November 19, 2008
Synagogues re-group as economic downturn challenges building campaigns
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"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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