An influx of grants in the last two years has uplifted the learning experience at Temple Beth Israel. Figure things now to get downright exhilarating. The 225-family Conservative congregation in Port Washington has received a $500,000 donation to enhance Jewish programing in what it is believed to be the largest gift of its kind.
"It will enable us to hire someone with top credentials in Jewish education to turn us upside down and reassemble everything in a new and exciting way," said Rabbi Toni Shy.
The money, from an anonymous donor, will be spread over five years. Rabbi Shy said a congregational search committee expects to begin interviewing candidates this month for the position of director of Jewish education.
The donation comes on the heels of a $130,000 UJA-Federation continuity grant last year "to infuse the synagogue with an opportunity for Jewish growth using music and art as a vehicle," Rabbi Shy said, noting that the synagogue also received family education grants in the last two years from the Board of Jewish Education.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he had never before heard of a "gift of this magnitude for programming. I think this is a great signal that people have an understanding that what really makes a synagogue is not the building but what goes on in that building."
He added that he was hopeful that other philanthropists would begin to understand that "they have an ability to contribute to the content of the congregation and not only the structure."
The gift was termed "most enlightened" by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
"The synagogue is a very important institution in the American Jewish community," said Rabbi Schorsch. "Yet it doesn’t have sufficient staff to serve its multiple constituencies. Congregations are lucky if they have a rabbi, and blessed if they have a cantor or educational director.
"The great irony of the Jewish condition in America is that we know that the synagogue is the most vital institution in the country, yet it is the most understaffed. That’s why this gift is right on target. It makes available funds to hire additional religious leadership for the synagogue so it can do its job better."
Rabbi Schorsch pointed out that "all of the indicators of Jewish identity correlate to synagogue membership." For instance, he said, a recent study found that 67 percent of those who belong to Jewish community centers are also synagogue members. And those who make sizeable gifts to their Jewish federation most likely belong to a synagogue.
Rabbi Shy said her congregation increased in membership by 15 percent in the last year (the first significant change in years) primarily due to a series of new programming initiatives. "There is much excitement here," she said.
The congregation’s president, Jack Genicoff, attributed much of the excitement to Rabbi Shy, who came to Temple Beth Israel two years ago.
"It was her care and giving that has generated a new enthusiasm," he said. "It has attracted new people and kept people from leaving. She has offered a broader range of activities that have brought more people into being involved on a more regular basis."
He termed the $500,000 donation a "terrific opportunity to enhance the education of our children (as well as ourselves) by offering new programming and special things we never could have done before."
The congregation has a religious school of 150 students and a nursery school of 50. Space limitations forced the nursery school to turn away youngsters, but Genicoff said he expects that to change in two years because of a $2.5 million building project that will nearly double the size of the synagogue. The project, which is slated to begin next fall and take up to a year to complete, would increase the number of classrooms from four to 10 and feature a new sanctuary and social hall.
Annette Kasle, a member of the search committee and a congregant for 18 years, said she can’t get over what is happening to her congregation.
"All of a sudden we are blossoming," she said.
Kasle said she saw the donation as a chance to "offer a continuum of education to members of all ages."
"I’d like to start thinking outside of the box and to work with a professional who can work that way. We’re looking for one person who can be the education czar for the temple, who can identify the issues and is sufficiently educated in what are the best practices in Jewish education. I hope we find someone who fires up everyone’s imagination … and recaptures the post bar- and bat-mitzvah kids. At this point, there is no programming for them."
Rabbi Shy added that the annual $100,000 donation (nearly equivalent to the entire religious school budget) would "position us to re-examine and re-create the religious school, taking into account that which has been successful in other schools, in family education programs, and in other settings, such as Jewish camps and retreats."