Without in-person High Holiday services, synagogues face budget concerns


UPDATE: Chevrei Tzedek did not lose 80 families, this was a typo. 

As a result of the pandemic, many of Baltimore’s synagogues moved their High Holiday services online, or made in-person ones smaller and shorter. Some, which rely heavily on High Holiday services as a source of revenue, will lose out on money.

A handful of synagogues in the area spoke to the JT about the financial impact of these adjustments.

Beth El front entrance as of 2020 (Carolyn Conte)
Beth El front entrance (Carolyn Conte)

Beth El treats members to professional production

Beth El Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Pikesville of 1.700 families, is treating its budget with caution. The synagogue usually sees up to 5,000 individuals at a High Holiday service.

“Like all synagogues and nonprofits, we’re going to have a large shortfall based on the closure of our facility, in terms of schools closing and camps closing or members having been hit by difficult financial times,” said Josh Bender, executive director of Beth El. “We’re not unscathed. We’re definitely taking a hit like all organizations.”

He is grateful the synagogue has some generous congregants who have helped them with their COVID-19 relief fund to continue operations and cover tuition and membership fees for those who could not pay in full or at all. The synagogue has been able to not turn away or limit any community members this year.

Beth El front entrance as of 2020 (Carolyn Conte)
Beth El front entrance, as of 2020 (Carolyn Conte)

What also helped Beth El was that it had been prepared for a crisis and had determined it could get through the coming year. Moreover, it received some funding from the Paycheck Protection Program.

However, due to the lack of revenue, the congregation did have to furlough some employees, make operational changes and will continue to adapt its terms for childhood programs.

Going forward, Beth El will create its next budget with new priorities in mind.

“Before, it was easy to take on a new program and try it out,” Bender said. “But now, I think we need to look at the priorities based on the values we have. For example, there will be a much greater emphasis on social action in the community.”

The High Holidays are also a priority to the synagogue. Because of how supportive their members have been, the synagogue decided to put on as exciting services for High Holidays as they could given that it must be virtual. The clergy and staff hired a professional videography team, which recorded the services from the synagogue building without guests.

“For the holidays, we made a decision to do everything we could to create an uplifting experience, despite the fact that we’re physically distant,” Bender said.

Chevrei Tzedek concerned with community

Some congregations are not able to afford upgrades to their virtual platform. Chevrei Tzedek Congregation is one example, according to Elise Saltzberg, co-chair of Chevrei Tzedek’s Finance and Fundraising Committee.

The Conservative congregation only charges for tickets for nonmembers. In the past, this brought them anywhere from $6,000 to $7,000 of revenue during the High Holiday season.

This year, that number will be zero.

Seniors at Myerberg (David Stuck)
Seniors at The Myerberg Center, where Chevrei Tzedek meets. (David Stuck)

While Chevrei Tzedek is having a junior version of streamed services, and nonmembers are being asked to donate something toward it, Saltzberg expects a deficit for 2020.

On the other hand, she noted that at least there will be significantly fewer costs for them to incur. “For example, we usually have a break-the-fast after the shofar blowing, which usually costs $1,000, so we’ll save money by not having that this year.”

More than the financial loss, Saltzberg is much more concerned with the community itself.

“What we’re really losing is meeting each other,” she said.

A few weeks ago, congregants gathered for the first time since the pandemic at the Myerberg Center, where the synagogue holds services. People didn’t want to leave and lingered, missing the physical community.

“A congregation means congregating,” Saltzberg lamented.

Because of their new (and first) rabbi joining, Chevrei Tzedek had grown in 2019 and expected six to eight new membership households in 2020. But now, the synagogue anticipates it will lose families.

“We’ve talked about this on various committees,” Saltzberg said. “People are looking for more than an hour and a half of streaming services, so they will join a synagogue with outdoor services.”

Weinberg Manor South, located on the same campus as Manors West and East, has already rented out 90 percent of its units. (Photos by Melissa Gerr)

She said that while some may leave to join more engaging opportunities, others will leave simply because they don’t want to pay for an online service. Still others might not be able to pay at all, but Saltzberg said that this is less of a concern because the congregation would never kick them out.

Fortunately, at this time, she only knows of one person who has left for a congregation that could offer more programs.

Temple Adas Shalom treads carefully

Temple Adas Shalom: The Harford Jewish Center has been relatively fortunate, but finances are something they are still careful about, according to Mark Wolkow, co-chair of the synagogue’s Religious Practices Committee.

The renovated sanctuary at Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace features a new arched ceiling. (Connor Graham)

The Reform synagogue of 140 households has been able to use federal funding for salary costs. Temple Adas Shalom has also found it does not need to spend as much, as heat and air conditioning operation expenses are not necessary now at the sanctuary. Their administrator is the only person at the building, and only part time.

“We save on cleaning and security,” Wolkow said. “Some of it offsets costs.”

He concluded that Temple Adas Shalom’s budget remains mostly the same. However, they are still continuing to pay off last year’s renovations. But Wolkow said they are in a good spot financially and are satisfied that congregants trust their transparency.

While the synagogue has lost some revenue from members not being able to pay, the community has not lost attendees and has actually grown on Zoom. For example, Wolkow’s mother in Annapolis now joins regularly, especially if her granddaughter is singing at a service. Before, Wolkow said, it was a difficult schlep for her to make it to the shul.

Hinenu asks for new ways of support

Hinenu: the Baltimore Justice Shtiebl has never required financial contributions for High Holidays, but the synagogue does anticipate less income than usual.

“We anticipated lower donations this year due to the loss of employment and the unequal ways in which under-insured and uninsured members of our community have been impacted by the pandemic,” Rabbi Ariana Katz said.

Rabbi Ariana Katz (David Stuck)

In what seems like a trend of Baltimore’s Jewish community, those who are able to generously contribute have regardless.

In the coming year, Hinenu expects to see community members supporting each other in more creative ways. Katz noted the community has put their resources to different uses, such as time, art or education. Rather than ask for financial donations, she hopes members can donate their time to host programs or enrich the community.

Beth Tfiloh revamps annual campaign

Beth Tfiloh Congregation, an Orthodox congregation in Pikesville, usually sells 1,700 High Holiday seats, which fill the building to its brim. But this year, that number has been dispersed among smaller, spread-out services, outside programs and online opportunities. So while they will continue many traditions, the synagogue will have significantly smaller celebrations than previous years.

Beth Tfiloh Congregation divides its annual costs of membership engagement between membership dues and seat revenue, according to Mandi Miller, BT director of institutional advancement.

“Seat revenue plays a critical role in keeping our budget whole,” Miller said. “When we sat down to set our budget this year, we knew we would face significant challenges.”

The synagogue had to weigh a loss in membership fees, but there were also some areas where they were able to save money.

BT Judaica items for High Holidays sale (Courtesy of Beth Tfiloh)

“We do expect to save some on the breadth and depth of security,” Miller said. “And we usually had to hire extra clergy, not to mention all the adults we hire to supervise children. But it’s not savings that we want to experience because it means less celebrating in person. That being said, it does alleviate the burden of some of the financial loss.”

Financial concerns aside, Beth Tfiloh’s staff and clergy are most focused on their relationships with the community. That’s why Beth Tfiloh created the High Holiday Experience, offering access to adult education programs, an abbreviated prayer book, prerecorded sermons and livestream services that keep with Orthodox rules. Miller noted these options make it possible for members to choose whether they are more comfortable in their homes or at the synagogue. Beth Tfiloh asks families to opt in to the Experience and register to contribute to the synagogue. However, the price is significantly less than in previous years and is per family, rather than based on the number of people in the family.

On the bright side, Beth Tfiloh has not seen a significant change in its attendance one way or another. Miller feels the community is very committed, and has seen so in the way many congregants have already donated through the pandemic.

To continue the spirit of support, Beth Tfiloh decided to revamp its annual campaign. While the campaign usually launches in the autumn, the congregation and school postponed the fundraiser this year until October. Though Miller stated that there is more need than ever for annual support, the staff and clergy wanted to be sensitive to time. Back in July when they usually design the campaign materials, they were still unsure of whether the school would be open or if the synagogue would have in-person High Holidays. “Not to mention, parents are having high anxieties about school starting. And congregants feel disappointed about the lack of a large gathering for High Holidays,” Miller said. “So we didn’t feel it was the best time to ask for philanthropic support.”

Beth Tfiloh's ad for annual campaign 2020 (courtey of Rina Goloscov)
Beth Tfiloh’s ad for annual campaign 2020 (courtesy of Rina Goloscov)

Once school has lifted the communities’ spirits and the congregation has a more steady idea of what the future will look like, Beth Tfiloh will begin virtual fundraising with double the effort. This will include a direct mail campaign, as well as a restyled phone-a-thon using Zoom this year.

“We have great volunteers every year. We want to give them the same excitement and camaraderie that they usually have, so we’re thinking about how to do that,” Miller said. She also wants to design a creative way to recognize donors, as they can’t have the usual dinner to thank them.

Nearly every synagogue is mourning the loss in togetherness, much greater than any financial woes.

“You don’t miss what you have until it’s no longer there and accessible,” Miller said.

Beth Tfiloh Congregation sanctuary, designed by Morris Lapidus (Jeremy Kargon)
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