Is Your Synagogue Being Proactive?

proactiveBy Nanette Fridman

This summer the Boston area has been abuzz with major synagogue changes. First was the news from Brookline’s Congregation Kehillath Israel that it plans to build a center for Jewish life that includes senior housing on their property on the site of their existing social hall. The second was the announcement that Mishkan Tefilah in Chestnut Hill has sold its property to Boston College. These are the stories that grabbed the headlines, but we also have merger talks on both the South and North Shores underway between synagogues and other exploratory conversations taking place.

As a strategic planner, I am delighted to see temples taking action. More often than not, synagogues call me to engage in planning when they are already in crisis mode, whether they admit it or not. With little resources and a small runway, these congregations wait so long to act that they have limited choices. To add insult to injury, even when they are starring down the barrel of the gun, many refuse to make tough decisions. As the saying goes, “Indecision becomes decision with time.”

Facing declining memberships, increased competition and escalating costs, many synagogues can no longer hold off from making decisions about their fate. As KI shows, even those synagogues doing well today can’t afford to remain stagnant. Strategic planning is not an option or a luxury. All boards are responsible for setting the strategic direction of their organization. My hope is that this summer of synagogue news will serve as a wake-up call.

When synagogues are doing the hard work of planning, I am seeing three main trends. Is your synagogue talking about these?

Trend#1: In it to win it.

The first option is to acknowledge the new paradigm synagogues find themselves in and that it can’t be business as usual. Synagogues that want to survive – and thrive – will have to articulate their vision for the future and cut expenses and creatively increase revenue.

Cutting expenses

Cutting expenses means making some tough staffing and programmatic decisions. Sharing staff with other organizations or outsourcing back office functions should be explored. Combining programs addresses not only financial concerns but can help provide critical mass for services and programs such as Hebrew school and youth groups.

Buildings are often too large for today’s congregations and overdue for maintenance and updating. Right-sizing can be done by selling a building and buying or building a smaller one or by renting. Look for more synagogues to consider the route of operating without walls, offering services and programs at alternative locations rather than having a dedicated building space.

Alternatively, some synagogues are trying to right-size by keeping their larger building and bringing in partners and other organizations. Talking about Kehillath Israel’s plans to become a hub for Jewish life that includes housing, a college extension program, offices for Jewish nonprofits and an incubator space for Jewish start-ups, Jonathan Sarna, a prominent scholar of American Jewish history, said, “All over America we have large synagogues that go unused much of the week. This is giving us a new model of making the synagogue a place where all sorts of Jewish activities can go on.”

Increasing revenue

a. Philanthropy

Increasing revenue can be achieved by fostering a culture of philanthropy and launching a major gifts and/or endowment campaigns. The basis for any campaign is a compelling vision for the future. Donors don’t want to give for an organization to merely “try to survive.” Successful fundraising campaigns are predicated on a strategic plan that inspires and is grounded in business sense. Armed with a well-stated case for giving, clergy and lay leaders need to devote a significant amount of time and effort on an on-going basis to raise funds and establish and maintain relationships. Congregations need prospects that have the capacity and are likely to support such campaigns to succeed.

b. Earned Income from Rentals

Earned income can come from rentals for private simchas and celebrations and to other nonprofit organizations. Temple Reyyim in Newton, MA has rented to a music school, to its neighboring Newton Wellesley Hospital and to others. Some Reform and Conservative temples rent to other Jewish groups for prayers, school space etc. The Orthodox movement is growing and sometimes their institutions need more space.

c. Earned Income from Building Housing

More creative and more permanent earned income can also come from partnering with other nonprofits that provide senior housing as Kehillath Israel plans to do.

Temple Tifereth Israel in Winthrop was having a difficult time maintaining its 22,000 square foot synagogue and was about to close its doors in 2012. They partnered with the Chelsea Jewish Foundation to build a senior citizen housing complex on the site and renovate the temple so it is smaller but more modern and efficient.

As the Chelsea Jewish Foundation website states, “Given that many large sized temples across the country are struggling to survive, this innovative design concept – combining the underutilized land of a temple with a senior housing complex – may very well serve as a working model for other communities across the country. Best of all, this project is a boon for the city of Winthrop as it receives tax revenues from the complex and, at the same time, this residential neighborhood is updated with a beautiful new housing complex.”

Option 1 presupposes that a synagogue can cut expenses enough and/or has a long enough runway and the right conditions to develop and foster a culture of philanthropy, rental agreements and/or housing deals. It requires boards to have vision and the people, either professional and/or volunteer, with the time and skill to implement. If your synagogue doesn’t have the time, vision and people – or the demographics and numbers have dipped below the tipping point – you may want to consider trends 2 or 3.

Trend#2: Find a Partner

If you are ready to give up total control and to truly partner, then the second option of merging or consolidating may be for your synagogue. A merger is when one organization becomes part of another organization. A merges into B and B remains. Usually A is the weaker of the two going into the merger. Temple Shalom formerly of Salem, MA merged into Temple B’nai Abraham of Beverly after selling their building and considering their options.

A consolidation is when two organizations combine to create a new entity. A consolidates with B to create C. Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, MA is a good example of a consolidations because Temple Israel and Temple Beth El, both of Swampscott, truly created a new entity.

Synagogues that are best suited for mergers and consolidations have time, leadership, willingness to compromise and openness to change. It is worth noting that mergers can occur within denominations or across denominations.

Trend #3: Time to Say Good-bye

The reality is that not all synagogues are going to survive and the best scenario for those that are not is to wind down on your own terms, donating your remaining assets to another nonprofit and finding a synagogue that will welcome your remaining members. If your membership has dipped under the tipping point and the demographics in your area do not justify – or you don’t have the leadership to fight for survival – closing while solvent and by choice is a valid option.


I have oversimplified these trending options to be sure. Every situation is unique and certainly hybrid and other options are possible.

KI’s story is so admirable because they are acting proactively when its membership is growing and the synagogue reports a budget surplus, a rarity in the synagogue or nonprofit world for that matter; Kol Hakavod to KI for being forward thinking and planning while they have a runway and resources on their side. We just don’t see enough of that in the synagogue space and the nonprofit sector.

The clock is ticking for all congregations. Is your synagogue being proactive? Start with a realistic assessment of your synagogues and your area. What are your assets? Do you have active leadership? What is your membership and what are the historical trends? How are the demographics in your area changing? Who are you competitors? Who are you potential collaborators? How can you reimagine your Jewish community and what is your role?

Get outside help if you need it. Be realistic. Be strategic. Be innovative.

Remember organizational guru Peter Drucker’s words: “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”

Nanette Fridman, MPP, JD, is founder and principal of Fridman Strategies, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, financial resource development, governance and leadership coaching for nonprofits. She is the author of “On Board: What Current and Aspiring Board Members Must Know About Nonprofits & Board Service.” Nanette can be reached at