An undisclosed donor has committed $20 million to complete construction of the Lincoln Square Synagogue’s 50,000-square-foot building on the Upper West Side and provide a small endowment, the congregation told its members Thursday.
The gift, however, comes with a string: It is contingent on the synagogue raising an additional $3 million by April 30, 2011. The donor, whose identity is known only to the synagogue’s rabbi, Shaul Robinson, also stipulated that “an overwhelming majority” of the synagogue’s membership donate to the cause.
The Jewish Week reported last month that the Modern Orthodox synagogue, located at Amsterdam Avenue and West 69th Street, had halted construction on its new building due to cost overruns. Synagogue insiders estimated that the synagogue needed as much as $17 million to complete the building as planned.
To make up for this shortfall, Lincoln Square was considering selling naming rights to its building and sharing space with a joint venture partner. The donor nixed the joint venture concept, though the synagogue would still be able to house an organization as its tenants.
It is unlikely that the donor will seek the naming rights, as he or she has requested “absolute confidentiality,” according to Lincoln Square. In an interview, Rabbi Robinson refused to answer questions about the donor’s identity and whether the donor is affiliated with the synagogue.
In the two days from the time the rabbi informed the synagogue’s board about the significant gift and the official announcement at Thursday’s membership meeting, more than $500,000 of the $3 million had been pledged or paid.
“The momentum is really incredible, as you can imagine,” said Perry Davis, president of Perry Davis Associates, Inc., a fundraising consultancy, and an active lay leader at the congregation. Davis attributes this surge in unsolicited donations to the excitement surrounding the $20 million anonymous gift.
The leadership of Lincoln Square is now working out a strategy on how best to approach the synagogue’s membership to raise the additional $2.5 million as stipulated by the donor. Until this point, the capital campaign committee had focused its efforts on an estimated 150 members capable of giving large sums.
In an address to the entire congregation last Shabbat morning, Phyllis Getzler, who heads the shul’s capital campaign committee, appealed to her fellow congregants to give as much as they are able. “Think about the fact that many of us walked into a ready-built shul; we were never asked to contribute to the physical structure we use so many times a year,” she said.
The current property has been sold to a developer.
The synagogue plans to present the conditions of the gift as an opportunity to make the most of donors’ charitable dollars, much in the same way that matching grants are appealing to many givers. “For each dollar of the first $3 million we raise, we are getting $6.77,” said Getzler. “So a $1,000 pledge would provide the synagogue with $6,777 in additional funds. That’s certainly bang for the buck.”
The April 30 deadline had injected a newfound feeling of immediacy among the synagogue’s lay leadership. Currently, the synagogue is paying hefty security fees to protect the new building. The sooner they raise the $3 million, the sooner they’ll be able to resume construction. “If we raise $3 million by Jan. 15 or Feb. 4, that is when we will get rest of money and start construction,” said Getzler. “We’re aiming to do this as fast as possible.”
Lincoln Square has discourages speculation about the anonymous donor’s identity.
“To respect the donor’s wishes, we are asking that there be no speculation or guessing games as to the identity of this generous person,” a spokesperson, Gloria Kestenbaum, told The Jewish Week.
The donor’s request for anonymity has provided the synagogue with a second gift, Davis said. “Instead of focusing on the ‘who,’ we should focus on the ‘why’: What inspired somebody or some group to make this kind of tremendous gift? It is the legacy of the synagogue or the expectation of where the synagogue will be in the future? We have the challenge of living up to that inspiration.”
A version of this story first appeared on The Jewish Week website last Thursday night.