Too Many Jewish Institutions

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

In these times of continued economic uncertainty, we must fully acknowledge all of the elephants in all of the rooms and yes … there is a big elephant in the Jewish household. Prompted, in part, by some active Internet conversations over the previous weeks, we call attention to this and seek responses from institutional leaders as well as donors.

The “edifice complex” has long had its place within the American Jewish community, putting all too much community effort, resources and energy into facilities, many of which never receive the amount of use their donors and visionaries truly expected. As a community, we have funneled untold billions of dollars and other human capital into constructing Jewish institutions – museums, hospitals, social service agencies, arts and cultural entities – that in too many cases would be more suitable as smaller components of larger facilities rather than as “stand alone” entities. When so much financial investment is continually required for the operation and growth of Jewish institutions, we wonder out loud why there is a conversation about funding often ill-attended facilities.

In the United States alone, there are two dozen museums dedicated to Jewish history and community development. In general, they tended to be well-supported initially in terms of getting the buildings funded but in later years – without endowment and realistic long term business plans – their donors tend to peter out with regard to receiving on-going financial support. Our thrust here is not to limit the efforts made to preserve our Jewish culture but we ask about ways to refine and refocus philanthropy. And in doing this, we question the logic that has gone in to over-building versus under- programming and under endowing for the long term.

In a recent posting on Jewish Ideas Daily, one author broached this topic directly, too, focusing on Holocaust museums, art museums, and Jewish historic buildings. There is no embarrassment in admitting that we are overbuilding, he wrote. And certainly some may question if he was being “anti culture” or just provocative.

To the contrary, we are stating that, in fact, less will actually equal more in terms of financial dollars and visitor support. It is not our role to state which institutions hold the most value, reputation or prestige. That is the role of stakeholders, constituents and leaders. However, our logic tells us that if your city already has millions of dollars invested in a Jewish art museum, you probably don’t need to build a new institution nearby that could feature exhibits and collections housed elsewhere.

We should also address the specialization of each institution. If there is a strongly-supported American Jewish history museum, does there need to be a Russian-American Jewish history museum, a European-American Jewish history museum, a Spanish-American Jewish history museum or can we cover them all under one set of four walls?

In the preservation and promoting of the Jewish community presence and services, we must ask ourselves if it would be more viable to integrate various Jewish institutions. Perhaps utilizing less used spaces of a synagogue or community center to house various educational, research, or service facilities would achieve efficiencies never before considered.

Why not a Jewish Arts Center in a synagogue complex built to include a Holocaust Remembrance wing? By putting these entities all into one building, we are preserving precious resources and reflecting on cooperation and other efficiencies. We are ensuring the vitality of the Jewish communities and we are drawing participants and visitors to share in multiple Jewish topics that need visibility and funding. By designing and implementing innovative community based approaches to housing multiple ventures, we can create more giving opportunities, preserve our community presence and key institutions, and be respectful of competing and changing priorities.

As we look, too, to community “icons” that are slowly vanishing, we call upon Jewish leaders to consider how new priorities can utilize now-vacant or under-utilized facilities. And what about having one complex for housing two or three Jewish congregations, thereby sharing administrative, educational, and social spaces. What better way to show a unified Jewish community?

Many Anglo-Jewish publications have addressed this and related issues in recent months, thereby prompting our putting this topic on the table now. We have worked with hundreds of Jewish nonprofits over more than two decades and we know from firsthand experience that this is an almost taboo subject. Let’s put egos aside and call on the Jewish community’s leaders to rally around contemporary thinking, and sometimes provocative approaches that set a respectful and community-building tone for the years ahead. Lean can be better and enable us to focus energies and resources more efficiently and strategically.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook; TWITTER: @EHLConsultGrp