Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Collapse of Kol Am: An Unfortunate One-Off, or An Early Warning?

This story was just sent out by STL Jewish Federation Exec Barry Rosenberg and I thought it was pretty relevant to a lot of the issues being faced in the Jewish community, but also in the larger community in St. Louis (and I'm sure in a few other places as well).

The Jewish Light reported last week that congregation Kol Am, a Reform congregation of 70 families in Chesterfield, was closing after 37 years. This just four years after relocating to a brand new, beautiful, 22,000 sq. ft. building. Due to fiscal issues, Rabbi Severine Haziza-Sokol was placed on unpaid leave toward the end of last year.

Why? Burdened by debt and challenged by the economic crisis, the congregation wasn't able to attract enough new families - even though it had an angel funder and very strong supplementary revenue stream from bingo - to meet loan obligations. The congregation had only grown from 50 to 70 families after the move.

It is not my purpose or place to evaluate past decisions, and certainly not to be critical. I was present for the groundbreaking and toured the new facility. I worked with Rabbi Haziza-Sokol. The new building represented a compelling vision. Generous donors made the vision seem attainable. Congregants held deep affection and worked hard for its success. They even explored the difficult option of merger - thinking a brand new building would be an attraction; but could not find a partner. No, my purpose is to sound a warning.

Numerous St. Louis Jewish institutions - congregations, day schools, organizations - face similar severe challenges. Simply put, in a shrinking Jewish community, when traditional institutions hold less attraction for young Jews, we have too much very expensive infrastructure - capital and administrative. Even if the population held steady, there are compelling reasons to explore collaboration, consolidation and shared administration and purchasing. That is why the Federation is assisting other organizations considering merger and taking the lead to bring Jewish organizations together to buy insurance more cheaply, invest funds more productively and fundraise more effectively.

The desire to carry on despite clear trend lines is understandable. No one wants to give up an institution that he or she (or one's parents) sacrificed. They are filled with powerful memories and friends. We have come to find meaning, to feel at home and at peace. They reflect our particular approach to Jewish life. These are deeply personal feelings. As Norman Berkowitz, President of Kol Am, was quoted, "Even if there are warning signs that a few years down the road they are going to be in more serious trouble, they'll take the gamble."

But what of the aftermath? A Rabbi out of a job. Sadness, loss for sure; but also likely are feelings of anger, frustration, and depression. Strained friendships? Will some families now just walk away from Jewish life? Does it have to be so painful?

The marketplace is unfeeling. Left to market forces, unfortunately other St. Louis Jewish organizations will fail - and the same outpouring of grief and anger can ensue. Faced with overwhelming odds, wouldn't it be wiser to be proactive? To seek a solution in an orderly way? There will still be loss... but maybe tragedy can be averted. Last week, Nishmah, the St. Louis Jewish Women's Project - announced that it will become a program department of the JCC and move to the new Arts & Education Department. Synergy will sustain the unique role that Nishmah fills in our community.

Beyond survival, it really is a matter of impact. An organization that is facing financial collapse, lurching from financial crisis to financial crisis, cannot muster the energy, focus or human resources to provide services of excellence. In fact, cutbacks, shortcuts, and desperate moves made to avert collapse result in a vicious cycle of declining users, financial and mission vitality.

The desire to sustain our Jewish traditions and institutions is noble. But our commitment to Dor l'Dor (generation to generation) means we must look forward as much as we honor the past. The challenge to the current generation of Jewish leaders is to make the wise and often tough decisions that will sustain a vibrant, inviting Jewish community for those who follow us. This is as much a moral responsibility as it is a practical one. May we learn from the loss of Kol Am... and wish its congregants, former Rabbi, and employees only good for the future.

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