The American Jewish community continues to need vibrant centers of Jewish life — and the means to run them, writes a local rabbi.
More than 30 years after I first entered the rabbinate, I can think of no more exciting, interesting and scary time for liberal American Judaism than the present.
Our spiritual and communal landscape is shifting, and no one really knows how our institutions will be reshaped by the changing dynamics.
But one thing we do know: As long as we have an American Jewish community, we will have a need for vibrant, creative, engaging and welcoming centers of Jewish life. Whatever changes take place, wherever the pieces may fall, synagogues will remain the backbone of that ever-changing community.
We recognize that today, many younger Jews relate to their Jewish identity and religion in ways that are often completely different from those of their parents and grandparents.
More and more, we encounter a consumer-driven mentality where people come, not to volunteer and lead, but to have their individual needs met.
It is enormously challenging to remain meaningful and relevant for a generation that may walk away if we don’t already provide exactly what they are seeking.
We must anticipate these needs and also inspire people to think in larger terms and understand their obligation to the community.
To quote Gene Kranz (or Ed Harris, if you’ve seen Apollo 13): “Failure is not an option.”
In this climate, synagogues are beginning to pay closer attention to creating and building up their endowments. I can almost hear the chorus from the pews, “Rabbi, we are talking about the future of American Judaism, and you want to talk about investment strategies?”
Precisely. I highlight endowments not because I relish discussions of investment and finances, but because I believe every congregation has an ideal to strive for, and a robust endowment can provide many of the tools to reach seemingly distant goals.
An endowment is a fund that is invested to serve as a continual source of stability and income for a nonprofit organization. It can be set aside for restricted or unrestricted purposes.
Typically, a synagogue or other nonprofit will spend no more than 5 percent of its endowment annually.
Nonprofit management experts tell me that healthy nonprofits should have an endowment that is three to five times their annual budget.
At Beth Or, we haven’t yet reached this optimal endowment-budget ratio. That is one of the primary reasons we decided to launch the Ner Tamid Campaign, an aggressive and potential game-changing approach to our development.
One of the lessons of the Great Recession is that all congregations are vulnerable to economic downturns and sudden dips in membership. Part of the reason to build an endowment is to have a cushion for the inevitable occurrence of the unexpected.
But more importantly, an endowment can enable congregations to be nimble and foresighted. A robust fund can ensure a congregation attracts and retains the best clergy, remains affordable to all, optimizes communications and bolsters educational and program offerings.
For many congregants, talking about endowments may be tricky because it is invariably a conversation about the future.
Synagogues have an immediate need to balance budgets, fund programs and pay the bills. The future can seem so amorphous.
But we are all in the business of building community and offering Jewish culture, values and wisdom in ways that are meaningful and accessible. We must all be thinking long term.
A decade ago, Beth Or completed a successful capital campaign to build our new home in Maple Glen. While the process was by no means easy, it is more intuitive to ask people to invest in buildings than to invest in an endowment. It is easier to inspire when you can show blueprints.
But at Beth Or, the message is getting across that by building our endowment, we are investing in everything we cherish.
With the Ner Tamid Campaign, we are doing something as important as building a physical structure.
As committed Jews who care about a vibrant Jewish life for ourselves and our children, we can’t ignore current realities. But we must never stop dreaming of what might be.
Strong finances help ensure that places like Beth Or continue to inspire people of all ages and foster a strong Jewish community.
While the word “endowment” may have cold, financial connotations, endowments are really about our hopes and dreams — for today, and years to come.
Rabbi Gregory S. Marx is a religious leader at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen.