forecasting under multiple scenarios, and we have implemented cost-cutting measures to control expenses while our facilities are closed. Your ongoing financial commitment to the Temple during these periods of uncertainty is critical now, as they have always been.
In the days to come, the Temple leadership, clergy, and staff will certainly be tasked with making additional decisions that attempt to address an uncertain future. Rest assured that every decision will continue to be made with the health and sustainability of our Temple and our congregation’s well-being as the foremost priorities. The board joins me in gratitude to all of the individuals who are involved in the front-line fight against this pandemic, and we hope that you are able to find some hidden blessings amongst your increased family time and mandated slow-down.
I apologize for the length of this message; it cannot be helped that there is much to discuss. Your temple leaders remain committed to their promise of transparency, dialogue, and communication despite the challenges of the day. I am available, as always, to discuss any concerns or issues that may need further clarification.
I wish each of you health and happiness wherever this message finds you.
Al Cohn, MD
President, Temple Emanu-El
March 11, 2020
One of the most fundamental responsibilities that your Board is tasked with is to look out for the best interest of the Temple and its congregants. To this end, we remain in ongoing, daily dialogue regarding the fluid situation surrounding the coronavirus along with the health issues related to the gathering of large groups that may be susceptible and impacted by the spread of this virus. We have been in close contact with leading physicians and health professionals who have authority with this specific issue and have provided us with a variety of recommendations and issues to consider. The executive committee, clergy, and senior staff met to discuss this critical issue, and together we have agreed that the most prudent, cautious, and responsible course of action is to validate and implement the recommendations made by these health care professionals.
Temple Emanu-El will be canceling all elective large group gatherings for the next four weeks.
- The Temple Gala: We, unfortunately, need to postpone our Diamonds & Denim Gala scheduled for this coming Saturday, March 14th. The amount of work that has gone into the planning of this event, along with the outpouring of congregational support, will ideally transition to a reschedule date at some point before summer. We will gladly keep everyone updated with plans for the amazing silent auction items that have been collected and the fantastic evening that was planned. All existing tickets will certainly be honored for any reschedule-date, and the Temple staff remains available to answer any questions related to financial gifts and sponsorship that may arise. Feel free to contact Brittany Saag with questions, [email protected]
- Other planned gatherings: We will be canceling our Second night of Seder plans and Sisterhood will be canceling/rescheduling its upcoming Mah Jongg Dinner on March 18th, as well. We have also asked Brotherhood and Sisterhood to reschedule any other elective, large gatherings over the next several weeks until the situation has stabilized, and more updated information can be considered. Torah study and adult education classes will also be canceled during this time.
- Religious and Sunday School: Religious School, Hebrew School, 7th Grade Teens, and the Teen Foundation will also be canceled for the next four weeks. Spring Break is included in this time, and the week after Spring Break is included as we consider it to be a high-risk due time due to possible travel outside of Birmingham. In addition, School families will receive specific updates regarding return-to-class-dates from Lynda Gutcheon as that information is available.
- Friday and Saturday Shabbat services: After much deliberation, we are asking our congregants to stay home and not attend services at the Temple for the next several weekends. All Friday night services will continue to take place and will be available in streaming format on-line. As per normal, the Rabbi and Cantor will continue to lead these services from the bimah, say Kaddish and read yahrtzeit lists, and offer a Shabbat worship experience that we encourage our congregants to enjoy ONLINE. The link to our streaming worship service can be found on our Temple homepage http://ourtemple.org/webcast/ or you can follow a LIVE feed from our Temple Facebook page that will connect you with other congregants watching on Facebook.
Complimentary copies of our Temple’s prayer book will be available at the front desk so that you can easily follow along with the service (donations of $25 to our Temple Prayer Book Replacement Fund are gladly accepted.) Additionally, printable versions of the Friday night Shabbat service will also be available on our website.
- Saturday morning services will not occur due to the absence of a minyan and the resultant inability to read Torah.
- Discovery School: The Discovery school will remain open and in session for the time being. The same authorities that have encouraged us to avoid the large, elective gatherings that are currently being canceled because they may put elderly, more susceptible individuals at risk, have also advised us that keeping our pre-school open, for the time being, is a reasonable and safe decision. We remain in close dialogue with other schools and learning institutions around the city. If it becomes necessary to reconsider a temporary cancelation of classes, we will provide additional information and updates as they become available. We will be increasing resources aimed at routine cleaning and hygiene protocols to ensure that we are addressing these issues appropriately given the existing circumstances.
- Bar-Mitzvahs/Weddings/Lifecycle Events: All scheduled life-cycle events will remain on the calendar as scheduled with participants and attendees expected to use appropriate precautions and stay home if they are feeling ill. Additionally, b’nei mitzvah training and private tutorial preparation will continue as normal with our Cantor Gutcheon.
Despite the cancelations noted above, the Temple will be open for routine business and will be staffed as always to address the needs of our congregants. We will anticipate providing additional updates and progress reports regarding this situation as new information is available.
From a leadership perspective, perhaps the only thing more important than fostering opportunities to deepen engagement and involvement amongst our Temple members is the desire to make decisions that look out for the health and well-being of our congregants and those they love. Certainly, each of us is well-aware that Judaism views the sanctity of life above all else.
Please know that these decisions are not taken lightly by anyone involved, and the clergy, leadership and Temple staff are hopeful that this situation will normalize shortly so that we can all resume life together in health and happiness.
We will certainly provide additional updates to the congregation as appropriate and available. Thank you for your understanding of this situation, and please do not hesitate to contact Rabbi Wright, Robin Gotlieb, or myself if we may be of any help in clarifying any of the issues referenced above.
Al Cohn, MD
President, Temple Emanu-El