Congregations face difficult economic choices

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Every day seems to bring new revelations about the effects of the economic downturn in America. So it should come as no surprise that St. Louis area congregations face some of the same difficulties and tough decisions as the rest of the nation.

“The impact of the economic crisis has been very uneven thus far, in the country and in the region,” said Rabbi Lane Steinger, regional director of Union for Reform Judaism Midwest Council. “Some areas were hit hard and heavily impacted and others are just beginning to feel the crunch. It’s as if things are coming in waves.”

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Many congregations have struggled for the past few years: running with budget deficits, working hard to increase revenues and endowments while keeping down expenses — yet meeting the needs and expectations of their memberships. The additional “Catch 22” for congregations is they welcome members regardless of their ability to pay and offer everyone the same services.

“Not-for-profit organizations and agencies struggle constantly,” said Rabbi James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth. “In the good times we don’t notice it as much and it’s easier to weather the challenges and budget deficits.”

The problem in a recession is members’ financial commitments to their congregation may compete with the necessity of paying the mortgage, utilities, medical expenses and putting food on the table. Congregations understand the dilemma. In the same breath, the needs of their members are increasing.

“This is the great paradox,” Bennett said. “Serving our members is the main reason for a synagogue to exist all the time, and in particular, when there are difficult times and they need us even more.”

One of the biggest line items in many synagogue budgets is the compensation and benefits for personnel. In order to continue to provide a full array of services, many area congregations have had to make difficult, painful decisions to weather what some have called the “perfect economic storm.”

Congregation Shaare Emeth had to make some of these painful decisions, said Bennett and synagogue President Steve Rosen. The Board had to strike a fine balance in order to be fiscally responsible and decide what restructuring cuts it could make and still serve congregants. A decision was made to eliminate the third rabbi position, currently held by Rabbi Anne Belford, along with cutting other positions and downsizing still others.

“When Rabbi Anne Belford’s contract concludes on June 30, we are not renewing the contract,” Rosen said. “She is a beloved rabbi and we are working to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again in the future.” Shaare Emeth has also cut some other staff positions and reduced the hours of others.

Like all congregations, Shaare Emeth’s doors are open to everyone, Rosen said. However, the economic circumstances of the membership have placed a strain on scholarship monies and the ability for members to meet their financial commitments to the congregation.

“We recognize this is a tough situation and understand people need to pay their mortgages,” Rosen said. “They are a part of our Shaare Emeth family and our community and we take care of family.”

Opportunity to reinvest

At Congregation Temple Israel, the positions of Cantor and the receptionist were eliminated as well as a reduction of hours for some staff members.

“They were very tough and painful decisions,” Board of Trustees President David Weinstein said. “But members have come forward and said they are grateful for the efforts of the congregation to be fiscally responsible and asked what they can do to help us move forward.”

Linda Blumenthal, who served as Cantor, will continue as an independent contractor to tutor b’nai mitzvah students and lead Shira, the congregational choir. The receptionist duties are being divided up among other administrative staff. In addition, employees are cross-training and expanding their job responsibilities.

Temple Israel, a 122-year-old congregation, is looking at each challenge as an opportunity to reinvest and respond to the visions and desires of the membership as it looks to the future, according to Weinstein.

“We have very positive, visionary thinking,” he said.

The congregation is going forward with its capital and endowment campaign, which began before the stock market crashed, said Weinstein.

“Our original intention was to create a new dream building,” Weinstein said. “Now we will use the money to address two things: repair the old building and build our endowment.”

Incomes from endowments are used by congregations for a variety of purposes – from bridging the gap between revenue and expenses to providing scholarship money and programming and sometimes to cover unexpected maintenance costs. Significant budget deficits have grown over the years, as members have had to reduce their financial commitments to their congregations in the recession. In addition, the values of the endowments themselves are diminished due to the economic times.

Weinstein said they fully appreciate the financial gifts to the campaign will be smaller today than yesterday or perhaps what they would receive in the future. However, the strong response by members to the campaign speaks to the health and future of the congregation.

Last week, Congregation B’nai Amoona’s Rabbi Carnie Rose said a letter was being sent to adjust the current budget, which runs through June 30.

“So far we have only minimally eliminated staff,” Rose said. “The biggest decision is not to have a second rabbi on a full-time basis for the next fiscal year.”

Currently, Rabbi Dr. Neal Rose, has been serving the congregation as rabbi-in-residence. His contract is completed at the end of this fiscal year and he had always intended to return home to Canada after completing his contract.

“We have two rabbis in our congregation who retired young and have stepped forward to serve as adjunct rabbis and be part of the support team for the Klei Kodesh,” Carnie Rose said. “They are serving as wonderful role models as they give of their talent, time and ability.” The additional assistance will be appreciated since the Klei Kodesh are taking on more responsibilities, he added.

“Our counseling load has doubled because people are in crisis,” Carnie Rose said. “We are providing spiritual support, resources to help and networking opportunities to help people with their specific needs.”

The congregation was in the middle of a strategic planning process as the economic crisis unfolded. Carnie Rose said the situation offers a wonderful opportunity as the congregation examines the needs and desires of their membership.

“There are challenges as we try to do as much on less,” Carnie Rose said. “Yet our internal reservoirs are unlimited.”

Less may be enough

Tapping into internal reservoirs are second nature for Congregation Kol Am ,where at least 95 percent of the membership volunteers in some way, said Past President Carol Wolf Solomon.

“The good news is, as a small congregation, we are relatively recession resistant,” Solomon said.

The paid staff consists of one rabbi, one administrative assistant and religious school teachers. Volunteers do the maintenance work for program set-ups and bring the oneg every week.

“By the same token,” Solomon said, “we are a small congregation and as our membership may be hurting, we are also looking to reduce expenses wherever we can.”

Though they have already slashed their budget to the “bare-bones,” the congregation found an additional creative way to cut expenses: members chose an electric plan based on usage and reduced their monthly bill.

Another positive side for the congregation is they are actually expanding programming.

“One of our congregants found some creative funding, along with collaborative efforts with other organizations, to create new programming,” Solomon said.

Temple Emanuel also prides itself on their active volunteers who step forward to do the work rather than having to hire additional staff. Board President David Sherman said the congregation had already addressed their expenses before the summer and they are running “lean and mean.”

All of the rabbis and congregants interviewed expressed a very positive side benefit to the crisis: people are rising to the occasion by volunteering and more fully participating in their congregations.