I know I have written about moving and downsizing. When we bought our house more than 31 years ago, who knew that the roof would need to be replaced, that we would need a new boiler, and install French drains and a sump pump. Let alone keep up with normal upkeep like painting inside and out, refinishing the floors – the list is endless!
I had a call recently from Joe who is from a small synagogue in the Midwest. In its heyday, the synagogue had a student rabbi and then a rabbi. There were a couple of hundred people at the High Holy Days. Today, they just make a Minyan at Shabbat Worship. And there are just 8 to 10 active volunteers to oversee the business of synagogue life. The building is in need of $20,000 worth of repairs.
There is also good news. In the past few months, there have been 10 inquiries from people asking about the schedule of Shabbat Worship. The state university just bought the local hospital with the intention of making it a teaching hospital. There is a local community college that also seems to be thriving.
Joe’s thinking was that the repairs and upkeep of the synagogue are necessary to be attractive and welcoming to seekers. With the demographic shift, maybe holding on to a building is actually shortsighted. I offered a suggestion that the synagogue leaders consider selling the building and hire a rabbi or student rabbi who will not only be a spiritual leader, but also a community organizer for unaffiliated Jews living in the surrounding communities.
The bean counter in all of us know that it takes a certain number of members to make having a full time rabbi, or even a student rabbi, a break even endeavor. Having a substantial endowment also helps. The funds from the sale of the building will eventually run out, and you don’t know if it will be before the break even point with increasing membership.
Exploring partnerships with local colleges and universities is one avenue worth consideration. Whether it be an arrangement where the rabbi teaches Hebrew and other Judaic Studies courses at the local college and/or also serves as the Hillel advisor is something worth exploring. In a similar vein, reaching out to the local hospital about a partnership with its Chaplaincy program – especially with a teaching hospital – is certainly something I would pursue.
Now Joe might not have liked my advice. Since I sent the email to him last week with suggestions about partnerships and selling the building to use the funds to hire a rabbi or student rabbi, I have not heard back from him. And that is okay. Looking forward to the synagogue’s future with inquiries about worship as well as the possibility of new people moving to the area with growth in health care and related industries is exciting for any synagogue’s leadership.
And it beats having the discussion about what to do with the synagogue, its cemetery and all of its religious objects when the membership continues to dwindle year after year.