Tackling Your Synagogue’s Biggest Financial Challenge

UJANYBy Rabbi Marc Margolius, Alan Divack,
and Rabbi Ben Greenberg

We reached out to 80 synagogues in Manhattan to ask them about their biggest financial concerns, and the results are in. Perhaps unsurprisingly in a city like New York, the vast majority of the synagogues placed maintenance and building-related costs at the top of their list.

Over the past year, SYNERGY, a division of UJA-Federation of New York committed to helping synagogues thrive, undertook research to gain deeper insights into the financial issues synagogues are grappling with and collect recommendations and best practices from the field. This research began through an initial outreach to the Manhattan synagogue community where we learned that facilities maintenance was the largest and most significant financial concern of synagogues in the city.

With the help of a team of independent researchers including Sally Bernstein, Marian Krauskopf, and Joan Montbach, we sent a comprehensive survey to the 80 Manhattan synagogues. We also conducted focus groups with synagogue professionals and lay leaders and held interviews with experts in the field, including the owner of a maintenance company, an architect who has worked with religious groups on facilities issues, a real estate consultant, and many more.

Here are the maintenance and building-related issues that respondents told us had the biggest impact on supporting a healthy, functioning synagogue. The full report is available online and can be downloaded here.

Cultivate Strong Leadership That Communicates Clearly

We found that synagogues with strong, transparent, and effective governance in place had an easier time convincing the congregation of the importance of raising funds to keep the synagogue building healthy and well-maintained. The most effective synagogues we spoke to had clear decision-making processes in place, with a functioning building committee comprised of both staff and lay people who were able to raise concerns. The issues were shared with the congregation regularly, and congregants understood the connection between a wall repair, for example, and the overall health of their synagogue, which made it easier to make an appeal for the necessary funds.

Plan Ahead

For many synagogues, ongoing maintenance needs were not incorporated into their annual budgeting processes. As a result, congregations would sometimes be blindsided by the cost of outdated systems and overdue repairs. Synagogues should consider incorporating building staff and the building committee into the budget planning process. When going through the checklist of items to budget for, add building needs as an ongoing, priority budget line.

Turn Anecdote Into Science

The best building management approach is one that uses systematic data collection and interpretation to understand the extent of your congregation’s needs. Regular capital needs assessments should be conducted to determine the health and longevity of all systems, complete with a schedule of required maintenance and replacement. This includes an assessment of the roofing, boilers, heating and cooling systems, elevators, and lighting, among other areas. An energy audit is also useful in identifying cost-saving opportunities on utility charges (for more information on available grants to help pay for energy audits, you can download the report).

Making the Most of the Space You Have

A full analysis of space needs and current utilization of the building will help staff and lay leadership assess the potential for building rentals as an additional revenue stream. In addition to renting parts of their building, synagogues can consider other creative approaches to make their building more financially sustainable such as selling air rights. In extreme cases, an assessment might reveal that synagogues have more space than they need. In cases like that, moving into a smaller facility or renting space might improve the long-term health of the congregation.

The Impact of Size and Expertise

The survey revealed the stark contrast between larger and smaller synagogues in Manhattan in terms of staff and resources. Unsurprisingly, smaller synagogues were more likely to describe their physical space as being in poor shape. It’s noteworthy that despite this resource gap, our research found that both larger and smaller synagogues reported having little or no training in property management.

Synagogues who were maintaining their facilities well said that they dealt with the challenge of finding trade workers for smaller maintenance jobs by engaging skilled tradespeople working as facilities staff in local hotels and large residential buildings.

Like our physical health, our synagogue building’s health is easy to take for granted until we run into problems. But a synagogue’s ability to operate and fulfill its mission is directly connected to the health of the physical space it operates in. That’s why synagogues of all sizes and resource levels should take steps to ensure the health of their building well into the future.

Rabbi Marc Margolius is the rabbi of West End Synagogue in New York City and co-chair of the UJA-Federation of New York task force that commissioned this study.

Alan Divack is the Program Director of the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation and co-chair of the task force that commissioned this study.

Rabbi Ben Greenberg is the SYNERGY Manhattan Regional Manager at UJA-Federation of New York.