jcover 8.07.09
jcover 8.07.09

Tightening the belt: Synagogues feel the pain of the recession

With a Ph.D. in economics, business owner Martha Amram makes a living “trying to read the tea leaves” of the U.S. economy.

Last fall, she needed neither a doctorate nor tea leaves to know Congregation Kol Emeth had been hurt by the recession.

“At every income level, people were feeling the pain,” recalls Amram, who serves as the Palo Alto synagogue’s president. “We were hearing of trouble from people being underemployed or a spouse losing a job. In October we said, ‘This really doesn’t look good,’ and we realized we had to act.”

Amram and her colleagues didn’t hesitate to take steps to bolster the synagogue’s financial health. From trimming office supplies to trimming staff hours, Kol Emeth has gone heavy on the lean, while trying to minimize the mean.

Martha Amram

Since the economy slipped into what is now the longest-lasting recession in decades, Bay Area synagogues have reported declines in income. Like Kol Emeth, all have felt the ripple effects of an economy in trouble.

Rabbi Stacy Offner, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism (the congregational arm of 900 Reform synagogues in North America) says the past year has been difficult for URJ member synagogues “across the board.”

“Every single congregation has been impacted to different degrees,” Offner says. “Congregations that have rainy day funds are using them, because it’s raining.”

Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Northern California’s largest synagogue, San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, minces no words when describing the impact on his community.

“We have a significant number of members who are out of work, out of money, out of food and in some cases with no place to live,” he says. “They can pay no dues, no religious school tuition, and we carry them all. We don’t turn anyone away.”

While that may inscribe Emanu-El in the Book of Life, in the Book of Balance Sheets it can cause the red ink to flow.

Over the last two years, Emanu-El has slashed its $11 million budget by 20 percent, yet is still running at a deficit. Pearce reports a temple-wide moratorium on new programming, other than what he calls the three pillars of faith: worship, community and social justice/education.

The synagogue also dropped 300 members who had signed up for a no-dues introductory year, but who had failed to follow up with a financial commitment. Some part-time staffers have been laid off, though Pearce says there has been no decreased level of service.

In fact, after Emanu-El replaced its lavish Shabbat onegs with a challah-and-wine-only affair, one wealthy congregant wrote the synagogue a five-figure check practically on the spot.

Rabbi Micah Hyman

Recalls Pearce, “He said, ‘What about the people who come here to eat?’ It was embarrassing to not be able to welcome people properly to our spiritual home.”

Across town at Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom, Rabbi Micah Hyman has overseen budget cuts, including salary reductions for most staffers — the rabbi included — and a few layoffs. Like Pearce he, too, has seen hunger within the community.

“Everyone’s had to do more on less,” Hyman says. “That forces us to make sure that each program we do serves the fullest needs of the community. Now is not the time to bring in an experimental jazz quartet or have a sacred space symposium. Those kinds of things have to be delayed.”

At Kol Emeth, reducing staff hours by 20 percent resulted in a 7 percent overall budget savings, according to Amram. Consolidating staff positions and aggressive fundraising before the worst of the recession hit helped pad the bottom line.

The Palo Alto synagogue ended its fiscal year with a surplus that should immunize it from a deficit next year. “The two things that worked for us were early cuts and early fundraising,” Amram says. “It would be very hard to raise that amount of money now.”

Rabbi Judy Shanks of Temple Isaiah, a large Reform congregation in Lafayette, similarly reports plenty of pain in the temple membership.

“We felt tremendous impact from the recession,” Shanks notes. “Mainly in the form of members who lost jobs and insurance, or are in danger of losing their homes. Our main efforts have been to make sure we use our funds to help in emergencies, making sure people don’t lose certain things.”

She says congregants who avoided any financial hits have “stepped up to the plate,” increasing their contributions to the synagogue’s coffers and making up any shortfall. “That’s the only way to weather these times,” Shanks says.

Earlier this year the URJ reported it was $2.7 million behind on its collections, and was expecting to drop further as the year progressed. That’s when the organization decided to adopt a three-year dues reduction plan for its member congregations — 5 percent for the last fiscal year, 20 percent for the current fiscal year and 10 percent next year.

Joanne Backman

In another bit of rainmaking, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation has launched the first phase of a synagogue-strengthening program. Letters went out this week to 22 Bay Area synagogues offering tuition relief for parents of religious school students. Up to $235,000 in federation money will be made available.

“We’ve never been able to provide this level of support for synagogue schools in the past,” says Karen Bluestone, the federation’s chief planning and program officer. “Synagogues are being pushed like never before to subsidize their schools. Nobody seems to be able to afford it anymore.”

While welcome, these savings and subsidies will not close the budget gap when congregants cannot pay their dues.

Some synagogues, especially larger ones, offer a pay-what-you-can dues structure. It’s great for attracting unaffiliated Jews and young families, but not so great for the operating budget when “pay what you can” means taking in far less.

Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills offers what they call “fair share” dues, though 1.5 percent of household income is suggested. Synagogue president Rachel Tasch says this voluntary approach “mirrors our values, that people should pay what they can.” In hard times it can take a toll.

“Our board is very intent on monitoring the [synagogue’s] financial health and ensuring long-term stability,” Tasch says. “We look at financial reports monthly, when in years gone by there was more of a lag. We try to make sure that we’re living within our means.”

These days, that means budget cuts.

Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame announced in its bulletin a forced reduction in custodial staff. On the bright side, a long-anticipated switch to solar panels finally went online in June, with 15 percent savings in power costs anticipated.

Like many synagogues, Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael converted its monthly bulletin, the Voice, to an online-only edition, resulting in a projected $20,000 in annual savings. And Congregation Beth David in Saratoga announced last month it is discontinuing its bulletin indefinitely due to financial constraints.

Rabbi Stephen Pearce

Beth Am also converted its monthly bulletin from print to digital (though Tasch says congregants missed the printed version so much, a new printed two-page highlights version was launched recently). To save more paper, there will be no more handouts at Beth Am lectures, workshops and presentations: PowerPoint only.

Though no layoffs have been necessary, two staff rabbis have left Beth Am in recent months, but only one rabbi has come aboard — Adam Rosenwasser, who will perform the duties of both positions.

And as much as Jews and food go together, Beth Am has a new policy of not providing food at every meeting or event.

Congregation Beth El in Berkeley has taken similar measures, having pared down its budget over the last two years.

Fortunately, says synagogue president Joanne Backman, those cuts have not resulted in a dip in membership. She says the rolls have held steady, “largely because we don’t turn people away. We work with what people can afford to pay. If people want to participate at Beth El, we make it happen.”

One novel approach Beth El has taken to economize: pooling resources with other Berkeley synagogues. For the last few years, Beth El’s Rabbi Yoel Kahn has met regularly with Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom (Conservative) and Rabbi Yonatan Cohen of Congregation Beth Israel (Orthodox).

Not only are the three rabbis now friends, they’re also business partners.

As the High Holy Days draw near, the three synagogues will take out a collective ad in local newspapers, seeking to lure unaffiliated or disaffected Jews. For the price of one High Holy Day ticket, prospective congregants can sample services at any one of the three. “There’s no downside,” Backman says.

Despite the cutbacks, rabbis and administrators report that members have risen to the occasion to help their synagogues and fellow congregants in need.

At Congregation B’nai Israel in Vallejo, members are now doing the groundskeeping work themselves, tending the gardens and repainting walls.

Rachel Tasch

At Emanu-El, a jobs networking program proved so successful it has been replicated by several San Francisco churches, and will be showcased at an Aug. 25 employment workshop sponsored by the S.F. Interfaith Council.

At Temple Isaiah, a similar networking program, called EARN and first launched in the 1990s, has been revitalized. Beth Am also revitalized its Bay Area Professionals Network, a mostly online meeting room for congregants to seek or offer work opportunities.

After Beth Am launched its own jobs networking program, Tasch received an e-mail from one participant that read in part: “I don’t feel alone in my job search.”

Though recent headlines claim the recession might have peaked and recovery begun, other statistics suggest the economy has a long slog ahead. Unemployment remains high, even as the government safety net continues to fray.

No one knows what will happen, or when, but locally the mood appears to be lightening among synagogue members.

“Most people realize now the world is not coming to an end,” Pearce says. “The world will still be here, most people will still have jobs. They are a lot less frightened.”

And when life does return to normal — or to a new normal — the synagogues expect to be standing strong, ready as always to serve the needs of Bay Area Jews.

“We’re here for the long term,” says Beth El’s Backman. “Our community is who we are, and nurturing community is what we do.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.