It Takes a Village: Withstanding the COVID-19 Crisis at Ethical NYC

By August 1, 2021 August 17th, 2021 No Comments

On March 3, 2020, the NYSEC Board of Directors held its monthly meeting. According to the Minutes regarding the President’s Report: “A task force has been established with the charge of researching and advising on the best practices for dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic. Liz has appointed Scotty Embree Chair of the Covid-19 task force.” The Society by nightfall had publicly announced the temporary closing of the building to members, to renters, and to the general public.

Dealing with the Crisis

That was a week before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic and ten days before the U.S. declared COVID-19 a national emergency. Scotty, herself a PhD, proposed creating a task force of Society members who had medical expertise— Bonnie Bean, MSW; Chuck Debrovner, MD; Jim Farer, DDS; Kathleen O’Connell, PhD Nursing; Carol Portlock, MD; and Jesús Torres-Velasquez, PhD Biology—to guide the trustees and staff in their considerations. Within a day and ever since, the task force was in action researching, reviewing, and issuing guidelines for the Society to follow as staff returned to the building and later, when renters and the school resumed limited activities, keeping the place running and making it safe for all. No small task! The guidelines, continuously refined, were shared with other Ethical Societies. Supporting Scotty’s cadre, the Personnel Committee—led by co-chairs Bill Baker and Steve Serling—organized the COVID-19 Staff Implementation Team, which met weekly to figure out how to put the guidelines into action. There were so many protocols regarding ventilation, cleaning, and access, plus the impetus to meet the distinct needs of the various building users and renters. The Implementation Team, with the help of the Board’s Executive Committee and advisors, ensured operations were organized and coordinated.

NYSEC’s administrative staff saw to it that we stayed on track. The work held many challenges that they scrambled to meet with nary a bump in the road. Most of our administrative staff easily adapted to an all-remote work model. Bookkeeper Yolanta Kosmaczewska, who has a much more difficult workstation to transfer remotely, came daily, riding the nearly-empty trains, to continue paying staff, vendors, and bills; record budgetary changes introduced by Covid-related purchases; and keep accurate accounts for every dime that flows in and out of the Society. (As always, Yolanta also cared for the Society’s many plants.)

Facilities Manager Leonardo Gibson instituted new procedures with his crew to maintain a clean and safe building, showing up to shovel snow and salt iced sidewalks, adjusting maintenance priorities to address Covid-sensitive issues, and working with vendors and contractors. They helped Ethical Fieldston reopen safely. (The school held daily classes in the Adler Study and Elliott Library as well as other spaces in our building.)

Membership Coordinator Maggie Determann began compiling and sending daily Ethical Inspirations. These soon became something many of us looked forward to every day. Maggie communicated with the membership extensively, keeping our Ethical family informed and engaged, and continues to be a vital player in developing our reopening plans.

Executive Director Bob Liebeskind probably holds the staff record for participating in the most Zoom meetings during this time, using them to keep ongoing communication between the Board, committees, staff, the Ethical Culture school, vendors, and more.

Office Manager Yalitza Garcia-Krawczyk worked closely with various committees and assumed new responsibilities exclusive to Covid regulations, such as managing a tracking registry for visitors and renters. Yalitza continued designing new banners with important messages about issues prioritized by our Ethical community, and later resumed her production and layout work on Outlook.

Communications Coordinator Ed Beck must have cloned himself. He coordinated the swift transition to remote access for staff, got us all Zooming almost immediately, and co-hosted every meeting and program until some of us learned to do it ourselves. Ed became a one-man tech center—adjusting the computerized functions, coordinating the audio and visual, and accomplishing a dozen other vital tasks. As Steve put it, “From Zoom meetings to Sunday Platforms that are now hybrid, Ed did it all.”

Getting Ahead of the Game

Our devoted committees developed a new level of efficiency via virtual meetings. The work inside the building and throughout the community didn’t stop. Rather, it grew in new ways!

Capitalizing on the empty-building time, the Building Committee—cochaired by Bill B. and Howard Rose—enlisted our invaluable maintenance crew to tend to important repairs that enhanced the place beautifully. Some changes will be obvious when you return, starting with our new Ethical Culture flag at the main entrance and the signage over and plaque beside the newly named Adler Hall. There are also new plaques at the entries to the Adler Study and the Elliott Library, plus a sign and plaque for the Algernon Black Ceremonial Hall, thanks to the work of our Branding, Signage & Décor Subcommittee.

The Finance (Joe Fashing, chair) and Rentals (Jim Farer, chair) committees expended enormous effort. Our budget is mainly determined by rentals, so it’s vital that the building is appealing to potential renters—not just the surface appearance, but all the workings behind the scenes, like the pipes, the heating and air-conditioning systems, and so much more. Much appreciation is owed to Leo and his crew, Anwar Bramble, Mark Henry, and Curtis Redding, for tending to the Meeting House and preparing for a safe reopening. Meanwhile, new expenses were incurred with structural improvements and Covid-related purchases that ranged from hundreds of disposable masks and gloves to new ventilation and sanitizing equipment, plus a costly new air-conditioning system

For more than a year the Caring Committee (co-chairs Bob Berger and Beth Everett) hosted a daily Zoom “Living Room,” enabling members and nonmembers to just drop in when they felt the need or desire. Bob B. tells us, “In this time of social isolation, members and nonmembers came and shared the sense that others were in the same position they were. Our committee also made biweekly calls to members and staff that were greatly appreciated.”

Meanwhile, the Communications Committee helped devise the pandemic signs, had input to the website content (for example, in the Member’s Section, see the “How to” video about Colloquy with Ellen McBride interviewing Arthur Dobrin, and the growing collection of “Getting to Know You” videos), scheduled our banners, oversaw programs, and published a new digital version of Outlook—a collaboration between Ed and myself until Yalitza resumed as Production Manager.

After this experience, I, along with so many, treasure our Ethical Culture family more than ever.

The Membership Committee was able to hold New Attendee Receptions and even reported new members joining! Now they’re busily planning special social and fun events, starting with an “It Takes a Village—an Ethical Village” celebration. Their Fund Development Subcommittee helps see to it that we can continue to fund all that makes us a family—the programs and parties, luncheons and speakers, awards and receptions. For more than a year there has been no income from programs—they have all been free online. And there certainly was no pledge party, but what was truly inspiring was how many members gave more and pledged earlier, recognizing the impact of this severe revenue loss. We have a $150,000 goal for the year, and, eight months in, we’re only halfway there, so keep those pledges coming!

Carrying On!

Kept alive also was our mission of helping to make this world a better place—of thinking and acting beyond ourselves, and into our local and national community. The Ethical Action Committee, together with the 4th U, co-sponsored a “Calling In” workshop with Standing Up for Social Justice (SURJ), and a book discussion of Caste. On a national level, Janet Rose and Carol Van Deusen spearheaded our participation in the Reclaim Our Vote campaign and, with the support of the AEU, got many other Ethical Societies across the country involved right up to the presidential election.

The committee and member volunteers, with Janet at the helm, participated in the Reclaim Our Vote (ROV) post-carding campaign to support the passage of the For the People Act (sadly not even considered by the Senate) and participated in two call relays with 4th U to address “Less is More” legislation on behalf of parolees and “Invest in Our New York,” which addressed the state budget—both of which passed.

And the Roses created their Food Insecurity Initiative, organizing collections of donations of food and other items that they picked up and delivered to food banks and shelters. A number of our members organized collections in their buildings. Donors were grateful for the opportunity to contribute and feel useful in this time of need.

The Sunday Programs Committee, cochaired by Monica Weiss and Barbara Carlsen, kept a full roster of engaging Platform speakers. Monica is particularly grateful to the presiders, “who stepped in for the whole year to provide continuity and a sense of connection and community: Barbara, Kathleen O., Steve, and Sarah Sprott, along with Leader Richard Koral and Maggie. They had a particularly important role in creating a real sense of community, helping members and guests feel a connection to Ethical Culture through their warmth and personal reflections. They reflected back our struggles, our frustrations, and our hopes, and provided something constant and safe and welcoming as we navigated a year of distance and technology.”

Monica also thanks Music Director David Gracia “for jumping through hoops at times to provide beautiful, thematic music selections, invite guest performers, and pre-record musical segments to continue amplifying the spoken message with various styles and genres of music.” She highlights “the recognition due to Maggie for all of her work to make sure the speakers were prepared to actually appear each Sunday, and Ed for facilitating many technology issues that required attention and expertise—the expected, and especially the unexpected ones—all tended to with patience and good nature.”

Enormous appreciation goes to Audrey Kindred, our wondrous Youth and Family Programs Coordinator. She didn’t miss a beat! Ever resourceful, Audrey kept our Young Ethical Explorers busy and engaged with Zoom and in-person programs on of Deepali Srivastava. On top of that, she collaborated with Judy Tate of the American Slavery Project (ASP) to develop the “Social & Racial Justice Scholars” series. (Judy also brought us Zoom performances of ASP’s Reverberation Plays.)

Sunday Platforms and programs are the lifeblood of the Society. Although Covid forced several programs to halt, Pat Debrovner and her team rallied, by spring presenting Zoomed Ethics and the Theater play-readings. (This month they’re back live! See Sundays at Ethical, August 29, p. 7.)

From all corners of the Society members showed dedication, foresight, enthusiasm, energy, responsiveness, and resourcefulness. Almost immediately, Frank Corigliano and Carol P. arranged to keep us informed with “Managing in the Time of Covid,” and Larry Hurst gave us calm when we needed it most with a new Meditation program, and he and I collaborated to invite pairs of members to dialogue in “Getting to Know You.” Doris Hart, a folktale devotee of many years, instituted the “Storytelling Circle.” Joe Fashing kept “Ethics in the News” going. Gunther Tielemans didn’t miss a “Great Literature Discussion.” Bob Berger, who facilitates our Colloquies, elicited moderators. Janet and Howard kept the “Roundtable” going.

Leaders Joe Chuman and Richard K. continued their programs, “Camaraderie and Good Conversation” and “Exploring Ethical Humanism,” and developed an excellent five-part series, “Pathways to Ethical Culture” (watch the video recordings on our website). Richard’s Community Circles stayed the course. Sy Amkraut jumped in with “Debating the Issues of the Day.” I kept the “Poetry Circle” on track. Sandi Sacks developed one, then another, and now her stimulating “Thought Salon.” As soon as weather and vaccinations permitted, our Ethical Adventures’ Easy Walkers team, Bob Bumcrot and Howard, had us out, in Central Park, along the Hudson, and this month to Little Island (see p.3). Oh, how special and welcome those in-person outings were!

Leader Richard K. worked overtime, participating in most committee meetings, lending his legal advice in many instances, and being there for members in his pastoral role. Leader Joe C. kept us in the news, welcomed as a contributor to Washington D.C.’s The Hill. Richard and Dick Van Deusen joined other interfaith organizations to work on the planning committee and have NYSEC sponsor a Mayoral Forum. (For a full listing of all the Society committees and members, visit our website.)

Moving Forward

All these efforts brought us a wider audience, more participation, and new connections with members of Societies across the country. NYSEC members who couldn’t have physically attended even if we were open and in-person were able to happily join us. Many newcomers discovered us and became regular program attendees. We plan to continue offering some programs in the hybrid format for our growing Ethical community

Always guiding the ship, navigating its waters, was our stalwart, apparently tireless President, Liz. We all saw Liz regularly at our Sunday Platforms, welcoming us, updating us on various goings-on, and keeping our spirits up. Behind the scenes, many of us were aware of her day-to-day (often excruciatingly long and arduous days), as she coordinated just about every aspect of operations and programming. Liz met with every committee. It wasn’t just a matter of seeing to it that things got done. There was the encouragement, empathy, and just the “being there” for all of us that was so vital, and Liz was there for us all the way.

Oh yes, it takes a village. And what a village! We rose to the challenge together. I’m so grateful and proud to be part of the New York Society for Ethical Culture village! Let’s celebrate. Join us in the building for Sunday Platforms. Check our events calendar for live activities and programs beginning in September—and, most especially, to meet and welcome our new Acting Leader, Dr. Nori Rost for her first official Sunday Platform on September 12!

After this experience, I, along with so many, treasure our Ethical Culture family more than ever. However invaluable it’s been to have had Zoom, we’re all thrilled at the prospect of being together in-person again at the Society. See you soon!

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