SWAMPSCOTT – Temples are facing challenging financial times because of a pandemic that has shifted most of their offerings online and closed them to in-person services and activities, especially during the High Holidays, when many normally attract big crowds and conduct annual appeals for support.
Financial concerns appear to be why Marblehead’s Temple Sinai did not renew the contract of Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez, or why Swampscott’s Congregation Shirat Hayam decided to part ways with Cantor Alty Weinreb, according to statements made by the two temples’ presidents to congregants.
Before those announcements, several North Shore synagogues were surveyed about how they were weathering the pandemic financially, how their High Holiday appeals went, and what kind of financial assistance they were receiving from Combined Jewish Philanthropies.
Leaders from six temples responded, though they were reticent to share financial details.
“Temple Ner Tamid’s finances have not suffered greatly despite the loss of rental income and members’ financial difficulties,” said Adele Lubarsky, president of the Peabody congregation, in an email. “Our clergy and leadership have kept our community together spiritually and emotionally.”
Ner Tamid does not have an endowment to provide for a rainy day or something as extraordinary as the COVID pandemic, but Lubarsky said the temple’s Yom Kippur appeal was successful.
At Temple Tiferet Shalom, also in Peabody, president Rachel Zalvan said via email, “Our future looks challenging but we have an optimistic outlook. Our clergy, staff and lay leaders are all working so hard to keep our members connected to the Temple and to each other, through outreach calls, visits, programs and services.”
“We do raise money through donations during the [High Holiday] season and those are down this year, but this not a significant percentage of our overall budget,” Zalvan said. The temple counts 230 households as members.
Eric Kaplan, president of Ahavat Achim in Gloucester, said the temple’s financial situation has not changed from last year, but the budget has been decreased by 15 to 20 percent. The temple has a pledge model that allows its approximately 200 member households to pay what they can afford.
“So far, we are this year about the same as last year,” he said. The temple received a federal coronavirus Paycheck Protection Program loan that allowed it to keep its employees on the payroll. “That was completely forgiven so we didn’t have to pay any of it back,” Kaplan said.
At Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, “we decided not to have an annual appeal this year because we wanted to respect the fact that people are going through hard times,” said Executive Director Jamie Meyers.
The temple has about 575 member households.
“Because we have our membership pledge model, if congregants feel inclined, they can give a larger than normal donation,” Meyers said. “Avoiding multiple asks, and allowing the membership and beyond [to] just simply enjoy the worship services was priority. We are hoping that end of calendar year donations make up for some of the lost High Holy Day income.”
About 70 percent of the temple’s operating budget comes from pledges, and the balance is made up from fundraising events, the High Holy Day appeal, tribute donations, rentals, plaques, the religious school, and the 4 percent endowment income, Meyers said. The temple also received a PPP loan.
At Shirat Hayam, “we did prepare this year’s budget in the middle of the COVID pandemic,” said the congregation’s business manager, Anna Hathaway, in October before the announcement about the cantor’s position. “We did make adjustments as needed.”
Shirat Hayam has about 534 household members, and Hathaway said pledges generate about 80 percent of the temple’s revenues, while another 11.5 percent comes from donations, miscellaneous income, and the congregation’s day care and preschool programs.
Hathaway said in October the synagogue was running “just slightly” above budget in terms of pledges, which came in slower than usual in the spring due to the pandemic. A High Holidays appeal raises about 8.5 percent of the temple’s budget, said Hathaway, who declined to give figures.
At Marblehead’s Temple Sinai, President Ira Dinnes said in an email members pay dues covering about 40 to 50 percent of the temple’s operating budget. It also has an abatement process for those unable to pay. The temple has more than 200 members, he said, with about 80 families and 40 single adult members.
“As we have dues, a smaller percent of our budget comes from High Holiday fundraising than perhaps our peers that do not have dues,” Dinnes said.
For synagogues, maintenance and security costs are always an ongoing issue, in good times and bad.
Emanu-El’s Meyers said the Marblehead temple received a grant from B’nai Israel – a Revere synagogue that closed in 2019 – to cover some security and COVID-19-related needs.
Last March, Temple Emanu-El finished a $1.8 million project with a newly renovated sanctuary along with improvements to social spaces, offices, accessibility, and security.
Shirat Hayam’s front and lobby area were renovated in 2017, and the Swampscott shul just completed a kitchen renovation. It is now looking to renovate the heating system.
“Temple Sinai recently replaced the roof, the heating system and some windows, and is currently replacing ceiling tiles in the main hallway,” Dinnes said of the Marblehead shul.
Hathaway said Shirat Hayam also has an endowment, while Dinnes said Temple Sinai does not, but it does have capital reserves.
“As with all older buildings and systems,” Zalvan said of Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody, “[the temple] does have some pressing capital needs. We do have a small endowment, but we are not at the point where we need to withdraw from it.”
According to CJP, the charity offered Rabbi Discretionary Fund grants totaling $150,000 from its Coronavirus Emergency Fund. Synagogues or Chabads received grants ranging from $500 to $2,500 for those in areas with a poverty rate of 10 percent or higher.
CJP also offered all synagogues and Chabad organizations money from a $172,000 Technology Grant Fund. Grant requests ranged from $1,000 to $2,500 and 75 grants were made in the full amount requested.
CJP also has distributed $135,576 in security grants to synagogues and Chabads, with a total of $293,218 expected to be given out. CJP anticipates grants to total more than $700,000 because of the crisis.
“CJP has been able to build deep relationships with organizations and used these in the time of COVID to listen and understand the most pressing needs facing Jewish communal organizations,” Rabbi Marc Baker, president and CEO of CJP, said in a statement.
Ahavat Achim, Ner Tamid, Emanu-El, Shirat Hayam, Temple Sinai, and Tiferet Shalom were among local synagogues that received CJP grants in various amounts.
“Our technology needs were great and CJP’s support has enabled us to get the technology we needed to equip our sanctuary and classrooms for online worship and education,” Tiferet Shalom’s Zalvan said.
Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, has two ways of looking at temple finances amid the coronavirus crisis.
“It’s a barometer of the economic state of the community,” Sarna said.
The other side has to do with how well a temple has adjusted in terms of taking care of members during the crisis.
“It’s a referendum on how well a particular synagogue has weathered the pandemic,” Sarna said.
“There are certainly congregants, and especially in small congregations, who have felt synagogues have let them down,” Sarna said.
Congregants may feel no one calls them, they may not like the Zoom services, and a congregant may ask: “Why am I paying?”
“Some people in small communities are saying, ‘I’m going to tune into the New York synagogue, or a much better synagogue that has lots of money,” where online services have a high production value, good music and a great sermon. And some of those turning to those out-of-town shuls may even pay to do so.
Sarna looks at synagogues’ websites to see whether they are a beehive of virtual activity, offering to give out food assistance, or offering Shabbat meals.
“Synagogues that have worked hard are doing fine,” Sarna said.
“We are seeing participation,” Meyers said of the online offerings at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. “People want to be connected.”
In Swampscott, Shirat Hayam’s Hathaway said she is seeing engagement as congregants have logged on and stayed on for services.
Temple Sinai prerecorded its High Holiday services and got compliments from members, Dinnes said. The Marblehead temple also offers live, online Zoom and Facebook Kabbalat Shabbat services, minyans, adult education classes, and lectures. Shabbat services are in-person, socially distanced, and masked per Massachusetts requirements, he said.
“Increased communication and support to our members, innovative programming, a strong school, and opportunities to give back through social action initiatives are our priorities,” said Zalvan of Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody.
Temple Ner Tamid has offered entertainment as well as religion during these dark times. “Besides services, our adult education is alive and well with speakers and dialogue,” said Lubarsky of the Peabody congregation. “We host Zoom game nights – trivia, talent shows, open comedy nights. Zooming is our new norm.”