Struggling Hamilton Synagogues Look to Share a Building

Irv Osterer

June 29, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

Sagging membership and rising debt are forcing two synagogues in Hamilton into formal talks about moving into a single building.

In letters to members released Wednesday (June 24), leaders of Temple Anshe Sholom, which is Reform, and the Conservative Beth Jacob Synagogue said member dues, cost-cutting and fundraising drives simply aren’t keeping with up the demands of two aging buildings.

Those problems, the leaders add, have been made worse by the COVID pandemic, which has cut deeply into revenues and hobbled fundraising efforts.

“Prior to the pandemic, TAS [Temple Anshe Sholom] was already in a difficult financial situation,” temple co-president Mark Levine wrote in a letter to members. “Contributing factors include a substantial decrease in membership over the past 10 years, and a shift in the demographics of our membership to mostly congregants over 65 years with few young people joining today.”

Beth Jacob’s five-member executive committee echoed those feelings.

Irv Osterer
Illustration by Irv Osterer

“Prior to this pandemic, we were already in a troubling financial situation, but we had hopes that expense reductions, a strong focus on budgeting, and revised energy in fundraising would find a solution,” they wrote. “Unfortunately, COVID-19 has moved all of our efforts to finding creative ways to maintain engagement and provide programming and meaningful services, while fundraising events have been cancelled or postponed …”

Beth Jacob leaders said they face the same demographic problem as the Temple: More than 60 percent of current members are 65 and over, and “many of our new younger family members are unable to contribute at levels like our founding member families have.”

Both institutions said they have struggled to access government programs to help, and all forecasts point to problems getting worse.

In March, those shared problems brought leaders of both congregations together in “high level meetings…to determine whether there was interest in collaborating in some fashion to address the challenges,” said the letter from Temple Anshe Sholom.

What emerged from those talks is a proposal for Beth Jacob to sell its edifice and move into the Temple’s building.

“The idea is to have the two congregations in one building, in order to find efficiencies by sharing some of the common operating and programmatic costs,” said Levine in the Temple’s letter.

The boards of both synagogues have approved the proposal, Beth Jacob on June 10 and the Temple on June 18. Both have said approval by the congregations is required before a final deal is struck.

And both say many questions remain to be ironed out, a process that could take up to 18 months.

Beth Jacob, on Aberdeen Avenue, was built in 1955 and extensively remodeled in 2011 at a cost of more than $1 million. Temple Anshe Sholom’s current home on Cline Avenue North was opened in 1952 and expanded in 1965. Both synagogues have active memberships of about 250 families.

Hamilton has a Jewish population of about 5,000.

Before committing to examine a shared facility, Beth Jacob’s leadership studied a partial sale of its building, but concluded “the net financial gain would not meet our needs or provide for a sustainable future. Beth Jacob is in severe indebtedness beyond our capability of servicing such debt in the future…The math just doesn’t seem to pencil out as a viable solution.”