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.