Spiraling energy costs rattle Jewish groups

Palo Alto's Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center forked over $17,000 for utilities in January, up from $15,500 a month earlier.

At San Francisco's Reform Congregation Emanu-El, utility bills are up 20 percent from two years ago, reaching $10,000 a month.

And the tab for the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services' 18 area offices tops $100,000 monthly. Anita Friedman, the agency's executive director, fully anticipates at least a 30 percent hike in the near future.

With energy experts predicting the worst is yet to come, those who run Jewish institutions are concerned energy bills could soar out of sight.

"That's a crisis we're aware of and thinking about," said Suzanne Sloane, administrator at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville. The senior living facility's average bill for the past three months has averaged upward of $20,000, from $16,000 at this time last year. "But we just don't have a solution for it right now."

While many Bay Area Jewish organizations foresaw a surge in energy rates, and budgeted an additional 10, 15 or even 20 percent toward the problem, no one — and certainly no nonprofit organization — could anticipate the possibility of a far larger rate hike, let alone put that much money aside.

A huge rate hike "would put us into a real hardship situation," said Ani Varro, the ALSJCC's chief financial officer. "Being a nonprofit agency, there's not many places I can turn to. We would need to solve it internally. There is no other way."

In order to combat rising utility rates, each organization contacted by the Bulletin has adopted some form of conservation technique, ranging from turning off lights and turning down thermostats to installing energy-efficient lighting and motion detectors.

If those measures prove insufficient to lower bills to an acceptable level, however, organization leaders reluctantly ponder cutting back staff hours, shutting down buildings several days of the week, cutting back program offerings, raising membership dues or launching fund-raisers.

Administrator Lea Salem of San Francisco's Reform Congregation Sha'ar Zahav points out, however, that "people usually would rather their money went toward something a little more tangible; donors are not into giving money to pay for the heat."

In light of the crisis, some organizations might be forced to run at a deficit, or even start spending next year's money.

The moderate rate increases experienced by Bay Area residents to this point have already tested the area's Jewish organizations, creating what Ed Cushman, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's assistant executive director, calls "a double-whammy."

"Not only do we have to deal with it internally," said Cushman, who is also the JCF's campaign director, "but all the agencies we fund look to us for support."

Similarly, strapped congregations would have a hard time raising membership dues for equally strapped congregants. Moreover, area JCCs — which cater to many elderly patrons living on fixed incomes — are also in a bind.

"We serve a fair number of seniors, which means we have to keep spaces they use warm and comfortable," said Joel Bashevkin, executive director of the Berkeley Richmond JCC. "Some of them are coming to us to get warm rather than heat their own houses."

Smaller Jewish organizations such as the BRJCC, which pays roughly $2,000 a month in heating bills, are feeling the pinch as acutely as larger facilities. While the BRJCC has reduced its energy consumption by 25 percent, its bills are the same as last year's.

The rate hikes are galling to both large and small Jewish organizations, which see their utility bills as ever-expanding financial black holes, sucking much-needed funds away from worthwhile programs.

"All nonprofit institutions have to be careful about how they manage their finances," said Gary Cohn, Emanu-El's executive director "The balance between fixed costs of overhead and program costs run a very fine line. Nobody wants to decrease program offerings at the expense of overhead."

In fact, many Jewish organizations committed to long-term economic obligations years ago, and are now experiencing a financial drain from a completely unanticipated direction.

"For a congregation struggling to settle into a new building and keep up costs at a higher operating level than two years ago, this is certainly not an expense we could have foreseen or budgeted for," said Salem of Sha'ar Zahav, which moved into a new, 9,000-square foot building two years ago. "This comes at an extremely unwelcome time."

While the crisis of runaway price hikes and finite budgets has caught the eye of budget managers at Jewish organization throughout the state, the problem of rolling blackouts is also a concern, especially among organizations serving children and seniors.

Esther Rubin, the ALSJCC's director of early childhood development, learned the hard way about state regulations regarding blackouts.

Smack dab in the middle of the state licensing department's yearly unannounced visit to the JCC's day-care center last month, the Palo Alto neighborhood was suddenly hit by an equally unannounced rolling blackout.

In fact, the only light left shining was the state official's battery-powered laptop computer screen.

California law dictates that if the power is out for more than an hour, day-care operators must call parents and have them take their children home.

Just one snag — the blackout knocked out the phone system, too.

"We do have our cell phones," said Rubin. "So we started going through the files and making calls."

A major headache was averted when the lights popped back on after slightly more than an hour.

Within the Bay Area's several senior housing facilities, however, a blackout could hold life-and-death consequences.

"When power failures happen here, it's critical, because every single fire door closes. If an elderly resident is walking in the hallway and it closes on him, it could be a fatal injury," said Ray Boudewyn, director of plant operations and environmental services at the Jewish Home. "We've been hit once; it lasted 50 minutes, but we were notified prior to the outage. That's much appreciated. We're big customers and PG&E treats us that way."

As mandated by state law, local senior housing facilities are armed to the teeth with contingency power-generation plans. The Jewish Home's medical and gas systems are wired to run through power outages, cables of emergency lighting are strung throughout the facility, and stockpiles of portable flashlights and propane lanterns are on every floor.

Most importantly, the facilities are equipped with electric generators. The home features three backup generators and 8,000 gallons of diesel fuel, enough to run for several days straight. The generators kick in within four seconds after regular power has been lost.

Reutlinger also has a backup generator, and Sloane said state law requires residence facilities to test theirs every two weeks — which, in normal circumstances, is about the only time a generator is utilized.

Yet if blackouts become the norm, Boudewyn worries that the facility's power-generation abilities will be strained.

"I would rather see the generators for emergency use, not something that becomes a constant," he said. "If the need becomes frequent, that's not what they were designed for. Not only do they cause air pollution but noise pollution to the neighborhood. With rotating blackouts, if that becomes the regular course, this is something the neighborhood could definitely have concerns about."

If there is a silver lining in this dark cloud, it may be the enforcement of conservationist measures that many say should have been undertaking all along.

"For years we've been saying turn off the lights and conserve, but now here's a real, pragmatic reason. We can use it as a teachable moment," said Rabbi Henry Shreibman, head of school at Brandeis Hillel Day School, which has campuses in San Francisco and San Rafael. "We have to teach our children the interplay between Jewish ethics and concern for nature, and extrapolate that to the environment and the crisis in energy."

Waxing optimistic, Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad of Berkeley said, "Everything looks more romantic by candlelight."

Then he added, "This is a Jewish thing. It's a concept within the Torah to conserve energy. One should not cut down fruit-bearing trees.

"We promise to do our part to relieve the power shortage every Friday night to Saturday night by lighting only candles to illuminate our table."

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.