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Building the Building


When Adat Shalom broke ground for its permanent home in Bethesda, Maryland, last summer to climax a seven-year capital campaign, the congregation celebrated in fine Reconstructionist style -- in a circle.

Strips of ribbon were passed around so that every congregant connected to another member by holding a brightly colored snippet. The cantor played her guitar, people linked up and danced. There were speeches, of course, but not many, not long.

Adat Shalom's new home - under construction
September 2000 A member of
Adat Shalom surveys the entrance
with the sanctuary rising behind

"The way we did that groundbreaking speaks to how we do everything at Adat Shalom," says Carol Feder, who chaired the capital campaign for the first four years. "We're always mindful of keeping a lot of people involved. There was no public distinction," she adds, "among different levels of giving. The people who sat up front were the people who did the work."

In a movement of feisty, independent congregations infused with an anti-edifice complex, it turns out there are ways to raise money and feel good about it. Some twenty-five JRF affiliates are doing just that -- conducting capital campaigns, or conducting services in buildings built or bought through a recent campaign. The starting point for each seems the same:

       1. We hate the whole idea of raising money.
       2. Uh, it's getting awfully crowded in here.
       3. We'd better talk about raising money.

"Unlike other religious communities, our movement has a strong anti- institutional orientation", observes Mark Seal, executive vice-president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF). There's a sense of, "How can we even think about intensive fundraising when one of the central motivating factors that led to the creation of our community was a rejection of the culture of fundraising within the broader Jewish community?"

A Reconstructionist style of capital campaign is nevertheless emerging. Campaign leaders throughout the movement are discovering that the same values-based decision-making that goes into hiring a rabbi or crafting a tikkun olam program can help them face up to the naming honors, plaques, pledge levels, fundraiser burn-out, site-selection, professional consulting help, and other challenges involved in finding or developing a new home.

We processed until we were blue in the face," says Carol Chestler, a founding member and former president of Havurah Shalom in Portland, Oregon. "We came to a much clearer sense of who we were. It shaped our identity." Havurah Shalom's new home
Havurah Shalom's new home

Seven years ago, Havurah Shalom was outgrowing its space. The group had been founded in 1980 by twenty families, breaking away from an established congregation because, as Andy Gordon, a founding member, puts it, "We wanted participatory Judaism rather than consumer Judaism." After more than a decade of "temporary" residence in Portland's Jewish Community Center, the congregation's nearly two hundred households were forced to confront their future. "If you had told me we would own a building and raise $2 million, I'd have said it would never happen," says Carol Chestler. "We used to joke about the B-word: We didn't even want to say 'building.' The symbols of Judaism we'd grown up with were great edifices and we didn't want that. We wanted to be small and participatory and informal." 

Deciding how to conduct a campaign was slow but utterly participatory. Havurah Shalom first tackled long-range planning, "preparing people for the idea that we need a facility," says Chestler. Looking for space was the best next step. When they heard about a church or other building for sale, they scheduled a congregational meeting inside to see how the space felt. Nothing felt right until the warehouse came along: a one-story, no-frills building on Portland's northwest side where Havurah Shalom has worshiped, met, and studied since Autumn, 1998. Situated in an old, light-industrial area, the warehouse has no off-street parking, no High Holidays mega-sanctuary -- and no plaques.

"We are a plaqueless society," says Andy Gordon. "We hired a consultant who told us to find one or two donors for it all, put their names on the building. We said uh-uh. If we couldn't raise the money without plaques and names, we weren't going to have a building. There are no Mrs. Schwartz tables, you don't sit on Fred Goldstein's bima."

Purchase of the building nevertheless depended on a few individuals willing to lend the money to buy the $350,000 warehouse on speculation. If the congregation didn't have a remodeling plan within a year, the building would be sold to repay the loans. Lenders would be 'made whole' from congregational reserves if there were a loss on resale.

"When we asked for it," Gordon reports, "the money appeared." Participation in the capital campaign reached an astonishing 98%. Now they're in Phase II, raising more money to remodel a second building on-site for classrooms and a social hall. So far, 75% have repledged. Despite fears that a capital campaign would lead to a membership exodus, the congregation has grown to more than three hundred households. This participatory generosity is the flip side of Gordon's searing memory of the synagogue of his young adulthood, which had, he reports, a pitch at Yom Kippur Yizkor, pledge cards in the prayer book, and every pledge announced from the pulpit.

The list of Reconstructionist capital campaigns is long enough that Toronto's Darchei Noam decided to launch its own effort with a fact-finding tour. "Reconstructionists tend to share some of the same issues and problems," says president Debbie Rose, who joined Rabbi Larry Pinsker for a five-synagogue road show along the East Coast in summer 1999. "Almost every one talked about the fear they couldn't raise the money. What they found in every case was that the money was there and they had a successful campaign."

Rose found another common thread that might surprise some in this do-it-yourself movement: professional fundraisers. They were "very expensive," she says, but "more than made up for it" in what they raised and how they kept congregations on track. "They kept morale high and motivation high. Volunteers lose momentum and get tired and don't make the calls they have to," Rose observes. One congregation, she says, was "kicking itself" because its first fund drive hadn't been bold or large enough. Now it was launching a second drive to accommodate all the needs created by families that joined after the first drive.

Darchei Noam is nearly a year from launch, but the congregation has already hired a professional fundraiser. Their motivation for a capital campaign demonstrates another Reconstructionist common thread: raw necessity. Darchei Noam has a lease that probably won't be renewed in three or four years. Steady growth in membership and programming has the 280-household congregation bursting its rented seams.

For Adat Shalom in Maryland, too, moving became inevitable in the early 1990s, thanks to its growth. "We were the wandering Jews, from church to church to JCC," says Adat Shalom's Carol Feder. "No place could hold us any more."

The congregation broke ground this spring on a two-phase, $4 million campaign that will move it from Rockville to Bethesda. The money is all being raised within the community, including the structured debt. But the congregation actually started "investing" eight years ago, long before the first dollar was raised, by under-taking a "community-raising program." In Adat-speak, that meant an effort to bring almost all families on board before a decision was made to build a permanent home. This involved small meetings in individual homes, as many as a dozen on a single night. The idea, said Rabbi Fred Dobb, was "to talk about about what is special in their experience about Adat Shalom, and to strengthen communication -- to bring in the entire community at every possible phase." This process began on the watch of the founding rabbi, Sid Schwarz, who now devotes himself full-time to his Washington Institute for Jewish leadership and Values.

Feder credits Schwarz with overcoming widespread reluctance to undertake a capital campaign. "Sid educated us. He told us we're not killing the environment by building," she says. "He educated us on naming -- how it was okay to honor those who came before us." Honors were nevertheless a tricky business. It started off easy: no naming anything. "Then we realized that people have good reason to memorialize and honor," Rabbi Dobb says. 

"Yet we didn't want disparities of income to determine how we look at or feel about our building." Many drafts later, a policy emerged: Spaces will be named, but "discreetly." A small plaque, not an entranceway arch or wing, will memorialize a loved one. Rooms will be known by function rather than by donor, even if a small sign recognizes a naming honor. "Potential big donors are fine with this recognition and share this value," Dobb says. Adat Shalom prides itself on "tremendous brainpower, not tremendous capital power," he continues. "Reconstructionist communities don?t attract the most affluent Jews to begin with, and metropolitan Washington is dominated by civil service and nonprofit enterprises. We had very real challenges in meeting our fundraising goals."

One popular Adat Shalom story relates to financial planning meetings at which board members debated how best to invest what had already been raised, and how both construction costs and fundraising might be affected by changing interest rates. At that point, all eyes would turn to former treasurer Steve Sharpe, whose day job happened to be on Alan Greenspan's staff at the Federal Reserve.

"People think because I'm an economist at the Fed, I've got inside information about what the government?s going to do about interest rates," Sharpe says. "All I have to do is smile and people think I know something. I keep that information very tight to my chest."

Sharpe has had other reasons to smile. "What I've heard again and again is that a participation rate of 80 % is unheard of in most congregations," he said. "The usual is well below 50 % and the distribution is highly concentrated." Not so for Adat Shalom. A few naysayers bailed out, but that was just a handful. "No one really wanted to build, but we knew we had to to survive, and we had to grow to thrive," says Sharpe. "We all were drawn in."

Carol Feder recalls a solicitation she made to a woman who had little money and was reluctant to pledge. "I told her, $18 to the campaign makes you feel like you can put your hand on the hammer when we put up that mezuzah," Feder says. "We want everybody to feel like they can put their hand on that hammer."

Congregations that have been through the painful process of fundraising are now reaping the rewards. In Naperville, Illinois, forty-five minutes west of Chicago, Congregation Beth Shalom's move into a new home has drawn it closer to the Reconstructionist movement and more vibrantly into Jewish life, according to president Vicki Robinson. "There was no place to buy Judaica in our area, so now our gift shop is popular," she says. "And we have the only kosher kitchen in the western suburbs. We've become much more of a Jewish center, and we're becoming more involved in the movement." One example: Beth Shalom hosted a JRF "Torah of Money" Workshop April 1-2, one of four offered by the federation this spring.

Havurah Shalom did likewise, Feb. 13-14, in Portland. "We have a thing about money here," says Andy Gordon, who attended. "We don't want to talk about it. We don't want to deal with it." In fact, the congregation has found some novel ways of not talking about money. Capital campaign solicitors visited congregants and asked them what they liked, or would like to change, about Havurah. They provided a "little green sheet" with suggested ranges of contributions for various income ranges. But no specific amount was sought or disclosed. Contributions are kept so secret that only the Sphinx-quiet Sy Chestler knows who gives, and how much. He doesn't have to report any info to the board -- or to spouse-fundraiser Carol. She sees no contradiction in a "havurah building." "Having a permanent home isn't about the building. The building just makes everything else possible -- the programming, the rabbi's space, Shabbat luncheons, seders."

And it provides a base for tikkun olam (repair of the world, social action). "In order to do good in the world you sometimes need a base from which to operate. Then you can go and do all kinds of things out in the world."

The JRF's role in Reconstructionist capital campaigning has been both responsive and pro-active. "A whole series of congregations are coming of age at the same time," observes Mark Seal. Twin forces are at work: the internal need to respond to members' demands for a full-service synagogue, and an external "need to make a statement to the broader community about permanence and seriousness." 

Seal and his predecessor, Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, have visited and consulted with congregations to help them work through the specifics of their campaigns. The JRF "Torah of Money" seminars have widened the circle, meeting a "clearly articulated need," says Seal, for conversations about values and common themes. 

"What JRF congregations are finding," he observes, "is that the spiritual connections created by the capital campaign can be profound -- and that if you build a home for the community, you can call all of the shots. You can address environmental concerns, labor and human relations policies, community programming, Jewish education -- all within the context of your shared values. It's an opportunity to create a total community, a realization of your collective utopian ideals within your own building."


Beth Israel's "Bateam" 
-- three percent for Low-Income Home Ownership

Social Action has always been a significant part of the fabric of Congregation Beth Israel community in Middletown Township, Pennsylvania. In 1997, when the congregation began preparations for a $1.2 million capital campaign to build its spiritual home, members spoke up and said: "If we are fortunate enough to contemplate creating a house of worship that will uplift our spirits, shouldn't we share both our spirit and resources to build a home for a family that has no place to call home?" Under the leadership of Rabbi Linda Potemken (RRC '97), the idea was discussed with the synagogue's Social Action, Religious Action, Education, Capital Campaign and Executive Committees, and an ad-hoc committee was formed to come up with a plan.

What emerged was Bateam -- from the Hebrew for "houses," with spelling that contains the word "team" -- a program that dedicates three percent of every capital campaign contribution towards low-income housing construction. The program was inspired by Leviticus 19:9-10: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. . . . you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger." Assuming even 100% participation (families preferring not to have participate can make that choice on their pledge cards), Bateam would have only $36,000 -- not enough actually to build a home. Beth Israel therefore chose to partner with the Chester Community Improvement Project (CCIP), which is seeking to revitalize the city of Chester by building a base of home ownership through housing rehabilitation, new housing construction and mortgage counseling. CCIP has been operating since 1978 and has provided a lease-purchase program for over 100 low- and moderate-income families.

The average renovation cost is about $40,000, and new home construction about $80,000. Beth Israel will "build" its house as follows: Contributions to CCIP will be applied to whatever housing construction is underway. When Beth Israel's contributions reach a $5,000 threshold, the congregation will be notified that there is enough to purchase a tax-distressed parcel of land and/or house for renovation. When $10,000 is accumulated, the congregation will be notified that enough has been raised to build the shell -- and so on. When funding equals the cost of a complete home, a recently constructed or rehabilitated house will be chosen by CCIP to symbolize Beth Israel's achievement. At the same time, congregation members and their children will have the opportunity to volunteer with the agency to help landscape, clear debris, or perform non-skilled construction tasks. It is our hope that Bateam can be a model for other congregations. So much is needed and so little is done!

Reporting by Rae Roeder, Stuart Pittel, Burt Cohen and Rabbi Linda Potemken


Type: RT Article

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