Jewish Journal

Synagogues re-group as economic downturn challenges building campaigns

by Brad A. Greenberg

Posted on Nov. 19, 2008 at 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.

ALTTEXT "There is no doubt that the sanctuary (photo) has to be renovated. There is no doubt," Miller said. "We're just not ready to start, unfortunately."

Like Miller on Erev Rosh Hashanah, many rabbis and campaign chairs have had to tone down their appeals. While the projects have not been put on hold, many can be expected to move along much more slowly than previously planned.

"This is a very hard time right now. There is a psychological as well as actual roadblock. People are thinking psychologically that they are poor, or less wealthy, so it creates this difficulty for institutions to raise basic capital, as well as operational monies," said Steven Windmueller, dean of the L.A. campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

"The thing most organizations are concerned about is how are they going to get through the next 18 months paying for their infrastructural costs -- salaries, rent, programs," said Windmueller, who in the spring counted 19 synagogues, schools and organizations with building campaigns in Los Angeles. "That's the immediate burden on institutions. The long-term one is on these capital campaigns that were moving along and then get this jolt because the economy is in a tailspin."

David Mersky, a senior lecturer on Jewish philanthropy at Brandeis University, said some of the synagogues he consults are moving forward with their building campaigns, while others have hit the skids.

"Each organization has to make that determination, because for some it is just cosmetic, but for others it is vital to expanding and serving their community," Mersky said. "We have one client right now who is putting their building plans on hold because they said that if they were to go forward with it during these tough economic times, their congregation would think they were nuts."

In general, the rabbis and lay leaders reached by The Journal said they were concerned about the uncertainty of the U.S. economy and were being sensitive to how this would affect their congregants' willingness to contribute, but they also remained optimistic about their ability to raise funds.

"This campaign is not about the money. It is not about the physical structures we are proposing to build. The money is a means to an end and transcends these economic times to some extent," said Jeff Kramer, Temple Israel's development director. "People always are looking for the greater purpose behind what they get involved in, and the purpose here is to get this community through the next 85-plus years."

It was a greater purpose that led Larry Picus to commit more than $50,000 to the building campaign at the San Fernando Valley's oldest Reform synagogue, Temple Beth Hillel.

An education professor at USC, Picus and his wife pledged that money two years ago, during immensely better economic times. Even then they had to dig deep. But the cause justified the cost.

"Most of the people in our temple, like us, aren't fabulously wealthy but have some resource they can commit if they think about it," said Picus, who was asked six months ago to co-chair the campaign. "The amount my wife and I have committed really isn't any different than a car payment. If you set aside a little bit each month, that can add up to a lot. If you don't think about it as one big payment, it is a lot easier.

"There is no question we are asking them to dig a little deep, but it is for something that matters to all of us. It's a place that provides values and stability for our children; it's a place that provides comfort in our times of need; and it's a place where we can celebrate our greatest joys."

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