It was my duty at this year’s annual meeting, as instructed by the President, to speak to the congregation, outlining our accomplishments of the past year. I am happy to reiterate the points spoken about in this month’s newsletter.
We have, this past year, secured almost $50,000 in individual donations, which have been allocated to renovating the museum (still under construction), a brand new sound system, and a beautiful new chuppah. We have also secured $85,000 to restore our historic cemetery, and are actively working to raise the last $40,000 needed for this project.
Our lifecycle events–B’nai mitzvah and weddings–have increased in number from the previous year, from 34 by the rabbi, to 45. We have also cut down on the costs incurred by the synagogue to officiate these events. In addition to growing the number of Lifecycle events on the calendar, we have also increased the number of group B’nai mitzvahs, meaning more B’nai mitzvahs, including the synagogue’s first “quad-nai” mitzvah of four young men becoming Bar Mitzvah at once. The feedback we receive from families who book B’nai mitzvahs with us is also very telling. The new survey data we have put in place has helped us monitor the extremely positive feedback we have received: 100% of our participants have stated that the Bar/Bat Mitzvah was a meaningful experience in our synagogue, and 100% stated they and their families felt welcome. We also received important feedback as how to improve our outlines, our meeting schedules, and access to vendor lists, creating a more streamlined approach to the B’nai mitzvah system. Word of mouth continues to be the #1 marketing component for our destination lifecycle events, and with positive results like the ones we have received, we can look forward to more bookings. This is already evident in that we currently have 29 Lifecycle events booked for my successor, Rabbi Feshbach, during the next contract year.
While our individual membership has remained rather constant, and we have lost a few families due to relocation, we should be proud to see that we have tripled the membership of those under 35. This is in line with the plan we set in place two years ago, to empower younger members to join and become leaders in the congregation. It is a welcome accomplishment.
New Chai membership revenue has also grown significantly, from almost $3,000 last year to $5,500 this year, a 54% increase. Lifetime Chai membership also continues to grow at a rate of 1% per fiscal year.
As for programming, the Twilight Zone Torah Study monthly event has been, consistently, the highest attended Torah study event of my tenure. It has also been extremely rewarding with the deep and beautiful conversations that emerge. Our Hebrew class, which has been open to our congregants and the community at the University of the Virgin Islands, continues to be a success, with our students moving from basics of the Alef Bet to now being able to speak whole sentences in Modern Hebrew. New programming has been flourishing, as well, with innovative ideas such as Cigars in the Sukkah, Wine tastings, and an extremely well attended Rock Shabbat Purim service. Additionally, we are honored to have had such an amazing array of dynamic speakers over this past year including Reverend Odell Cleveland and Maggie Anton. This is a continuation of our strategy to bring more awareness of our synagogue to the larger Jewish community and secular world, and we are proud to add their names to the list of speakers during my tenure, including Dr. Michael Cook, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Rabbi Andrew Paley, and, of course, Alice Hoffman.
Our outreach to hotels, cruise ships, and local vendors has increased significantly, bringing more tourists to our doorstep, and more traffic into our gift shop. Outreach to the local community has increased as well due to the formation of an Interfaith Council with the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas at the helm, a weekly podcast discussing our events, and guest teaching opportunities at the Montessori School and All Saints. We also spread awareness when we partnered with the Montessori School and Weizmann Institute, allowing me to travel with students and teachers from local schools, with the opportunity to teach them about Judaism and the relationship between Israel and the diaspora community here in St. Thomas.
Most notably, we must recognize that all of these improvements and accomplishments could not have been done without the incredible new staff team here in our office. With the addition of Brenda, Agi, and Judee, as well as the reformulation of the office system for existing employees, our office has become a well-oiled, highly productive machine. Agi’s work in our gift shop can been seen simply be entering it– the organization, the pleasantness, the relationships she builds with the customers is absolutely stellar. More than that, she has worked hard to determine which products sell, and which do not, increasing the former and reducing the latter, and exploring new products and offers to provide to our guests.
Brenda has kept a strong and confident hold on our financial management, inputting her experience and her own systems in place to streamline our work, and make things more accessible to all. We are grateful to the invaluable determination Brenda has brought to our office, transforming so many aspects that were previously complicated into ones that are easy to understand and productive.
Additionally, not a lifecycle event goes by without the family commenting on how wonderful Stella has been to work with, and being in the office, we all can see how much work she puts into organizing, planning, and executing each lifecycle event as if it was for her own family member. Her dedication and commitment is what helps to bring the best reviews, the most revenue, and a memorable experience to everyone. This is to say nothing of the work that Stella took on for the auction. Stella took on an incredible amount of responsibility, doing the tasks of multiple people, and succeeded in bringing in over $80,000 in her first year as head of this fundraiser.
Our full-time docent, Judee, each day brings passion and love to our sacred space, creating lifelong bonds for our visitors, painting the historic picture of our story, and helping to add more revenue to our gift shop by pointing visitors in Agi’s direction. Judee’s devotion to her work and our synagogue is palpable.
We must all, of course, give homage to the man who provides so much for us behind the scenes, our maintenance man, and do-everything man, Michael, who continues to come in every day, working hard at many new tasks, keeping our synagogue clean and in working order, and going the extra mile to help those in need. And finally, Brooke, who helps whenever and wherever she is needed.
All in all, this has been an exciting and productive year in the office of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, and all present should rest easy knowing that this staff is at the helm. We are currently working hard to make sure the transition to the new rabbi will be as easy and seamless as possible, with all members of the staff taking on tasks and dividing jobs so that Rabbi Feshbach can hit the ground running. As this is my last annual meeting at the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, I just want to briefly thank you all for the opportunities you have provided to me over these last two years, allowing for experimentation and change, all of which have, as planned, born the fruits of success. It has been an honor to serve you, and to serve the Jewish people of St. Thomas.
I speak for both myself and Barrie when I say that so many of you have touched our lives in meaningful, wonderful ways, and you will occupy a place in our hearts for years to come. Thank you.