The Role of the Rabbi in Synagogue Fundraising

Many rabbis hate fundraising. They may have had a class or two in rabbinical school on this topic, but similar to many synagogue leaders and congregants, it is not an area of comfort for them.

And yet the more engaged a congregational rabbi is in his/her congregation’s major fundraising campaign efforts, the more successful such a campaign effort will be.  And a congregation with strong financial footing certainly gives everyone peace of mind.

The Torah has many references to Tzedakah and its importance. Here is one that speaks to the importance of the role of the rabbi with community fundraising:

“For I love him [Abraham] because he will command his children and his household after him that they should safeguard the way of the Lord by performing acts of tzedaka and mishpat.” (Genesis 18:19) 

I recently read an article by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein about the role of the Rabbi in the fiscal health of a synagogue. It is actually a chapter of a book titled “Toward a Renewed Ethic of Jewish Philanthropy”. While serving as the principal of the Ramaz School is New York, Rabbi Lookstein is also the rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, a 1000+ family Orthodox synagogue in New York City.  Rabbi Lookstein speaks of the importance of a congregation’s Rabbi being involved with all financial aspects of synagogue life, both the raising of necessary funds as well as their allocation in support of the programs and services of the synagogue.

Rabbi Lookstein is involved in every aspect of fundraising at his synagogue. He plays an active role in hosting parlor meetings as part of an annual campaign effort and calling congregants who are unable to attend these leadership fundraising events. He is the primary solicitor for all major capital and endowment fund gifts at his synagogue. I find it quite interesting that he states that such fundraising calls give him an opportunity to connect with congregants and have a more in depth conversation with many of them who he might only be able to exchange greetings with at Shabbat worship.

Such involvement in annual fundraising would certainly enhance a synagogue’s efforts. Especially for capital and endowment campaign efforts, the rabbi’s involvement is really critical to the campaign’s success.  The rabbi’s vision of the congregation’s future is important. You will be asking for significant contributions from congregants and the rabbi’s involvement conveys to everyone the campaign’s importance to the future of the synagogue.

I have often likened the rabbi’s role in fundraising to that of a university president. Rabbis have a vision of the future of their Sacred Community and a cadre of congregants who care. Seeking buy-in to the vision will lead to financial support when the fundraising campaign starts. I am not saying that rabbis have to be more like university presidents for whom the majority of their efforts are focused on fundraising activities.  Rather it is important that a rabbi make fundraising an important priority of his/her rabbinate.

Remember, rabbis should partner with synagogue leaders in all financial resource development efforts. There is too much to do in other aspects of synagogue life for all of the fundraising responsibilities and activities to fall on the shoulders of the rabbi.


7 Comments on “The Role of the Rabbi in Synagogue Fundraising

  1. David, Sometimes I think you are walking around and saying what would that guy at Shir Tikvah like to learn about. Every week your posting have been extremely helpful and timely. Thank you and keep walking around my head, I am learning a lot!
    All the best John

  2. Wonderful article. The strongest connection most people seem to have with their congregation (and often with Judaism itself) is through their rabbi. I agree that congregants (both the leadership and other volunteers) are the best ones do the heavy lifting involved with prospect research, to learn additional information about a particular prospect which can make the “ask” successful, including how much to ask for – how much the prospect has given to other charities, how well his or her business is doing, etc. Research might also unearth additional “heavy hitters” in the congregation who the clergy and leadership might not be aware of. Most people don’t know where to begin to do this research though. In your experience, do you think it might be worth a congregation’s while to send interested volunteers to some professional training in prospect research? I’m also aware of some specialized websites, which are subscription only. Would it be worth our subscribing to one or more of these?

    • Hi Laura,

      Thank you so much for your comments and questions. Regarding prospect research, take a look at WealthEngine. You can do a wealth screening of your entire membership which may be helpful initially. Although much of what this program determines wealth capability is related to real estate values. It might also help you find a “diamond in the rough”. I also think the best thing you can do is put ten people in a room -including your rabbi – who you believe have some sense of congregants and their means and have a conversation about what people do for work, involvement in other charities, and other information that can help you determine capability. The wealth screening might be a good starting point for this.



  3. A brief and intensely insightful post, David. How much training do rabbinical students typically get about the strategies and operations of a healthy nonprofit organization? In an economy that has shrunk many congregants’ nest eggs, the fundraising challenge is more difficult — and presumably requires both spiritual guidance and an ability to attempt cost-benefit analyses using the shul’s core mission as a guide to such decision making. Budgets need to reflect meaningful intent, not just year-over-year increases or decreases. If we cannot answer why we are doing something, the who, what, where and how questions become dangerous distractions.

    • Thank you for your comments, Bob. I must admit that I don’t know exactly how much time in a rabbinic education is spent on practical management issues. Fundraising, budget preparation, staff supervision would all be a part of that. I have been asked in the to be a guest lecturer at a 90 minute class at HUC that has focused on budgeting and a bit on fundraising. But I don’t think we can be overly critical of rabbinical schools about the lack of fundraising knowledge. Lawyers come out of law school not knowing how to manage people and also may never have taken an Accounting course. I know the CCAR is trying to address the fundraising knowledge/skills issue through continuing education offerings.

  4. David it is good to hear from you. I have just returned from the URJ Board of Trustees meeting. Rabbi Jacobs and Steve Sachs together spoke of their relationship of “partnering” and the need for collaboration between and among lay and professional leaders of the URJ. Their relationship could and should serve as a model for all congregations. The relationship of rabbi and president must be based on open, frank, confidential, respectful communications. Congregational fundraising is of course one of the areas for collaborative efforts. There are, as you say, some rabbis who do not desire to engage in such activities. But in those instances the parties must still, in the most respectful manner, discuss the issue. The president must ultimately respect the right of the rabbi to decline to fundraise. I suspect however that when approached with openness and respect few if any rabbis will object. Richard Molish

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