A key element of the GRS strategic plan is moving forward. You will recall discussions of elements of the GRS Strategic plan – the Congregational Survey conducted by Measuring Success (http://www.measuring-success.com/), that took place in April, and of course the new building. (Progress on the new building continues since the favorable Planning and Zoning decision, and we will shortly announce the selection of an architect and other significant steps.)
A third element is the Religious School Reboot, which was announced to parents of religious school students several weeks ago. The objective is improvement. We aim for a school that because of its dynamism and quality meets and exceeds the needs and expectations of students and parents, and helps our children develop a positive and well-informed Jewish identity.
Key to the project is tapping outside expertise, to review our current program, inform us of best practices and cutting edge concepts, and develop specific action plans. Rabbi Sklarz conducted an extensive search for the best possible consultant. All sources led to the same names, which gave confidence that we were zeroing in on the right people. Members of the Education Committee made the final selection.
Our consultant is Wendy Grinberg, founder and director of the Jewish Education Lab ( www.jewishedlab.com) . Wendy, who holds advanced degrees in Jewish Education and related fields, has been working with congregations and schools for over 15 years. Everyone was impressed with her broad knowledge and perspective, and her keen insight into the issues facing religious schools and Jewish families today. I'm very confident that we all will see an exciting and effective program in place for this September.
As GRS improves our school, we want new families-particularly those with young children-to experience the school. The Board recently approved a Young Families initiative, which offers special pricing to make membership and school tuition more affordable and attractive for families with young children to join. So, if you know of anyone who has been thinking about starting their children in religious school, this is a great time for them to get in touch. The program begins on July 1.
The core team working with Wendy is Rabbi Sklarz, Stephanie Glaser, and three members of the Education Committee-Glenn Wolff (chair), Cheryl Probst, and Judy Rayner. All three are also members of the Board, and Cheryl serves on the Executive Board as well. I hope you will recognize that the Religious School Reboot is a major commitment on the part of GRS, and on the part of the team members as individuals, consistent with their view of the importance of education.
I'd encourage you to contact any of the team for more information, or if you have some specific input to offer. As always, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments.
In November, I wrote about the “Plan to Make the Plan”—embarking on the process of making GRS a more effective and sustainable organization. This concept doesn’t mean we don’t do things well now—GRS does many things well. But there is clearly a higher level we can reach, and in truth must reach, in order to serve our community better and to achieve a level of membership growth and satisfaction that is both evidence of the quality of what we do and also assures financial stability.
There are several initiatives under way, which will be described in the weeks to come. One of the most important is a Membership Survey.
The purpose of the membership survey is to:
- Measure our performance and perceived quality
- Create benchmarks against which to measure future performance
- Provide input into our process of continuous improvement and planning
You will receive an email inviting you to take the survey in early April. The survey will be conducted on-line. I want to stress the importance of your participation. Our goal is a 100% response rate to ensure that we hear all congregant voices. The data collection, analysis, and reporting will be handled by an independent third party, Measuring Success ( http://measuring-success.com/community/ ) , a firm that has worked in the Jewish world for 10 years to develop tools to assist non-profits to measure performance.
Measuring Success will conduct the survey itself and handle all of your survey responses confidentially. GRS will receive an aggregate report of the results and will not have access to individual survey responses (unless you choose to self-identify).
If we have multiple e-mail addresses for your member unit, you are welcome to each fill out your own survey.
We encourage you to tell us what you think we’re doing right, what we can improve on, and what is important to you. Your input is valuable information and we fully intend to act upon the results of this survey. If you don’t tell us, we’ll never know!
Thank you in advance for your participation in this important project. Please keep an eye on your email during the week of April 1st for the invitation to the membership survey.
As always, feel free to contact me with any questions or comments at email@example.com.
GRS takes more big steps
On Thursday evening the congregation voted overwhelmingly to approve the purchase of the proposed site for our new synagogue. On Tuesday we closed on the first lot, 92 Orchard, which is now GRS property. Today, we file the first of our applications with Greenwich Planning and Zoning, this one for the required lot line revision which will allow us to go forward with the purchase of the other lots.
Looking forward, over the next few days the committee which will drive the process to selecting an architect—in fact, the entire design process—will get down to work. My goal is to keep everyone informed of the major issues under discussion and the important decision points.
As always, feel free to contact me firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or comments.
Congratulations to all involved in making this happen and to the congregation as a whole, and a hearty Mazel Tov!
The feedback from the question “affordable or transformational” has been thoughtful and consistent. Congregants favor the affordable route. But most also favor affordable with an option to grow later. Here are a few excerpted comments:
I am in favor of the affordable route for a new GRS . . .Experience leads me to strongly agree with you about going the affordable route. And it can probably be accomplished in a way that for minimal additional cost will allow for easy future expansion if and when justified. . . Affordable is the way to go, with perhaps a bit of aspiration built in. . . . My cousin is an architect, and his "claim to fame" is building in a modular style. In other words, build for what you need right now but provide spaces where it is easy to add on as needed . . . I believe we should build or buy a building that is both affordable and expandable . . .I do not think we should be put in a situation of being financially draining or in need of a great amount of fundraising from the congregation.
The maximum size we can build (both today and tomorrow) is a function of the land we buy. In Greenwich, size is governed by the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) rule. Suffice it to say that the allowable FAR on any given lot is a function of the lot size and the zone in which it is located. We also need to be able to provide parking on the site, and current regulations require one parking space for every three seats in the Sanctuary. Andrew Loebelson, working with the site committee, has prepared estimates of the square footage we need under various membership scenarios. We’ve arrived at a view that the site must permit at least 20,000 sq. ft. to meet our needs today. More is better, and around 25,000 sq. ft. or above seems to be a level that permits the sort of future expansion that the feedback comments above reflect.
For financial geeks like me, in theory we are bundling two distinct transactions—a “ base purchase” of 20,000 sq. ft. of building allowable under FAR with adequate space for parking, and an “option” to build 5,000 or so sq. ft. more. Of course, the base purchase and option can’t actually be separated—it’s just one piece of ground—but still, we can think about it this way. Let’s say, all things being equal, we had a choice between sites. Do we buy the hypothetical three-acre site that allows 20,000 sq. ft., or do we spend 33% more and buy the four-acre site? That extra 33% is the cost of the option.
Back in the real world, the site committee has researched at least nine sites so far. The committee, led by Sandy Soule, has scoured the market for properties, and the criteria has evolved as follows:
- Location: Reasonably central, reasonably visible.
- On town sewer and water line: The sizeable septic tank and field that would be required by both town and state regulations raises a host of obstacles. While less important, the need for a well increases other costs and concerns.
- Adequate FAR: At least 20,000 sq. ft.; more is better.
- Room for parking. The town has specific requirements for the number of spaces in relation to the seating in the sanctuary.
- Minimal wetlands: Impacts the amount of land on the site actually usable for building and parking.
- Engineering: Practically speaking, is the site buildable? Can we place a building with a footprint in excess of 10,000 sq. ft. on it plus parking?
- Other regulatory concerns: These include traffic studies, the anticipated the reactions of the Planning and Zoning Board, and so on. In this regard we are advised by our very experienced real estate attorney.
- Cost: Can we afford it? Is the valuation reasonable? What is it worth to us?
The good news is that progress is being made, and the search is very much alive. As soon as a property is found that meets all of the criteria, we will make a bid. If accepted, it will then be brought forward to the Board and Congregation for approval. Hopefully, this will happen sooner than later, but it’s not a calendar-driven decision.
In other good news, Andrew Loebelson (thank you again, Andy) has completed negotiations for office space for GRS to bridge the period between November 2012 and the move to our new building. The offices are on the Post Road in Riverside, and besides accommodating Rabbi Sklarz’s office and the entire staff, there will be room for Board and committee meetings, choir practice, music lessons with Cantor Sabrina, and other activities. This secures the final bridge sites GRS required. For details on the other sites, please see my “Greetings” letter in the blog archives by clicking http://grs.org/presidents-blog/presidents-blog/
I appreciate your interest and feedback. As always, feel free to contact me at email@example.com with your question, comments, and input.
One of the greatest reputations in sports is that of an "impact player"-someone who changes the character of a contest by her or his action. If you have ever wanted to have an impact on an institution, to have your involvement really matter, this is the time. We are faced with multiple decisions which will set the strategy of GRS literally for decades to come. We have wonderful people working and making a difference on critical issues. To mention a few, these include finding our new home; taking care of our assets; strengthening our congregational bonds; educating our youth (and adults); serving our community; supporting our spiritual services, with ritual and music. Energy is high, and I think the work is particularly satisfying to people because the importance is so clear.
I'd like to highlight 3 new areas which need attention.
One interesting shorter-term project is defining our strategy for a portable Ark. We will need one until we have a permanent sanctuary, and the portable Ark will possibly occupy an honored place there as well. GRS does have one, which is used now for the Youth service on the High Holy Days. With some repairs, might it be the right choice? If we want a new one, a Google search for "portable Torah Arks" reveals many potential options from a variety of artisans. A small group of people is needed to handle this project-working with Rabbi Sklarz, to determine our criteria, evaluate the options, and determine the best choice. If you have an artistic and design sensibility, or if you are just a darn good shopper (you know who you are!), we need you for this project.
Another area that needs development is our use of Social Media-Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and others. The argument can be made that Social Media is our best opportunity to both communicate more effectively among ourselves as a congregation, and also to raise our profile in the larger community, including among those who might be looking for a Reform synagogue. It happens that the URJ has a Social Media initiative, with a rather extensive online training program for members and some professional consulting resources available as well. We'd like one or two people to take ownership of our Social Media strategy, take the URJ course, and help get us going. If you have an interest in Social Media, this is a great opportunity to learn how to use Social Media as a serious tool, something you might find useful in your other pursuits as well as having an impact on GRS.
If you have had professional experience in the related disciplines of Strategic Planning, Market Research and Product Development, there is important work to be done that will influence many key decisions. For example, many of us would like to see GRS have a thriving preschool, both as a service to the community and as a source of new members. It's an attractive concept, but bridging the gap between concept and successful execution has many challenges. When one thinks about issues like market demand, competition, critical success factors, optimal scaling, and the size and pace of investment required, it becomes obvious why such disciplines are needed to assess the concept and develop the plan.
Please feel free to contact Rabbi Sklarz or me at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss the role you'd like to play in creating the future of GRS. There is an impact role waiting that fits your interests and experiences, and that you will enjoy.
What if we’re wrong?
I’ve been professionally involved in financial markets for nearly 30 years, and one thing the markets teach is that no matter how good your models are, how careful your analysis is, how thorough your research, or how extensive your experience, your decisions are still going to be wrong a significant percentage of the time. So when making a decision, it pays to ask, “What if I’m wrong?”.
That’s the question I’ve been thinking about in connection with the cost of purchasing a site and constructing a new home for GRS, and specifically regarding the “Affordable vs. Transformational” question I discussed last week.
What if we go the “Affordable” route, and that turns out to have been the wrong decision—that is, we achieve very strong membership growth, and the size limitations of the new building start to act as constraints? There will be some, perhaps, awkward decisions—do we start additional sessions of our school on other days or times? Do we adopt the policies of some other synagogues on the High Holy Days, and either rent larger space for the services or hold consecutive services, one half of the congregation at a time? Do we even limit membership? Yet, needing to deal with such issues implies that GRS is financially secure, both from having preserved capital by purchasing the affordable site and by generating sufficient revenue from membership to support our operations. It may be that we even generate enough income to fund new programs to benefit our children and youth, our membership at large, and the community.
What if we go the “Transformational” route and we’re wrong—that is, we scale our purchase and construction plans to a membership level that we don’t achieve? GRS might become “house poor”—that is, we have a wonderful building, but the congregation is strained to support it. On the one hand, the new building might attract faster growth and perhaps some major donations; on the other hand, the expense load might act as a constraint.
When I think about it this way, I lean towards the Affordable. If we’re wrong, the issues created by going the Affordable route are tolerable—the issues created by going the Transformational route are corrosive.
I hasten to point out that the real world will likely intrude to make the decision messy. We could well end up considering a property that is affordable with a stretch or run into unanticipated construction costs, for example. (And, we are perfectly capable of making mistakes other than the one described here!)
Neither the Site Search Committee nor the Board will make site and construction decisions alone or in a vacuum. All members can influence the route GRS chooses. To the maximum extent possible, we seek consensus on this very big decision. What do you think? How do you think about the risks of either route? Which way do you lean? Please email me at email@example.com with your thoughts, comments, and questions, or join the congregational dialog by posting your comments at the President’s blog on the GRS website here.
The Aspirational Question—Affordable or Transformational?
One aspect of the search for a new home for GRS is, “to what do we aspire? “
As I’ve pointed out, we have substantial resources. We can pretty much afford to build a new GRS, to a scale we are basically familiar with, maybe with only some relatively modest fundraising. Having a new building that fits us today and that we can grow with, but is more or less on a familiar scale, is no minor aspiration. Is the “affordable” the right goal?
We could scale up. We could seek to build a new GRS to an appropriate scale for now and the near term, with the option to build much larger in the future—to transform our scale to that of a more major institution in Greenwich and Fairfield County. The “transformational” option is exciting, but expensive—we would need to acquire at the outset more land, probably in a more prominent location, than we currently require. So, ensuring the option to scale up later in a significant way could cost us millions.
In the real world in which we live, the choice between the Affordable and the Transformational won’t be so clear-cut—the choices will be influenced strongly by the options which are actually available to us. And the implementation of either the Affordable or the Transformational is not a trivial matter—engineering, design, construction, the regulatory process, and so on. Yet our aspirations are a key aspect which will inform our site selection decision. And it is one we can all weigh in on.
It’s a question to consider with both the head and the heart. What is the smart course of action? Is the transformational aspiration too risky, or will growth take care of the risk? Is going for the affordable instead of the transformational shortsighted and timid, or realistic and wise? Which congregation do you want to be part of? Which plan could you really get behind?
Neither the Site Search Committee nor the Board will make this choice alone or in a vacuum. All members can influence the route GRS chooses. To the maximum extent possible, we seek consensus on this very big decision. What do you think? Which way do you lean? Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts, comments, and questions, or join the congregational dialog by posting your comments in the comments section.
It was my honor to be elected as GRS President at the annual meeting on June 27. This is an exciting time to take the helm at GRS, and over the next few weeks, I’d like to share with you my priorities, and discuss some of the critical decisions that will be made.
My priorities are three:
- Secure a new home for GRS.
- Protect the assets which have been earned through the sale to Stanwich
- Strengthen the bonds which hold us together as a congregation as we “bridge” to our new destination.
Of course, GRS as a whole has more priorities than these three—spiritual, educational, pastoral and so on. I’m really talking about where to focus the energies of lay leadership to meet the challenges of our current situation.
In future communications, I will go into more detail on each of these priorities. For now, the important point is that we have wonderful groups working on each of these priorities already.
With regard to a new home, Helen Stark has successfully led an extensive search for suitable “bridge” homes, and wonderful space has been secured for regular services and for B’nai Mitzvah. Details are being sent in a separate communication. Sandy Soule is leading a large committee carefully examining sites for a permanent home. Her committee includes individuals with architectural, construction, and finance expertise, and we have also engaged the services of one of Greenwich’s top real estate attorneys.
In anticipation of the sale of our property, the Board established an Investment Committee, comprised on individuals with finance and investment expertise. This committee has oversight of the proceeds of the sale, and set as its top priority the safeguarding of GRS assets. The committee recommended to the Board specific rigorous controls on the movement of funds to prevent theft and/or fraud. The Board approved the recommendations and the controls have been implemented.
A home is important, but the congregation is more than a building. There are many groups at GRS that contribute to making us a congregation as part of their mission—the Ritual, Education, Caring and Social Action Committees, the Sisterhood and Brotherhood, to name a few. A new group has been established—the Congregational Life Task Force, headed by Cheryl Probst—to support the overall effort by focusing exclusively on strengthening the bonds that hold us together. Over the next few months, you will be seeing events sponsored by this Task Force—some designed for our children and youth, some for families, some for adults—that will be a lot of fun and let us enjoy being part of GRS.
Future communications will focus on an important aspect of our site purchase decision, and on some specific volunteer roles that can make a great contribution to GRS. For now, let me say that if you have ever wanted to have an impact on an institution, now is the time. The decisions that will be made over the next few months will set the course for GRS for literally decades to come. As pointed out, there are many wonderful volunteers working already on critical areas, and I think the work is particularly satisfying now because it is clear how important it is.
Feel free to contact me at email@example.com or Robert@peartreetrading.net, with any questions, comments, or if you’d like to discuss the role you’d like to play in building the future of GRS.
Dear Fellow Congregant,
It is my pleasure to extend greetings to you on behalf of Greenwich Reform Synagogue. I have the privilege of serving as your current Board President, and it is an exciting time in the life of our congregation. We are in the very fortunate circumstance of having substantial resources to create a new permanent home (thanks to our sale of property to The Stanwich School), continuity in our school location and operations on Stanwich Road, and a wonderful “bridge” sanctuary in Old Greenwich.
Even as we prepare to move forward, some of the most important aspects of our congregational community remain the same:
- Rabbi Andrew Sklarz and Cantor Sabrina Lipton continue to lead our congregation, with meaningful services, wonderful music, and individual attention to congregants when called upon.
- Our Religious and Hebrew schools will continue to operate, as they have, at our historic location at The Stanwich School at 257 Stanwich Road, led by Rabbi Sklarz and Education Director Lisa Gittleman-Udi.
- The staff, led by Executive Director Stephanie Glaser, is focused as always on the best possible administration of all GRS business and activities, as well as our upcoming move.
This year, we will celebrate the High Holy Days at our current sanctuary at 257 Stanwich Road, and continue to hold services there through October 2012. Then, we will bid a fond farewell to our sanctuary and in November begin holding regular services at the First Congregational Church of Greenwich, at the corner of Sound Beach and Forest Avenues, across from Binney Park. We have arranged use of their beautiful auditorium for services, and other space there for important activities such as practice space for our inspiring and dedicated choir. Saturday’s are busy days at the Church, so B’nai Mitvah will be celebrated at the handsome Round Hill Community Church on Round Hill Road. Thanks and congratulations to Helen Stark and her team for their hard work and success in arranging the above.
The wonderful and appropriate spaces described above will serve our current needs well, and also serve to “bridge” GRS to our new home. Finding the best possible site and constructing our new home is a multi-year project, on which many of GRS’s devoted volunteers are working (led by Sandy Soule), along with professionals that GRS has engaged. Considerable dialogue is taking place, and will continue to take place, within the congregation to further define the vision of our new home; we encourage you to make your voice heard. Again, we are fortunate that GRS now has substantial resources to devote to making the vision a reality.
GRS exists to serve you, your family, and the community. The Rabbi’s door is always open, and you are encouraged to contact him whenever you see fit, on a confidential basis as appropriate, to discuss concerns, issues, and ideas. As Board President, I am also available to you on matters of GRS business—please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
While we are here to serve you, many of our members find great satisfaction (and we could not function without them) in providing volunteer service to GRS. This is an important period for GRS, and the work really matters. If you too would like to have an impact on this institution through volunteer work, please contact the Rabbi or me. There are many important roles to be filled, and we will work with you to find a role that takes advantage of your talents, interests, and experience, and that you will enjoy.
- June 21, 2013 6:30 pmShabbat Service
- June 21, 2013 6:45 pmAnniversary Blessings
- June 23, 2013 9:30 amSummer Lecture Series
- June 24, 2013 7:00 pmKnit & Knosh