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Historic Park Slope synagogue establishes ‘emergency stabilization fund’

Congregation Beth Elohim, a historic Reform synagogue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, has established an “emergency stabilization fund” to collect money from congregants and trustees after significant sources of revenue were eliminated during the coronavirus outbreak.

“This is the most urgent message I have had to write as CBE’s president,” said president Rob Raich in a letter to members. “Our financial health has been seriously impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.”

The congregation hosts an after-school program, event rentals, pool and gym classes and other fee-for-services programs cancelled due to the virus. It established the fund two weeks ago to collect money from trustees and other community stakeholders, and then sent a fundraising letter to congregants last week.

The synagogue was founded in 1861, and has long-served as both a community center for people of all faiths and a synagogue. It’s a designated historic landmark, and it played a role in the revitalization of its affluent Brooklyn neighborhood. The congregation is made up of 950 households, but serves a much broader community.

Raich, who has served as president for two years, clarified in a phone call that the outbreak is not threatening immediate operations.

“We are not going to hit that existential wall,” he said.

He said the fund will give the synagogue the ability to offer a wide range of programming next year, despite the drop in revenue.

But still, a 2019 report from the congregation showed 61% of revenue came from after-school programs, which have been cancelled, preschool, which is happening virtually and camp, which is still up in the air. Parents were able to choose between a credit or refund for the after-school trimester that was cancelled.

Raich and Alan Herman, the synagogue’s executive director and chief operating officer, said between revenue normally drawn from facilities rentals, after-school programs and other offerings, the synagogue is asking donors to help it make up a $2 million shortfall.

It appears that Congregation Beth Elohim is among the first synagogues to make an appeal like this. While the Union of Reform Judaism did not respond to a question about the number of congregations in similarly perilous financial situations, Julie Livingston, a spokeswoman for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said experts there “have not heard of anything as overt as the fundraising request” from Congregation Beth Elohim.

Raich said the synagogue is about halfway to its goal, and they have found a private foundation willing to match donations, but they “have a long way to go.”

Beth Elohim was approved for a loan from the Small Business Administration designed to cover payroll expenses in the short term.

Raich said the synagogue’s diverse revenue stream, normally a source of strength, has created a challenge for the community. The congregation was financially prepared for something like a flood, but expected to still be operating programming, even if it meant renting space elsewhere.

He said the coronavirus outbreak defied “realistic planning.”

“I would describe this entire pandemic as frustrating on many levels,” said Raich.

Correction, May 5, 5:00 p.m.: ​An earlier version of this story stated that CBE had found a person to match donations; in fact, it was a private foundation. That version also failed to count summer camp as part of the 61% of the synagogue’s revenue.

Molly Boigon is an investigative reporter at the Forward. Contact her at [[email protected](opens in new tab)](mailto:[email protected](opens in new tab) “[email protected](opens in new tab)”) or follow her on Twitter @MollyBoigon

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