Why Synagogues Are Going Broke

Unemployment hit a 30-year low in April and the economy is, if not booming, at least bouncing. So why is it that so many synagogues, even in wealthy areas, are struggling? Perhaps it is because members fail to understand that dues only go so far, according to Sylvia Moskovitz, executive director at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills.

“A lot of generous people belong to synagogues who give to Federation and give to charities but don’t realize that the synagogue needs their charitable dollars, too,” Moskovitz said. “The dues and fees we charge don’t cover the whole budget. They can’t – we’d have to charge $5,000 a family, and we cannot do that. We can’t make fees so high that it’s like an exclusive club.”

Moskovitz said about 10 percent of Aliyah’s 900 families ask for some sort of financial assistance. The problem comes, she said, when members put off paying dues or fees and then, when the synagogue comes calling, assert that forcing payment “isn’t the Jewish way.” “This is a constant battle we wage between being a business and being Jewish,” she said. “There are lights and prayer books and seats to be set up and bills to be paid. I cannot say to the electric company and the gas company and the bank that holds the mortgage [that] we cannot pay our bills because we’re in the business of God.”

Synagogue budgets tend to throw most of their weight toward two factors, people and buildings, and Temple Aliyah is no exception. Moskovitz estimates about two-thirds of Aliyah’s budget goes to salaries, which does not give the synagogue a lot of room for cutting costs. Security expenses also escalated here and at other local synagogues in response to last year’s shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center. In addition, members are asking for more programming than ever before while at the same time spending less money and time at the shul than prior generations did.

“We’re a young congregation, only 36 years old,” Moskovitz notes. “A lot of older congregations in the East Valley have longtime members who leave endowments and that sort of thing. But young families have their priorities elsewhere; they’re buying homes and dealing with their kids’ schooling. Somehow we have to get them connected into their religion and show them that it’s important to make that commitment if they want their children to grow up and be Jewish.”

Rabbi Alice Dubinsky, the outgoing director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ Pacific Southwest Council, lectures frequently on the issue of money and Judaism. She observes that the problem of synagogue financing is driven not only by individual member’s priorities but also those of the congregation as a whole.

“If you look at the budget of a synagogue, you can tell a lot about them from the choices they make: how they raise their money and how they spend their money,” Dubinsky said. “There are congregations that have large infusions of cash but equally large budgets, and they have this atmosphere of anxiety that takes its toll on the board, on the clergy and staff and on the congregation.

“I think it is very important that congregations live within their means,” Dubinsky added. “That’s not very fashionable these days – people have leased cars and leased homes and that is the dominant culture, but a synagogue cannot be run that way. It needs financial discipline. In fact, this is an area where synagogues could be at the forefront, teaching people about financial ethics. We can’t be frustrated with people for not having a sense of philanthropy; instead we need to go out and do the teaching.”- Wendy Madnick, Valley Editor