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Congregations Grapple With Spiritual, Financial Woes

February 26, 2009 By:
Fredda Sacharow, JE Feature
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"I'd be shocked if I heard any of the synagogues say they haven't been affected," said Fred Z. Poritsky, executive director at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro.

 Earlier this month, members of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington received a timely letter from their rabbi and other synagogue officials.

The letter outlined measures the congregation is adopting to ease worshippers through difficult fiscal times: creating a synagogue-wide job bank, offering a seminar on resources available to those in need and holding a "Nosh With Rabbi Josh" breakfast advising parents how to talk with their children when financial disaster strikes.

At Temple Judea of Bucks County in Doylestown, congregants in fiscal distress are invited to join a support group run by JEVS Human Services, and can apply to the synagogue for help in paying for utilities and food.

Rabbi Gary Pokras said that Temple Judea's leaders are also toying with an internal barter system that would allow members to trade anything from babysitting and lawn-mowing to dental or legal services.

In ways small and large, synagogues across the Delaware Valley are scrambling to help congregants cope with a tanking economy, at the very time the institutions themselves are grappling with dwindling income and soaring bills.

The one-two punch has local rabbis and executive directors reeling.

"No one has had to drop out -- we haven't seen much of that -- but we're aware that it is harder for people to meet their dues commitment, and we are seeing an increase in people asking for accommodations," said Rabbi Joshua Waxman of the 210-family Or Hadash.

"Obviously, membership dues are a significant source of income, and when membership dues are down, our income is down. That does affect our ability to put together certain kinds of programs," he said.

Budget freezes, blackout Thursdays and meeting-less Mondays, pared-down energy use, reduced staff hours -- these are among the approaches the region's religious institutions are taking as the financial picture becomes murkier.

"I'd be shocked if I heard any of the synagogues say they haven't been affected," said Fred Z. Poritsky, executive director at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro.

The administrator at the 650-family synagogue said that he has instituted a number of operating changes -- from opening the building at 9 a.m. instead of 7 a.m. to reducing employee hours across the board -- designed to ensure more efficient delivery of services.

Among the measures Poritsky noted that he's proudest of is making the monthly newsletter almost exclusively electronic -- a move he estimates will save 280,000 pieces of paper a year, and $16,000 in production costs and postage.

Ida Pomerantz, executive director of Mikveh Israel in Center City, a historic Sephardic congregation, said that at her congregation, too, "we're cutting down as expenses are going up.

"The Orthodox movement is going through the same thing Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues are going through: People are struggling; people are hurting."

Earlier this month, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that the Union for Reform Judaism -- the congregational umbrella for the Reform movement -- is planning organizational layoffs and changes to slash its budget by about 20 percent -- from $25 million in 2008-09 to $20 million in 2010.

The cuts come as congregations have reported difficulty paying their dues, which comprise the bulk of URJ's budget, according to the organization's spokeswoman, Emily Grotta.

While some congregations, Reform and otherwise, are contemplating mergers as an ultimate cost-saver, Grotta said that she has not heard of any such moves under consideration in the Philadelphia area.

Harvey Friedrich, executive director of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park and a member of the Delaware Valley Association of Synagogue Administrators, noted that fellow members are facing the harshest financial climate he has seen in years.

Friedrich said synagogues in the association have discussed banding together to buy supplies in bulk -- typically office and janitorial supplies, maybe group health care -- but he cautioned that these efforts have produced mixed results in the past.

"We ourselves are trimming expenses where we can, trying to use our facilities more efficiently to conserve on energy. The full impact of this isn't going to be seen until the spring, as we do our budget forecasts for next year," he said.

Friedrich compiles an annual survey of dues, tuition and fees for the association. The most recent edition, completed in January and representing 20 Conservative and Reform synagogues, indicated that local congregations will impose either modest dues increases or none at all -- a reflection of members' precarious financial footing.

"There's a sense in our congregation, as a mirror of the general population, that people are concerned, worried about what the future might bring," said Friedrich.

Concrete Steps Being Taken

The Mid-Atlantic Region of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly hopes to calm that apprehension by convening constituent synagogues for a March 11 meeting featuring a discussion led by the prominent local family therapist Dan Gottleib.

Rabbi Aaron Krupnick is president of the region, which stretches from Harrisburg to the New Jersey shore, and from Delaware to the Lehigh Valley. He organized next month's meeting at his synagogue, Congregation Beth El of Voorhees, N.J., to "generate ideas on how rabbis can reach out to people in need, at the same time recognizing that we can't meet everybody's needs."

Krupnick said he's unaware of any drastic measures synagogues affiliated with the Conservative movement have adopted, but acknowledged a general belt-tightening as congregants face job losses and downsizing.

At Or Hadash, Waxman said that some members have lost weekly paychecks, and others have seen their businesses decline. Sending the congregational letter was a needed first step in articulating the synagogue's concern, and in assuring families that there is no stigma involved in financial setbacks, he noted.

"These are conversations that need to be taking place in our communities," said Waxman. "What we're trying to do is offer an array of programs to provide concrete support to the people who need it, to raise the topic of conversation to show we're aware of the situation -- that it's not something that should be considered shameful."

On Feb. 27, the synagogue will host a Shabbat service, during which Waxman and Rabbi Mordechai Leibling of the Jewish Funds for Justice will explore the emotional, social and spiritual challenges Jews face during difficult economic times. At a March 11 seminar, Beth Rosenbaum of Jewish Family and Children's Service will focus on resources the community can tap into, including help with résumé writing and interviewing.

As already mentioned, the synagogue is pooling its community resources to create a job bank. In his Feb. 6 letter to members, Waxman joined congregation president Rick Dzubow and education chair Amy Grossman in encouraging people to e-mail the synagogue if they're looking for a job or have one to offer.

Similarly, Conservative Congregations Ohev Shalom in Wallingford and Ohev Shalom of Bucks County have gone into the matchmaking business -- job-wise, that is. Mark Sykes, executive director of the Wallingford synagogue, said that he hopes to "make a couple of shidduchs."

"Times like these are times when the synagogues need to continue to provide services -- you can argue that people need synagogues more now than in any other economic climate," said Gavi Miller, executive director at Conservative synagogue Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park.

Miller said that the Men's Club and Sisterhood have been exploring ways to bring in speakers to help congregants in their struggle to stay solvent.

Congregation B'nai Abraham, a 75-member Orthodox congregation in Center City, is sponsoring a scholar-in-residence program the weekend of March 20 to discuss "Finding Faith in Turbulent Times: How to Deal With Financial Crisis and More."

The scholar, Sara Esther Crispe of Merion, is the creator and editor of the Web site Thejewishwoman.org, a project of Chabad Lubavitch.

"We feel it is important to be a source of spiritual support to people at this time," said B'nai Abraham's Rabbi Yochonon Goldman. "People are looking toward what our faith has to say about dealing with turbulent times."

Religious leaders themselves are struggling to define the magnitude of the financial challenge their institutions are facing.

Rabbi Nancy Epstein, director of congregational relations with the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, said that her organization will sponsor a meeting on Sunday, March 1, at which rabbis, congregational presidents and executive directors can brainstorm with representatives of JFCS, JEVS and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

"We want to give them an opportunity to talk about how the economic crisis is affecting both congregants and congregations, at a micro and a macro level," she said. "We want congregations to talk about what they're doing. One of the main points is that congregations don't have to figure these things out for themselves." 

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