Jewish Journal

Synagogues re-group as economic downturn challenges building campaigns

by Brad A. Greenberg

November 19, 2008 | 2:05 am

After a chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling last month, the main sanctuary at historic Wilshire Boulevard Temple was closed

Julie Miller walked a fine line when she delivered her annual president's message to the congregation of Wilshire Boulevard Temple on Erev Rosh Hashanah.

She focused on the history of the illustrious synagogue, talking about the century of influence and communal relevance that has stemmed from visionary leaders, about the temple's present state and about plans to revitalize the historic Magnin campus in Koreatown in hopes of expanding programs for Jews returning to the city's historic core.

Despite the fact that the building campaign clearly needs much more -- tens of millions of dollars more -- than the $71 million Miller said had been raised in cash and pledges, she didn't ask congregants to get out their checkbooks.

"When you are raising money, you go through two phases: You plant the seeds, and you reap them. Right now we are just planting," Miller said in an interview. "With people so freaked out about money, it just feels wrong. So we are just building, building on relationships. That way they'll feel better about donating when they can."

The economic downturn has been bad for just about everybody. The Dow Jones is down by about 40 percent from its peak in October 2007 and is acting more erratic than usual -- vacillating up or down by 5 percent on any day for more than a month, leaving everyone, even Los Angeles' wealthiest, watching helplessly as stop-losses fail to stop the bleeding.

And for a handful of L.A. synagogues, the timing has been particularly poor.

Building campaigns that began in the go-go years are now running up against fears among donors -- some rational, others irrational -- about what the future holds for the U.S. economy and what it's going to mean for their own pocketbooks.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which a decade ago spent $30 million to build its Irmas Campus in West L.A., is now focused on its historic home to the east -- hoping to raise upwards of $100 million to restore its sanctuary -- a national historic landmark -- and reinvent the campus with a Hebrew school, parking structure and community center.

Just a few miles northwest, Temple Israel of Hollywood set itself a target of $30 million to $35 million for its campus expansion and to date has raised $15 million. And Temple Judea in Tarzana has received commitments and cash for about half of the $21 million needed to add a sanctuary, social hall, classrooms and parking.

And those are just a few of the projects -- in the Reform movement.

Each of these campaigns now face a severe economic climate that is also straining social service agencies to the brink and, in some cases, leaving congregants without employment or a stable living situation.

Yet these endeavors are not about just aesthetics or vanity. Wilshire Boulevard, for one, was faced with the decision of restoring and renovating its historic campus or eventually abandoning it altogether. Temple leaders said they never even considered the question: They would, as their predecessors had done, improve the campus and secure a continued Jewish presence along the Wilshire corridor for future generations. But while fundraising, which began quietly last year, continued, the 79-year-old sanctuary was voluntarily closed indefinitely last month after a foot-long chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling 60 feet above; previously scheduled services have been moved to the campus' Piness Auditorium.

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