Start Worrying… Details to Follow: The Economic Meltdown Hitting Synagogues

There are all kinds of stories, almost all of them apocryphal, about rabbis welcoming sundry physical plant problems in their synagogues in late summer/early September. The reason is obvious. Leaking roofs and broken boilers make wonderful fodder for fundraising campaigns, which almost all synagogues engage in around the High Holidays. That is, unless the roof falls in on you…

Economically speaking, the roof is falling in on many synagogues as I write this. Over the summer- before the September/October economic meltdown- we were all worried about how synagogues and churches were going to heat their buildings this winter. When oil was at $150 a barrel, that was a real concern. There was talk of dues surcharges, closing the buildings a night or two a week, keeping classrooms colder… remember those days?

So here we are a few months later. Oil has gone down by almost $100 a barrel. We should be dancing a hora. But the sad truth is that all of us in the synagogue world would pretty much give anything to go back to those summer concerns about the price of oil. At least then, there was the possibility of a special fundraising campaign to offset the exorbitant energy prices. But we’ve traded that worry for a far more devastating one. Raising money during a recession is hard enough. Raising money in a synagogue when so many people are losing jobs, and have already lost large portions of their pensions and savings… well, that’s beyond hard.

In most synagogues, the membership dues that people pay- even when they’re relatively high- don’t come close to generating enough revenue to balance a budget. Like all non-profits, synagogues depend on fundraising to bring in the additional revenue necessary to keep the operation going. Hence the Kol Nidre Appeals, bazaars, theater parties, journals… we all know the drill. All of this is, of course, in addition to the fundraising that synagogues are expected to do for the many worthy causes in the Jewish community and beyond.

What many synagogues are discovering is that we are in uncharted waters in terms of fundraising.

We’ve weathered recessions before in this country, and thank goodness we’re not- yet- in an economic climate that approaches the Great Depression. But any fundraiser will tell you that, in a large campaign, approximately 80 percent of the monies raised come from a very small percentage of the donor base- what federations call “major gifts.” What many of us find ourselves asking now is, what happens when some of those major gifts are just not there to be given, not from lack of desire, but simply from lack of ability? Where does that money come from?

I remember back in my early days in Forest Hills, when one of the former presidents of the congregation said me that, when a person who had given the synagogue $2000 dies, we either have to find another $2000 donor to replace him/her, or twenty $100 donors. But the money needs to be replaced. True enough. But as the current economic crisis deepens- and it will surely get worse before it gets better- the challenges of finding “replacement money” will get steeper and more difficult in ways that most of us have never seen, or at least not in a very long time.

As the roadside sign says, “rough road ahead.” Indeed.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.