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December 12, 2002

Severe Financial Crisis Hits Metivta

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community_briefs/article/severe_financial_crisis_hits_metivta_20021213

Metivta, A Center for Contemplative Judaism, went into emergency survival mode late last month after the board discovered the organization was out of funds.

"The board is looking intensely at our budget and trying to pare down costs to the absolute minimum to give us a chance to survive for the next couple of months, while our board and community determine what is Metivta's future, where we will go and what is our restated mission," said Lyle Poncher, Metivta board chairman.

Metivta is an organization dedicated to seeking spirituality in the Jewish tradition through meditation, text study and spiritual practices.

With no funds to pay its staff, the board dismissed Rabbi Rami Shapiro, president and rabbinic head of the organization, who took over a year ago after the retirement of Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, Metivta's founder. Judy Gordon, the executive director who was hired two years ago, was also let go. Currently, a volunteer staffs the office.

"I think the Metivta board is handling this very maturely," said Shapiro, who plans to continue with freelance writing, lecturing and retreats. "The action that was necessary may look sudden, but it wasn't. It was simply the bold response of the board taking its responsibility for Metivta's survival seriously."

While Metivta regroups and tries to determine its future, it continues to operate with emergency contributions from board members. Some of Metivta's ongoing classes and monthly Shabbat services are continuing, led by lay members.

The Spirituality Institute, a national one-year program for rabbis, cantors and lay leaders, has been placed under the umbrella of the Shefa Fund in Philadelphia, which will serve as the administrator until the program can achieve full independence.

Poncher said the board had been aware since September that Metivta was in severe financial straits, but it wasn't clear how bad the situation was until a few weeks ago, when it became apparent that Metivta was insolvent.

"Our income did not remotely equal our expenses, and as soon as our board realized that, we stopped," Poncher said. "As soon as we became aware that this was the situation, we put an immediate hold on all operations."

Metivta's 2001 budget was approximately $650,000, with income coming from grants, membership fees and donations.

In the last two years, Metivta has grown. It went from employing Omer-Man and an office manager to hiring Shapiro, Gordon, a bookkeeper, rabbinic intern and Rabbi Nancy Flam, who directed the Spirituality Institute. The institute supported itself through grants and tuition. The growth was intended to give Metivta a more national reach with institutes and retreats in different regions.

"Everyone hoped -- the board, the community, Rami and Jonathan -- we all hoped that this would allow Metivta to maintain its health at the local level and also to continue to grow its national programs," said Merryl Weber, a longtime board member.

Poncher said Shapiro, a lecturer and author with a national reputation in the Jewish spirituality realm, "had some wonderful ideas for programming that were very well-developed, but we were unable to find the support for them. Meanwhile we continued having to pay all of our overhead, and that drove us over the edge."

Board members are being very careful in assessing the situation. The professional staff had the responsibility for overseeing the budget.

The board has appointed two accountants from within the Metivta community to analyze the books and an organizational consultant to determine if or where the structure and chain of communication broke down. Among the items being looked at is whether grant money intended for the Spirituality Institute went to operating expenses.

Poncher said he has been in close contact with the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Goldman Foundation and the Righteous Persons Foundation, all of which were major contributors to Metivta.

He said the board is trying to be as open as possible with the Metivta and the greater Los Angeles community in handling the crisis and will reveal whatever the analysis turns up.

"In contemplative practice, it is important that whatever you say comes from the deepest, most honest part of you," Poncher said. "You try to interpret text and relate to fellow students and friends with absolute integrity, knowing at the same time you are human.... In this crisis, by and large, the board and community have exhibited tremendous integrity."

Omer-Man, who remains in retirement in Berkeley, has stepped back in to be a spiritual shepherd to his community during this crisis.

The challenge for his community, he said, will be to "look at the positive in people with whom you might be in conflict, to avoid lashon hara [gossip] and at the same time, to name the things that have to be named."

Omer-Man began teaching Jewish spirituality in Los Angeles approximately 20 years ago, soon after Hillel brought him from Israel to work with Jewish students who were in cults. He perceived the yearning for contemplative spirituality and worked to help students find it in Jewish tradition.

In 1991, he founded Metivta under Hillel's auspices, and approximately five years ago, Metivta became independent. At the same time, Omer-Man started the Spirituality Institute.

His mission was largely successful, in that meditation and spiritual practice have become more mainstream than when he started Metivta 20 years ago, according to participants.

Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel called her participation in the Spirituality Institute a "remarkable experience.... Metivta has been an incredibly important resource to the Jewish community."

For several years, Emanuel hosted a Metivta Shabbat meditation minyan once a month.

"The fact that Metivta exists has made a difference in many worship services at major congregations, including mine," Geller said. The meditation minyan "and the style of prayer at the service influenced other services at Temple Emanuel to be open to silence and meditation as part of regular prayer."

Poncher said that meditation and silence is helping the community through this disappointing and difficult period.

"Meditation isn't about avoiding the world, it's about seeing the world and yourself more clearly," Poncher said. "This is a very painful opportunity to do that."

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