A Game Plan for Sunsetting Congregations

Beth Israel - Steubenvilleby Jan Jaben-Eilon

When Beth Israel congregation in Steubenville, Ohio, completed its recent Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur, it was “our Neilah,” says Myron Chijner, past president of the congregation merged from Reform and Conservative synagogues a few decades ago. The 100-plus-year-old Jewish community in Steubenville at its height numbered 400 Jewish families. Today there are 33-35 “units” left, Chijner relates.

But this isn’t necessarily a sad saga. As Chijner notes, “We are fortunate. We ran out of people before we ran out of money. We were not in dire straits. We were not flat broke when we closed.”

The Steubenville Jewish community was also fortunate because Beth Israel over the past year had launched a process under the auspices of the Jewish Community Legacy Project (JCLP), through which the dying community planned how to dispose of its assets and ritual items, as well as provide perpetual care for its cemetery. Chijner likens the aging community to an elderly person. “It’s as if someone 106 years old passed away. You can celebrate their life but it’s not sudden; it’s not something we didn’t know was coming.” As an increasing number of small Jewish communities around the United States see their population dwindle, and their ability to sustain Jewish life diminish, Atlanta-based Jewish Community Legacy Project was created to help these communities plan for their eventual dissolution. The brainchild of David Sarnat, former head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, JCLP joined with The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) and the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) to provide guidance to these Jewish communities, usually located in small towns whose overall populations have also declined.

Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president of URJ, also likens the process to a will. “It’s like someone who is executor of a will. It has to be handled with sensitivity. You can’t do this by phone. It is relationship building, hand holding and trust development,” he explains.

Although JCLP has been around for a few years, signing up small Jewish communities and helping them “find a way to prepare a plan that honorably allows them to leave a legacy, as well as make sure their assets go to aspects of Jewish life that were important to them when they were a vibrant congregation,” as Sarnat explains, the program has become more formalized in the past year.

In August 2012, JCLP, the URJ, USCJ and the JFNA sponsored a conference hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh (JFGP), entitled “Congregations in a Changing Environment.” The leadership from congregations with fewer than 75 member units from communities surrounding Pittsburgh were invited for the half-day program to discuss issues such as preserving cemeteries, securing clergy, sustaining membership, enhancing programs, maintaining synagogue buildings and establishing legacies. According to Jeff Finkelstein, CEO of the Pittsburgh Federation, Sarnat “had identified Western Pennsylvania as a great location to do their work. If you take a compass with the point on Pittsburgh, there are a lot of these congregations in a couple-hour radius. It made sense for us to partner with them. Thirteen communities showed up on a Sunday morning at our Jewish Community Center.”

Even prior to the conference, the Pittsburgh Federation was involved in the Jewish Community Legacy Project, says Sarnat. But the advantage of inviting community leaders to a conference, he says, is that “when you go one-on-one with a community, they tend to be defensive. In a room with others, they get support and realize there are other communities in the same situation.” Indeed, Irene Rothschild of congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg, PA., said, “We found out we weren’t as in as bad a shape as we thought. When we went to the workshop, ‘dissolution’ wasn’t a word in our vocabulary.” Like many small communities in the Pittsburgh area, Greensburg was the home of former steel mills, and a thriving Jewish community led by small business owners, lawyers and doctors, says Rothschild. Now the congregation has 70-75 unit members. Emanu-El is now “officially a Legacy congregation,” she says, proudly. Under her leadership, the congregation has been working with JCLP senior vice president Noah Levine, who also had worked at the Atlanta Jewish Federation. “When we started working with Noah, we realized the day may come when the congregation is no longer sustainable. We decided to develop a plan.” She expects the congregation’s legacy agreement to be completed in a year.

It takes planning. For Emanu-El, what is important is keeping its religious school going. There are also two separate Jewish cemeteries in town. Thanks to the Legacy project, “if we close our doors, we know the Hebrew Burial Association (in Pittsburgh) will take over,” says Rothschild. Taking care of their cemeteries is often the first concern of Jewish communities, but with the Legacy Project each congregation chooses its own priorities. For Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle, PA., it’s to make sure that the community’s elderly have a place to worship for as long as possible. “I equate our situation to the middle of the fourth quarter of a ballgame. But we are working hard to extend the game into triple overtime,” says Sam Bernstine, Temple president, about his work with Sarnat. “We want to keep our facility alive for people to always have a place to pray. But we also want to be fiscally responsible as we go into triple overtime.” Just recently the congregation went from having a full-time rabbi to part-time.

In the 1950s, New Castle’s population was about 50,000, he says. Not it’s half that. At one time the Jewish population was 300 Jewish families. Now there are 70 individuals, “very heavily on the senior citizen side of the equation. I’m 57 and I’m not the youngest, but one of the youngest,” he says of the congregation that has been in existence for more than 100 years. “It became clear to us that if we kept things as they were, we’d only have two more years of existence. Now I’m optimistic that it’s seven to 10 years. People like to have full-time rabbinic support, but if it’s full time for two to three years vs. part-time rabbinic support for 10 years, my attitude is we need to be more flexible and open to change. David has helped us put together a plan.”

Initially, Sarnat spent time understanding the congregation’s organization. Then Temple Hadar Israel developed its business objectives. “David helped us put together a game plan. He doesn’t come in and take over. He serves as a coach, a guide and provides good perspectives. He brings to the table a lot of experience,” says Bernstine. “He asked us several questions: How do you want to be remembered? How do you want to handle your artifacts long term?”

Chijner, who says he met Sarnat at the Pittsburgh Federation conference in 2012, says “they ask you to ask what events would trigger dissolution. ‘Close your eyes and imagine the worst person that would have to make the decisions. That’s probably what will happen. So open your eyes, and make a plan.’ ”

As Sarnat explains, “The strength of the project is that we can represent ourselves as independent; we come as an honest broker.”

Sarnat expects that in the next 10 to 20 years, there could be as many as 100 of these small Jewish communities that can no longer function. The idea to help these communities came to him a few years ago when he was working for the Jewish Agency. He was called to help a community in Texas which only had two Jews left in town. He realized that if he had been called in sooner, he could have helped more.

Since then, with the help of some initial funding from the Marcus Foundation, Sarnat and Levine have reached out to Jewish communities who still have life in them and can prepare for their futures. “I’d say that almost all congregations we contacted show initial interest,” Sarnat explained. “One or two showed no interest after the meeting. Of those interested, some are stymied, they are unable to get more traction which usually relates to the quality of leadership. You are dealing with communities without professional staffs. All the responsibility falls on the shoulders of laymen.”

According to Sarnat, JCLP’s goal is “not to set up an institution. We are trying to use institutions that exist. We don’t think there’s a need for another Jewish organization.” That’s why Sarnat has connected with Federations. The experience JCLP has had with the Pittsburgh Federation has been so positive, Sarnat and Levine are now taking the model developed there to other Federations around the country that are surrounded by dying congregations. So far, they have connected with Federations and Foundations in Austin, Charleston, Greensboro, Buffalo, Syracuse, Richmond and Indianapolis.

They also wanted to ensure that the Legacy Project itself has a future. Thus, it is likely that the URJ, which has partnered with the Project over the last two years, will take over supervision of it as of next July, says URJ’s Freelander. “We have a lot of small congregations. There are more than 250 with fewer than 150 household members. We are targeting those with fewer than 40 household members in isolated communities, where there was once a vibrant community now concerned with how to keep Judaism alive.” He believes that potentially 50 to 70 communities could potentially benefit from becoming a Legacy congregation. But he acknowledges that it’s not a smooth path forward.

“There’s a psychological barrier of facing reality that they might not be here in five years. The leadership needs to plan, have control over the assets and preserve the congregations’ history. For every three congregations we approach, only one is emotionally ready to follow through on it,” Freelander explains.

To encourage Reform congregations, URJ is opening a website for each Legacy congregation, is connecting the congregation to the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, relieving the congregations of some reporting requirements and giving the congregations a break on their annual dues. “We want to show that the larger movement cares about the congregation’s legacy and remove as many burdens as possible from them,” he adds. As the URJ takes over the Legacy Project, Levine will continue to be the key lead staff, while Sarnat will serve in an advisory position and lead the search for funding to support the Project. Both will continue with the communities they have been working with.

Pittsburgh Federation’s Finkelstein says he’s been impressed with the passion shown by the leadership of the dying communities in the Pittsburgh area. Likewise, Dan Brandeis, director of the Pittsburgh Jewish Foundation, says when he attended the Federation’s workshop in August 2012, he found he couldn’t leave. “It was so inspiring to hear the dedication they have to their communities.” Legacy congregations in the surrounding communities are encouraged to transfer their assets and endowments to the Foundation, which manages over $180 million in assets, while keeping control over their funds indefinitely.

Finkelstein is enthusiastic about his Federation’s role in the Legacy Project, but says that “We probably couldn’t have been able to help these communities without” Sarnat and Levine.

The communities obviously feel the same. “Legacy helped us,” says Chijner. “It gave us guidelines. There’s no book on this.”