2012 Report from the Chairman

Chairman Russell Cohen looks ahead to 5773 and beyond



Shana Tova

 First of all I would like to wish our members everything of the very best for the year ahead.  May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year.

 In days gone by, stand-up comedians might have begun a routine by saying “I have good news and bad news”.  I regret to say that I have both bad news and good news, but this is not a joke.

 First, the bad news, or rather, a sober assessment of our current situation.  Thereafter, the good news, or rather, a partial vision of what can be done to reverse the decline (for such it is), and some remarks on what you can do to help such a process.

The bad news

 Almost every week brings with it the sad news that another longstanding member of our congregation has shuffled off this mortal coil.  When one compares the number of adult birthdays compared to those of under-18s highlighted in the Bulletin each week, it seems we are a community in terminal demographic decline, i.e. we are not replacing our own losses through organic growth.  We are managing to attract some new members to our ranks, but still only just maintaining our numbers.

 Emigration from South Africa is still a concern, and in my assessment impacts the Progressive community to a greater extent than it does the Orthodox.  The demographics of Jewish Johannesburg continue to work against us, with the centre of Jewish life in Jozi shifting steadily Northwards.  The “charismatic” trends within Orthodoxy attract younger and vulnerable members of the community away from their natural home in Progressive Judaism.

 We are also seeing a steady increase in the number of Jewish families unable to meet the “cost of Jewish living”, including Synagogue membership.  Many members have been forced to ask for a reduction in fees, or have given up the struggle altogether.  Without wanting to stray into the territory of national politics, it is apparent that the “affirmative action” policies of the ANC-led government are, for perhaps the first time in the modern history of the country’s Jewish community, leading to salary-earners, professionals and entrepreneurs alike being excluded from the economic mainstream.  (The impact of the global economic crisis in this regard should, however, also not be under-estimated.)

 The income stream from membership dues does not cover the cost of the day-to-day operations of the Synagogue.  Fortunately, previous Management Committees had the foresight to diversify our income streams, but these are not guaranteed, are seasonal in nature, and the loss of a single one could lead to a deficit.  The buildings on our campus are aging, and require a far higher level of expenditure on maintenance and upgrades than we can currently contemplate.  In addition, our cash reserves are sufficient to cover only a few months of operations.

 As is so often the case with a community under threat, the seemingly natural response of “pulling together” has been outweighed by the self-destructive trend towards in-fighting.  Your Management Committee is relatively young and inexperienced, and has not always managed to meet these conflict situations with the required degree of wisdom and diplomacy.  We have also had only limited success in keeping long-time stalwarts of the community involved in communal affairs.  Indeed, sometimes our well-intentioned efforts appear to have had the opposite effect.  Voluntarism is also on the decline, with members unwilling to serve on committees (or in some cases, unwilling to stand for another term).

 Finally (to add the finishing touches to our challenges), our spiritual leader for the past five years, Rabbi Dr Robert Ash, has decided to return home to the UK at the end of 2012!  Rabbi Ash has been the linchpin of our congregation since late-2007, and I cannot do justice to his contribution here, so I will deal with it at another opportunity.  (Please see the Bulletin for updates regarding our rabbinic search process.)


The good news

 Fortunately, as Lewis Mumford often reminded us, Trend is Not Destiny.  So, what can be done to reverse these trends, and shape a destiny of our own making for Beit Emanuel?

 When I first became involved in the affairs of Beit Emanuel in 2011, I began working in my spare time on the broad outlines of a vision for the future of the Synagogue, and began circulating PowerPoint presentations to this effect.  This vision is now ready for wider exposure, and now has an official moniker, “Beit Emanuel Transformation and Renewal” or “BETR” (pronounce BETteR).

 BETteR has, very broadly speaking, two phases; a short to medium-term phase to address Beit Emanuel’s core activities, and a medium to long-term phase, addressing development of the campus, extending the reach and footprint of Beit Emanuel and Progressive Judaism, and further diversifying and stabilising our revenue streams.


BETteR Phase One

 So where do we start?  As mentioned above, with the Synagogue’s core activities.

 Taking steps to attract visitors.  Providing the warm and welcoming environment we celebrate on our website and in our publications, so that visitors return, and become members over time.  Bring membership levels back to the critical mass required to sustain our infrastructure (probably +/-500 member family units).  (You will see signs of that approach happening already, with the introduction of a Beit Emanuel brochure and visitor’s comment card.)

 Find ways to make membership even more affordable; lowering the “barriers to entry”.  Perhaps introduce additional classes of membership for friends and supporters who do not require full membership.

 Separate voluntary work from the requirement to serve on Mancom.  Encourage voluntarism, and form teams rather than committees.  Set reasonable expectations for those serving on Mancom and provide a “job description” for every area of voluntary work.  At the same time, ensure that the day to day running of the Synagogue is professionalised, i.e. that we rely less on volunteers for core activities.

 Much more emphasis on child and young adult/young family-friendly services and events.  More emphasis on the social and the community.  Perhaps more emphasis on study opportunities, rather than traditional prayer services.

 Appoint staff to replace those we have lost through death (Evelyn Ngwenya) or resignation, or where additional capacity is needed.

 A greater emphasis on promoting Beit Emanuel as a venue for social, life-cycle and business events.

 Utilising every service, communal or life-cycle event to give members of the wider community a positive experience of Beit Emanuel and Progressive Judaism.  Create a climate in which membership in Beit Emanuel becomes the next, logical step.

 Set up a dedicated building maintenance and upgrade fund, and draw up a detailed proactive maintenance schedule for the next 2 years or longer (“Facelift 2014”).


A BETteR future

Beit Emanuel Transformation and Renewal also envisages additional phases to expand the footprint and reach of the Synagogue and Progressive Judaism in general.

 A Progressive JCCC (Jewish Cultural and Community Centre), providing a venue to host secular or non-denominational Jewish events and learning.

 A Centre for Progressive Judaism devoted to boosting Progressive Judaism as a whole, with positive spin-offs for Beit Emanuel.

 The launch of a Combined School with a Progressive Jewish ethos, eventually covering Grades 0 through 12.

 Development of undeveloped parts of our campus at 38 Oxford Road to provide additional infrastructure for these services, additional secure parking and, eventually, retail, residential and office space to secure an income stream into the future.

 What can we do here and now?

 Where does that leave us, and what can we all do in the here and now to make a difference?  Here are a few ideas:

 Attend a service.  The more people attend a service, the more sparks are struck, the more connections are made, the better the religious experience for everyone.  Hang out at the brocha afterwards and get to know the faces old and new.

 Volunteer.  We actually need your time more than your money.  Fill in a Mitzvah Card and get involved.

 Pay your dues, even if at a reduced level.  While the Synagogue has benefactors, your giving is the fuel that drives this community project.

 You don’t have to pay dues in one annual lump sum.  In fact, it might be better for cash-flow on both sides should more members make use of monthly debit or stop orders.

 Sponsor or donate.  Have a look at our website under Community > Donations for opportunities starting from just R54.

 Convince others to join.  Do your own network marketing.

 Consider holding your life-cycle or other social or business function at Beit Emanuel.  We have a variety of cost-effective facilities that might just meet your needs.

 Agree to serve on the Management Committee.  Agree to serve another term if need be…

 Beit Emanuel turns 60 in 2014, but the grand old dame of Parktown has begun looking a little threadbare of late.  Support “Facelift 2014” by donating any amount to our dedicated building maintenance and upgrade fund for Beit Emanuel’s own “Diamond Jubilee”.  A list of sub-projects and associated costs will be made available in due course.



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