new kinds of growth
Our own communities are blessed to reside in beautiful spaces. These buildings gift us with safety and belonging, fill us with awe and connect us to the past. They can affirm the beauty of our faith and imagine more fully the glory of the historic pilgrimages to a central Temple in Jerusalem.
Building campaigns dot the American Jewish landscape, with opportunities for major donors to emblazon their names upon synagogue, day school, federation and organizational buildings. Some of these campaigns collect tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars for cathedrals to our Diaspora’s ascendance. They represent the aspiration of permanency for American Jews, a display of financial investment in a bright future, and the embrace of norms set by American universities and, yes, those set by American churches.
Our own communities are blessed to reside in beautiful spaces. These buildings gift us with safety and belonging, fill us with awe and connect us to the past. They can affirm the beauty of our faith and imagine more fully the glory of the historic pilgrimages to a central Temple in Jerusalem. They embody our virtues and help us remember that Jewish life is not only about obligation, but also about beauty, joy and a shared sense of place.
Yet our communities pay an extraordinary price for these awe-inspiring spaces, diverting resources from the human-centered projects of our shared future. The funds, time and energy devoted to constructing and maintaining them require making them budgetary priorities. This drives organizations to focus on the value proposition of the building to justify the costs, which in turn places more financial burden on congregants.
When leaders from the UJA-Federation of New York reached out to eighty Manhattan synagogues to inquire about their primary financial concerns, the overwhelming majority placed “maintenance and building-related costs at the top of their list.” While amounts vary, buildings of all sizes and types, in all geographic regions, require a significant proportion of a synagogue’s operating budget each year — and far more when it comes to renovations or major repairs. Given their high operating costs in money, time and energy, our sacred edifices become a purpose unto themselves, rather than the manifestation of more important missions. Moreover, they distract us from the urgent need to surface new missions to inspire us going forward.
For many American Jews, the prospect of selling synagogue buildings, Jewish nonprofit spaces and community centers signals decline. The deaccessioning of Jewish seminaries and the merging of synagogues has certainly evoked this reaction. However, this view loses sight of the very purpose that inspired such edifices in the first place: making a visible declaration in neighborhoods across America that Jews live loudly and proudly.
Our communities built these spaces as symbols of faith in our future when we were just barely “making it” in America. As Jewish pride soars and synagogue or communal membership remains consistently low, we see how effectively prior generations have instilled this hope, even beyond the walls of buildings. As buildings deteriorate or close altogether, the space for new purpose expands. We would do well to embrace this opportunity for new kinds of growth.
Rabbi Benjamin Spratt is senior rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York. Rabbi Joshua Stanton is senior fellow at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and rabbi of East End Temple. The two are coauthors of Awakenings: American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership, and Belonging.