Local Jewish organizations brace for uncertain financial future
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COVID-19Dues, donations and difficult decisions

Local Jewish organizations brace for uncertain financial future

Synagogues, schools, not-for-profits will all be affected by COVID-19

Community organizations are anticipating difficult times ahead as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Graphic by scaliger/iStockphoto.com
Community organizations are anticipating difficult times ahead as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Graphic by scaliger/iStockphoto.com

With the COVID-19 outbreak forcing all non-essential businesses to shutter their doors and lay off thousands, the local Jewish nonprofit world has begun planning for the financial implications it surely will face as well.

“There are so many unknowns as we move forward,” said Congregation Beth Shalom’s president, Debby Firestone. “When will our preschool reopen? When will we be back to normal business? When will we reopen our sanctuary? Will our tenants still be there?”

To help confront the enormity of the situation, Beth Shalom has been working with self-imposed deadlines.

“The first is making sure that all of our employees are paid through April 19. And then, we’re focusing on day-to-day things because things change daily,” Firestone said.

Temple David in Monroeville is also in the early stages of construing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and what it will mean to the Reform congregation.

“We have a small staff and a paid rabbi,” explained Reena Goldberg, Temple David’s president. “A lot of our activities are run by volunteers, so maybe compared to a bigger synagogue, we don’t have as many people here that we are trying to figure things out for.”

Beth Samuel Jewish Center has not had to furlough any employees, but the congregation’s president, Bill Snider, noted that the Ambridge synagogue has begun to feel the financial impact in other ways.

“The biggest impact we’ve faced so far is the effect on our endowment fund, which is invested in the market,” said Snider. “Like anyone else that has a 401K in the market, it’s been hit quite hard. We use that fund for major projects, major renovations to our building. If something were to happen, if we would need a new roof, we would definitely be hampered by that.”

Loss of revenue for congregations is also tied to fundraising.

“We’ve seen a decrease in income,” offered Warren Sufrin, president of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. “In our case it’s because of bingo.” The weekly community event, now canceled indefinitely, attracts a large number of players from the South Hills and has served as a vital fundraiser for the congregation for decades.

Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill relies on voluntary pledges from its members, rather than traditional dues.

“The crisis hit at a point where most people had finished paying for their commitments this year,” according to the congregation’s president, Saul Straussman. But Temple Sinai is trying to determine how the financial impact will affect next year’s budget.

“And that,” said Straussman, “is anybody’s wild guess.”

Leaders from congregations Poale Zedeck and Shaare Torah said they have not yet felt an impact related to dues but are aware that their members may be feeling the financial blow.

“We’ll have to deal with that as it comes,” said Poale Zedeck’s president Dr. Louis Felder.

Recognizing that people are out of work, Shaare Torah’s president Jonathan Young acknowledged “it will affect us in some way” although he does not expect the congregation to feel the repercussions of that reality for a couple months.

Like many other congregations in the area, Adat Shalom Synagogue in Cheswick has “no intention of letting any staff go,” said the congregation’s president, Amy Himmel.

“We are going to do everything in our power to retain everyone.”

To accomplish that goal, many congregations, as well as other Jewish nonprofits, are applying for the federal small business loans made available as part of the CARES Act, through which Congress has allocated $349 billion in funding to help keep workers employed amid the pandemic and economic downturn. The initiative provides 100% federally guaranteed loans to small business and nonprofits with fewer than 500 employees. The loan would be forgiven if businesses substantially retain employees pursuant to a preset formula.

Community Day School Head of School Avi Baran Munro is working to not only keep the CDS staff employed through the current period of virtual instruction but is also “taking every opportunity to keep our school intact,” she said. “We are applying for the SBA loan made possible through the federal relief plan and informing our employees of their rights if they are unable to work.”

Munro is aware that there will be “long term impacts for the entire world,” acknowledging the likelihood of a recession. “The job of community leaders will be to think about the community they wish to see in five, 10 or 15 years and help now to ensure the continuity of what the community has built so far.”

Yeshiva Schools also has moved to online classes, and while the school anticipates collecting most of its regular tuition, its administration realizes that “unfortunately, there are some families suffering and we will work with them on a case-by-case basis,” said Rabbi Chezky Rosenfeld, director of development.

Temple Emanuel of South Hills Early Childhood Director Iris Harlan said that the preschool has not furloughed any teachers, even though the school is temporarily closed, and is paying them through April 15.

But Temple Emanuel’s ECDC is “grappling with the issue of tuition versus reimbursement,” Harlan explained. “Many of our families have offered to donate their tuition. We’re asking that from families that are able. It’s going specifically toward teacher compensation.”

The financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t only affecting synagogues and schools. Melissa Haviv, Classroom Without Borders’ assistant director, said the organization will “definitely have financial losses.”

Haviv explained that the cost of reimbursing for canceled trips and seminars will impact Classrooms Without Borders but she credits founder Dr. Zipora Gur with building a foundation that enables the organization to weather the storm.

“She’s a second-generation Holocaust survivor so she knows how to plan,” Haviv said. “We don’t have to worry about laying off staff or anything like that.”

Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh Director Lauren Bairnsfather said her organization will continue to offer virtual programs despite having to temporarily close its doors and noted that her full staff is working “as hard as they did before.” April, she said, is the Center’s busiest month, “with Yom HaShoah, and now a full slate of programs for Genocide Awareness month.”
Bairnsfather, like the heads of many other local Jewish institutions, is working closely with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh for financial guidance and assistance. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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