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