We can all agree that the closing of a synagogue for any reason is just sad.

Changing demographics and economics throughout North America have contributed to the closing of both synagogues and churches since the turn of this century. Synagogues in small towns have been impacted by the closing of factories, as well as the fact that young people are just not moving back home to the communities where they grew up. In metropolitan urban and suburban areas, the outlook on religion and community by Millennials, and even the evolving views of religion by baby boomers nearing retirement have also impacted synagogue affiliation. Churches, too, throughout North America have also not been immune to these phenomena.

But when it happens to a synagogue in a highly Jewish area that seemed to be thriving not too long ago, and for reasons of financial challenges based on mortgage obligations, it is a shock to the system.

Recently, I read about the closing of Temple Emanu-El. It is a synagogue with a nearly 60-year history. The number of life-cycle events that have occurred in that time span, and the lives they have impacted is huge.  The article notes that if the congregants gathered at a town hall meeting did not vote to merge with a neighboring synagogue just over 6 miles a way, the synagogue would be in default on its mortgage.

I have written before about mortgages and debt. If you want to refurbish your building or buy and build a new one, it is best to do all of this and pay for it without taking out a mortgage. Many synagogues have come up short in their campaign goal and have gone ahead with their original building plans by mortgaging the difference between what was raised and what the project costs. The thinking goes that new members will help maintain the debt payment, and/or another campaign will be planned and implemented in 10 years to pay off the mortgage.

Changes in demographics and even clergy can certainly impact membership. As synagogue leaders, what would you do if the membership was slowly declining, and what was a 425 family size congregation 10 years ago was now hovering at 300 families? That is a loss of about $250,000 in annual income.

There is only so much you can cut back on expense wise in order to provide the same level of programming to meet the needs of a smaller congregation. And the nearly $90,000 – or whatever the 5 or 6 figure amount is – debt remains regardless of the congregation’s size.

And it is the primary financial obligation of the synagogue, even before staff salaries.

Today, synagogue board members have a tough job. You have to have broad shoulders just their fiduciary responsibility – to be sure that they manage the synagogue finances responsibly and to to ensure that the synagogue has enough money to carry out its mission to meet the spiritual needs of congregants as well as to fulfill its financial management and obligations.

It is just sad. Merging with a neighboring synagogue so that congregants have a sacred community to be a part of is certainly might ease the pain. But for those in the Temple Emanu-El community and those of us who care about synagogue life, sadness will remain for a while.


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Bazar Bazaar

Concerts. Deli Night. Art Auctions. Casino Night. Bingo.

These are just some of the fundraising event ideas that have become a staple for several synagogues, and local community organizations across North America.

And there was the annual bazaar at the local Armenian Church that was down the street from us that had the best Shish Kebab I ever tasted.

I have been reading several Blogs that have been discussing fundraising events. Which reminded me of a blog I wrote last year at this time.  Last year’s blog was inspired by our synagogue’s Mishloach Manot project for Purim, which continues this year as well. Two weeks ago, I filled out the contribution form ($10 a greeting, with graduated amounts for increasing the number of greetings). The Purim package should be at our door early next week.

After last year’s effort, I asked my friend who is responsible for organizing everything what the results were in terms of income for the synagogue: $11,000 in gross income with $4,000-$5000 in expenses. And a lot of volunteer time on a Sunday to put together the packages, as well as for delivery.

So the return on investment (“ROI”) from this effort was $.45 – the synagogue spent $.45 for every dollar raised. In addition to volunteer and staff time.

People like receiving the packages. You see who sent you a greeting. There is candy and Hamentashen. This gives people good feelings, but doesn’t raise a ton of money.

I have to wonder if the synagogue would be better off in terms of fundraising by asking one person to give a gift of $10,000 to underwrite the costs of this program.

I received an email yesterday from Ken asking me what I thought about peer to peer fundraising. Ken’s synagogue has an enhanced dues program and like many synagogues, they are low key in the approach to asking congregants to participate – mailings, emails, occasional gatherings with a pitch with “soft-sell” emails as follow up.

Whether it is called peer to peer, or face to face, the more personalized – and in person -fundraising approach, the more effective it will be. Such personalized efforts should not be seen as a one shot deal. You don’t want the congregant who gave you $1000 or $5000 to participate in an enhanced dues effort to not hear from anyone at the synagogue about this special support until you approach them again next year. Calls from and meetings with clergy and synagogue leaders, special emails targeting those participating in the enhanced dues program, and even “by invitation only” thank you events should also be a part of this overall strategy.

As I have written before, events should be fun, and should be about building community. When preparing the budget 15 months before the end of the next fiscal year, the fundraising number you plug in for events will always just be a projection.

A donor, congregant centered approach where congregants are asked for in person for specific support is not only more predictable, the ROI will be far less than an approach reliant on events.



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Prayer Breakfast – Really?

Two weeks ago, at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump stated he would “destroy” the Johnson Amendment.

As a Senator in the 1950s, LBJ wrote legislation that when passed, was attached to the IRS regulations that impact not-for-profit organizations as well as houses of worship. One of the IRS rules created by this legislation was to prevent religious leaders from endorsing candidates “from the pulpit”.

This is always an issue around election time. Movements like “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” have encouraged ministers to give a sermon on a particular Sunday in support of a presidential candidate.

Clergy acting as individual citizens as opposed to leaders of a house of worship are allowed to endorse candidates. Think back to “Rabbis for Obama”, “Rabbis for Hillary”, and even “Rabbis for Trump”. It is certainly something that can be a bit of a blurry issue.

In the scheme of things, introducing legislation to get rid of the Johnson Amendment seems to now be a low priority. Events in Washington in recent days will not only dominate the news cycles in the coming days, but also no doubt push “destroying” the Johnson Amendment to the back burner.

But it will emerge again as an issue as the 2018 Congressional and state elections are in full swing. No doubt, according to current reports, there will much resistance in Congress by both Democrats and some Republicans.

Should the discussion ever move forward from the press and blogosphere to the floors of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate and become law, regulatory requirements may become more stringent for synagogues and all houses of worship. Right now, religious organizations are not required to complete a 990 for the IRS, a tax return form for not-for-profit organizations. Whether an audit is conducted is completely by choice. When synagogues become more involved in politics where clergy are allowed to endorse candidates, official financial filing rules may become more of the norm.

This may be a minority view, but I actually think more financial regulatory requirements will be of benefit to synagogues. Houses of worship get a pass in terms of 990 IRS filings, unlike not-for-profit organizations, due to the separation of church and state. Unless a synagogue is applying for a grant from a foundation, no one is making a synagogue undergo an annual audit.

Board members actually have the same fiduciary responsibility regarding the management of the synagogue’s fiscal affairs as board members do for other not-for-profits. So an annual audit is a good thing. And in the spirit of transparency, it is something that can be shared with the congregation via email and even posted on a synagogue website website.

There are synagogues and other houses of worship that are multi-million dollar endeavors. The neighboring YMCA with a $2 million budget has to file a 990 to the IRS and engage a CPA to complete an annual audit. The church or synagogue down the street with a similar-sized budget is exempt from such requirements.

Completing an annual audit and sharing it lets congregants know that you are good stewards of the community’s funds. Put aside the possibility of submitting a grant proposal to a foundation for a moment. Good stewardship will lead to good dues/annual commitment collections as well as successful future capital and endowment campaigns.

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Speaking Out! (Rabbis, too!)

Peace in the Middle East.

Women praying and reading Torah at the Western Wall.

Voting Rights.

The Affordable Care Act.

The ban on residents of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the U.S. for the next 90 days.

These are just 5 of the current issues that synagogues should be bringing people together to learn about, ask questions, and advocate for change. There are of course many more.

For many years, social justice has been an avenue of synagogue involvement for many. With so much going on in U.S. and throughout the world regarding the issues I noted above as well as others, this is the time for synagogues and their leadership to engage – through education and advocacy – with congregants on these critical issues of the day.

My friend Mark recently posted on his Facebook page that he will no longer be using Uber and will be deleting his corporate Uber account. We spoke about this at length the other day and about the immigration ban.

Mark shared with me that the rabbis and leadership of his synagogue were not doing anything about the ban – not writing on the synagogue’s website and Facebook pages, not bringing together congregants to discuss the issue. The communications platforms of his synagogue, as well as its leadership, were silent.

Mark belongs to a fairly large synagogue with two rabbis and a cantor and lots of other program and support staff. There are some well-known congregants – “titans of industry” – who are supporters of President Trump as well as some who were supporters of Hillary Clinton. Mark was having an extensive email exchange with the senior rabbi almost daily and spoke with him by telephone a couple of times, encouraging him to demonstrate leadership and do something to engage the congregation and advocate against the ban.

The rabbi shared with Mark that the number of emails he received regarding the ban had been 50-50 for and against. While the rabbi expressed his agreement with Mark that the President’s executive order for the ban is wrong and unjust, he was hesitant to act, feeling that while half of the congregation would be pleased, the other half might be a bit angry.

I have a hunch Mark was not the only person calling his rabbi. Apparently, at a recent board meeting a decision was made to have an open meeting on February 28th of the social justice committee to discuss and decide the top priorities for the social justice committee moving forward.

Like my friend Mark, I wish this rabbi would articulate his feelings about all that is wrong morally with the ban and, as importantly, the role the congregation can play to affect change. While the emails were split 50-50 for and against the executive order regarding the travel ban, it is a safe bet that many congregants didn’t take the time to send the rabbi an email or to call him.

And I am sure many congregants, at this synagogue, and in other synagogues throughout North America, are waiting for their rabbi to say and do something, and to offer some guidance.

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7 Financial Challenges for Synagogues

  1. The synagogue has a lot of debt.

Synagogues undertaking a capital campaign to renovate, expand, or buy a piece of property and build a new synagogue is a good thing. Assuming debt and taking on a mortgage, not so much.

It is not uncommon for a synagogue to fall short of its campaign goal and still build what it had originally intended. A mortgage is arranged to complete the project hoping that more people with contribute and/or join the synagogue. The debt becomes a part of the annual budget.

$1 million, or more, of debt is not unheard of, sometimes adding $300-$500 in debt service to each congregant’s annual commitment.

  1. The synagogue is not transparent with finances.

Most synagogues share budget information at the time of the annual meeting, as required by the By-Laws. And that is it in terms of financial information sharing.

A better practice is to share a budget update with the congregation on a quarterly basis. Congregants should be aware of expenses, but more importantly, how the synagogue is doing in terms of dues collection and fundraising. When the board realizes as it enters the fourth quarter that there will be a deficit unless they do some emergency fundraising, you don’t want this to be a shock to congregants.

  1. Talking and Teaching about Tzedakah is taboo.

Religious Schools often teach students about Tzedakah.  But do we ever make a conscious effort to engage our adult congregants on this topic?

The High Holy Day Appeal might incorporate biblical text about giving, or share a teaching of Maimonides. But how often does the Rabbi teach this topic in adult education classes, or even speak about Tzedakah and its importance for the synagogue as part of a sermon or through adult education?

  1. The synagogue has a passive approach to charitable giving – dues/annual commitments, High Holy Day Appeal, annual campaign, special campaigns and planned giving.

Many congregations are now using online payment platforms which really speaks to Millennials for whom the concept of paying by check is foreign. But too often, our dues/annual commitment efforts are just by mail or email. Personal one-on-one conversations are not taking place where the focus is both emotional -the “why” people belong to synagogues – as well as about a financial commitment. And planned giving efforts to, at a minimum, ask congregants to name the synagogue in their will, remain a low priority for many synagogues.

  1. The synagogue does not take an evaluative look at synagogue programming and the budget.

Does your leadership do a program evaluation? Do you have goals in the beginning of the year and examine whether you have achieved them or not? Goals could be a simple as having a monthly adult education program for 20 participants; increasing Shabbat worship attendance by 10%; Achieving financial goals for the various streams of income including dues/annual commitment, fundraising, and programming. And you should examine the activities you performed to achieve such goals.

  1. The synagogue has not taken wise steps for financial health.

How does your congregation budget? Do you look at the budget, take into account cost increases for utilities and other fixed costs? Contractual staff raises? Raises for other full and part time staff? And then arrive at a number?

Or do you look with a critical eye how the budgeting has gone in the past year in terms of both income and expenses?  Do you ever think about the programming you want to do as a part of the budget and how that relates to the synagogue mission? How committed are you, as financial stewards – fiduciaries to be more legal – to raise the necessary funds for the synagogue community you need to carry out the programs and fulfill the synagogue’s mission?

  1. The synagogue relies on a few big givers.

Most every synagogue has a handful of people who always step up in a big way to support the synagogue. Whether it be for the annual campaign, the capital campaign, or when there is a crisis-like when the HVAC system breaks down a week before the High Holy Days. What happens to the financial stability of the synagogue when these people pass away, move to Florida, or to another community to be nearer to their children?

(Adapted from “Eight Signs of a Financially Dying Church” at

Posted in News


It is a tough time to write with a positive outlook.  But now is the opportunity for synagogues to step up!

Since my first visit to Israel in 1975, my hope and dream for peace continues.  But I must admit it all of the efforts for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a lot like the movie Groundhog Day. Sometimes there is progress – baby steps, but progress nonetheless. And then pretty severe setbacks. Like today with the announcement of 2500 new settlement homes on the West Bank. And this is the cycle that happens time and again.

And there is the issue of how Jewish you have to be to be be Jewish in Israel.  And the activities of Women of the Wall and their work for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City and all the issues this raises for all American Jews.   Remember, conversions officiated by Rabbi Haskell Lookstein, a prominent Orthodox Rabbi in New York City who worked with Ivanka Trump on her conversion, wasn’t good enough for Israel’s Rabbinic High Court.

That so many of us continue to love Israel despite struggling with these political and religious issues never ceases to amaze me. And this is an issue that synagogue leaders and congregants should be talking about in formal and informal settings.

The election and this past week in Washington: What times we are living in!! I have been witness in my lifetime to both apprehensive and hopeful transitions:   From Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon; from the Watergate era, and Presidents Nixon and Ford to Jimmy Carter. From Bill Clinton to George Bush; And from George Bush to Barak Obama. And this week, from President Obama to President Trump.

My family and friends all know that I have always been a believer that the role makes function. Donald Trump as president should behave differently from Donald Trump the real estate developer or even the presidential candidate. And that while I believe we need to give President Trump a chance, I, too am somewhat skeptical about the next four years.

The potential impact on congregants and the community of the Trump administration’s policies on health care, employment, climate, just to name a few, are also worthy of conversation and perhaps action within our congregations.

The past two weeks have also brought security scares to many JCCs across America.  And I know for many, this raises anxieties about our own synagogue’s security. We want people to feel safe when they come to Shabbat Worship. And we want everyone to feel welcome.

You don’t want the synagogue to be a fortress. I shared the story before about visiting a synagogue on a weekday during office hours where I was searched, and so was my car. And I was on the visitor list that the security person had on his clipboard.

Although a bit dated, ADL’s booklet for synagogue safety remains an important resource. From time to time, it is certainly worthwhile to check-in with local police officials about the security procedures that are being followed at your synagogue.

Sharing with congregants what you are doing regarding synagogue security shows that you are being responsible as synagogue board members and that their safety is a serious matter.

Posted in News

Back In The Day

“Back in the day”, there were two primary means of communication. The telephone, and written communication that included the letter and printed materials on paper like newsletters.

The telephone has changed dramatically in my lifetime. My parents had three telephones in their home, with long chords so you could go to the other end of the room. Having a second line was an extravagance. Only doctors had answering services. Answering machines became the norm in the 1980s.

Most of us look at the telephone very differently today. Land lines are becoming extinct. And for those of us who have them, screening calls is now the norm as it is inexpensive.  On our cell phones, the caller’s name most often pops up on the screen.

Emails and texts have emerged as the preferred means of direct communication.

As a graduate student, my field work assignment was with a national Jewish organization. I was tasked with writing the quarterly community service newsletter. When I was done writing a draft on a yellow pad of paper, then I would transcribe it onto an IBM Selectric (no longer a word choice in spellcheck) typewriter. Senior staff often had assistants able to “take dictation”.

It took a couple of weeks to prepare the contents of the newsletter, and than another 10 days for design and printing. While word processing was invented in the 1960s, I don’t remember it being the norm until the 1980s. Carbon paper was most often an important tool.

It didn’t seem too long along that the synagogue newsletter was the primary vehicle for informing congregants as to the goings on at your synagogue. Even in the 1990s articles had to be submitted to allow enough time – perhaps 1-2 weeks-before it had to be disseminated to the membership. The advance of PDF files has certainly impacted the synagogue’s relationship with their local printer, and the U.S. Post Office as well.

The monthly newsletter is still a staple at many synagogues, sent most often with a link in an email to congregants. In some synagogues, weekly email blasts have taken its place. In those synagogues still utilizing the newsletter, most often there is a form of weekly communication – a fancy email – as well.

Technological advances may have made the work easier to perform, but there is certainly a lot more of it.

Synagogue leaders have great expectations regarding communications. Who does all of this work? Clergy? Other staff members? Volunteers? I know from my own experiences that websites need to be kept current. And that is true for all social media platforms, including Facebook pages, Instagram and Twitter. Again, keeping up these various communication and marketing tools is an ongoing endeavor. Unless there is a dedicated person who has this responsibility, keeping such social media platforms current will be a significant challenge.

Some synagogues do have dedicated staff members for communications. This mirrors what is going on in the profit world and with not-for-profit organizations, many of which have a Marketing Manager or a Social Media coordinator.

But what about synagogues that don’t have the funds to have a dedicated staff member? Does this fall to the rabbi, among many other important responsibilities? And while volunteers are always well-intended, there is always a chance that something will come up – vacation, medical appointment, family stuff are just a few things that immediately come to mind.

Today’s blog may be rambling. The point is this: there is a lot of work in this area that has become essential to the synagogue’s operation and needs to be done. And we need to figure out a way to make it happen.

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Foundations Will Save Us?

Not in the spiritual sense, but financially?

It is a common question I hear. The synagogue’s vice-president for Finance does her analysis. The streams of income from dues/annual commitments, religious school, pre-school, and the High Holy Day Appeal have been pretty consistent for the last several years. The Gala has helped raise an additional $50,000-$75,000 each year. But it is a lot of work and the synagogue has to spend $20,000 to make it successful. Besides all of the volunteer and staff hours it takes.

Despite all of this, a gap remains each year of $25,000-$50,000.

Someone at a synagogue board meeting makes the suggestion to seek out foundation grants. Not-for-profit organizations apply for grants all the time-why shouldn’t our synagogue? We could write a well written proposal and the foundations will love it!

Life should be that easy.

Like all fundraising, being successful securing foundation support is dependent on developing and nurturing relationships. With foundation board members, and with foundation program officers. Many well written proposals sent blindly – without establishing any kind of relationship with anyone from the foundation – to foundations requesting support most often end up in a pile – today, a digital pile- or in the circular file.

Maybe there are congregants who are on the board of a family foundation. How do you know? Ask at a board meeting if anyone is aware of congregants who serve on a foundation board. And ask the rabbi.

There are some online resources to check out as well. Check out the Foundation Center to explore further foundations in your locale. The information you will find here will indicate basic areas of interests (“Jewish organizations”, “synagogues”) as well as names of board members.

Check out my blog on this topic from a few years ago. 4 ½ years later the process of securing grants outlined then still holds true. I cannot stress enough the importance of developing relationships.

One question to consider: Do you think it is better, or easier, to pursue a foundation grant of $50,000 for general support, or ask 5 congregants for an annual gift of $10,000 (or even 10 congregants for $5,000)? The latter path is most often the more successful one.

There is no guarantee that foundation funding will continue from one year to the next. If you are successful in securing a grant, you should remain in touch with the foundation staff, and board members if appropriate, keep them informed of your progress and how their money is being spent. Unless the grant was for multiple years, you will have to go through the same process again in a year’s time.

It is also not uncommon for foundations to periodically to go through a strategic planning process where their priorities change. And this might put any future funding for the synagogue at risk. And then what do you do?

The 5 congregants giving $10,000 annually I referred to above are actually more likely than foundations to continue their giving over multiple – most likely, many – years.

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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.

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What do you do on Christmas?

Chinese food and a movie. Family Monopoly and other board games. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Hanging out. These are just a short list of activities that Jews will be doing this weekend as our Christian friends and neighbors celebrate Christmas.

My mom was a public school teacher with many Christian colleagues. We were often invited to Christmas Eve gatherings. One of my high school basketball buddies, and his parents, extended an invitation to me to celebrate Christmas Eve with them as well. Lots of food and fun times. I was a little jealous of all of the decorations and the presents under the tree. Hey, we had Hanukkah, and that was for 8 days. But when the consumer world is so oriented to Christmas with all of the money that is spent in advertising and marketing of everything, Hanukkah just didn’t seem to ever be on equal footing.

This year, Hanukkah starts on Saturday night, right on Christmas Eve. Even though many people will be on beach or ski vacations, our Hanukkah celebrations, at least for the first two nights anyway, will be at the same time our Christian friends and neighbors will be celebrating Christmas. A welcomed merging of the holidays, which has only happened 5 times in the last 100 years!

Christmas is an opportunity for programming and congregant engagement. This Shabbat is of course a chance to do something special. On Saturday evening you can gather people for Chinese food, a movie, Havdalah, and the lighting of the first Candle.

You can organize congregants on Sunday to volunteer at a local soup kitchen or other similar community organization. That is what my family has often done wherever we have been on Christmas.

For many years, our synagogue, Temple Ner Tamid, organizes congregants to volunteer on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at a local community hospital. Tasks people do include greeting visitors, issuing visitors passes at the front desk, answering the phone and other tasks.

And Sunday, at the end of the day after volunteering and/or programming, is another opportunity to bring the community together for candle lighting and perhaps some latkes or jelly donuts.

Each night of Hanukkah is an opportunity for community building. Whether it is 10 people, or 100 or more people who show up. Even if you have done no planning until now, do something and take advantage of this great opportunity.

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