It’s Just a Building

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.

Posted in News
6 comments on “It’s Just a Building
  1. Elizabeth Mandel says:

    How short sided. If a house of worship has no greater meaning than its financial value we are all doomed toward extinction. It may be only a building on asset sheets but also may be and offer in the future some place to “park” ones heart with our ancestors who came before and have their all to build. A far better plan is to look at the spiritual and lay leadership and their responsibility to move forward…not in an easy fight but with the cost to their ancestors squarely on their shoulders.

    • admin says:

      Elizabeth,

      Apologies for not responding sooner. Your email just showed up in my inbox.

      Too often, faith communities – synagogues and churches – become financially strapped because of their buildings. There are synagogues that were built in the 1960s and 1970s for a community of more than 1000 families whose main sanctuary is only used on the High Holy Days because the membership is now less than 700. This is particularly true for smaller synagogues that have a dwindling membership. If the synagogue rents space from another house of worship, or even meets in someone’s home, that feeling of community you are talking about continues.

      Thanks again for writing. I really appreciate it.

      Best,

      David

  2. Deena says:

    Are there any examples of where selling a building enabled a congregation to thrive because of reallocation of resources?

    • admin says:

      Deena,

      Thanks for writing. My apologies for taking so long to respond. Your email just popped up in my inbox.

      I am going to do some research and get back to you shortly.

      Thanks again.

      Best,

      David

  3. Nick says:

    Personally I would take the building over the rabbi. I think the idea of the “temple rabbi” at least within liberal Jewish denominations is mainly driven by “goy envy”. The members look around and see every church has a priest/pastor , every mosque has an imam, so shouldn’t our temple have a rabbi? For a small community its probably an unnecessary expense. It’s not just salary which can be quite high but you have to pay taxes and benefits too! Finding a rabbi can be very difficult and if they are coming from outside the community there is a good chance they may not work out! It’s no sure thing that any rabbi will magically grow his membership, in some cases it might even shrink it!!

    In the case of an orthodox shul you could make an argument for it, because you need someone who can answer questions of halakha.

    However in the liberal denominations a rabbi’s job is mainly chazzan, laining Torah on Shabbos only, presiding over weddings, bris/baby naming and funerals,teaching bnei mitzvah and conversion students and maybe some “outreach” (bikur cholim visit, dealing with interfaith councils, etc..)

    With the exception of weddings and arguably bnei mitzvah classes one NEED NOT be a rabbi to do anything else on that list. Thats one of the greatest thing about Judaism, Anyone who can be counted in a minyan who knows the prayers can be a chazzan. The rabbi has no direct line to Hashem, sure the chazzan is acting as a shaliach for the congregation but anyone with the knowledge of the prayers , and halachos of being a chazzan is just as qualified as the most learned rabbi !

    Finding someone to lain is a little trickier but usually theres a few in any community that can do it, or at least fake it effectively. Anyone who can be a chazzan can preside over a funeral, or a bris/baby naming (obviously im not talking about cutting the baby, an MD or a trained mohel is gonna do that). Bikur holim is an obligation on ALL Jews, I have no idea why it often falls to the rabbi to do it. In our shul we have a “sunshine committee” of volunteers who do it in addition to the rabbi.

    As for teaching many websites now offer bnei mitzvah material that can simply be delivered by anyone willing to facilitate the class (videos, handouts, etc..) the person need not be a rabbi or educator. Some of these websites offer complete online classes that can be done at home such that a hebrew school may not even be necessary in the case of a very small number of children in the community.

    Outreach can be done by anyone the board appoints to do it. This a great role for salespeople who may be members of the community. Give them the title of VP or Public Relations or VP of Community Outreach and set them loose! Another idea I’ve seen done is creating a contest between the MEn’s club and the sisterhood for “membership drive” to see how many new members each can recruit or guests they bring in.

    My shul has been around for about 65 years and only had a rabbi for maybe ten years all put together. Usually we found a single community member who was willing and able to perform ALL of the duties above. We afforded him the title of “Spiritual Leader” and he was paid a relatively small honorarium in recognition of how much work it is to do these things!

    Selling the building to get a rabbi is a huge gamble that depends very highly on the personality of the rabbi you get… Instead by organizing the community to come together you have the chance of creating a much more involved, committed and vibrant Jewish community. By rotating these roles around people aren’t just coming to ‘watch’ a service, you get them to feel like important people in the community, they become engaged and start to take real pride and a feeling that the shul is their responsibility! Granted my experience is much more limited than yours, but I dont think people become members of a shul because it has the funniest, most personable, or most erudite rabbi , they do it when they see a COMMUNITY that is warm, friendly, welcoming engaged, and most of all excited about Judaism and they want to be part of that COMMUNITY.

    just my 2 shekelim

    warmest regards!

    • admin says:

      Hi Nick,

      Thanks so much for all of your recent comments on various posts. You raise some valid points. Many thanks!

      Best,

      David

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