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The ‘Your Name Here’ Synagogue

The ‘Your Name Here’ Synagogue

Lincoln Square, with construction frozen, plans to sell naming rights and seeks to triple capital campaign.

If you tour the shell of what is to be the main sanctuary of Lincoln Square Synagogue’s three-story, 50,000-square-foot building on Amsterdam Avenue at 69th Street, it is easy to envision the circular design that has become the synagogue’s trademark.

“You go inside and you have this incredible vision of what it will be,” says Alan Samuels, vice president at Lincoln Square Synagogue. “You look up and you can see just how big this is.”

You’ll also notice that construction has stopped, though the building is only 60 percent built. To complete the project, the synagogue faces a gargantuan task: raising more than twice the amount its capital campaign had initially secured in pledges. Though they won’t have an exact figure until early next month, those familiar with the matter estimate that Lincoln Square will need to raise an additional $15 million to $17 million to complete the building as originally envisioned.

To date, the synagogue has collected $6.1 million of the $7.25 million originally pledged. Another $500,000 is due before the end of the year, confirmed Phyllis Getzler, chair of the capital campaign committee.

To come up with some $15 million in additional funds, the synagogue has put forth a few creative fundraising solutions. The first involves making a deal with a joint venture partner who would rent or purchase space on the third floor. The second would be to sell the naming rights to the synagogue building. While synagogues have a long history of selling naming rights to mezuzahs, the rabbi’s study and the ark, Lincoln Square will be one of the first synagogues to seek out a mega-donor to impart his or her name on the synagogue’s actual building. In New York, the only precedent of sorts is the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue, which was commissioned by Safra and opened on the Upper East Side in 2003.

This model of offering naming rights to the top donor is most common at universities. In June, Annette and Leonard Shapiro dedicated the synagogue at American Jewish University, in Los Angeles, in memory of their son, David, who died from diabetes. The synagogue was named the David Alan Shapiro Memorial Synagogue Center. And in Rochester, Minn., the B’nai Israel Synagogue also houses the Dan Abraham Jewish Cultural Center. The congregation’s banquet hall is known as the Friedman Social Hall and its adult education and religious school is called the Miles and Shirley Fiterman Jewish Education Center.

Naming rights for Lincoln Square’s new building may go for as much as $15 million. “The rule of thumb in the philanthropic world is that naming rights go for about 30 percent of the cost of the building,” says Perry Davis, president of Perry Davis Associates, Inc., a fundraising consultancy, and an active lay leader at the congregation.

How the $30 million project morphed into a nearly $50 million project is a matter of debate. Insiders blame the synagogue’s decision to go with “fast-tracking,” a method of construction that allows you to begin pouring the foundation before the entire structure of the building has been developed. At the time, the synagogue had entered into a land swap with a real estate firm that paid the synagogue approximately $20 million. The synagogue had 12 months to complete its new building before the developer would knock down the existing synagogue and build a 40-story tower of condos in its place. “Our biggest fear when the project was started was that we would be homeless,” says Samuels.

Few could have predicted that the economy would tank, prompting the firm to put its plans on hold. Because of fast-tracking, the synagogue couldn’t nail down all of the costs up-front. The price of steel, for example, rose significantly, adding approximately $1 million to the project’s cost since the price had not been locked in. A lawsuit with a nearby residential building held up the project by almost a year, in addition to costing the synagogue money it didn’t have. And the synagogue had to spend money excavating and shoring up the building next door, to avoid a second lawsuit.

Then there were internal decisions, including the purchase of a more expensive air-conditioning system to the tune of some $750,000.

“The air conditioning always goes out on Kol Nidre night and everyone has a horror story about how the AC didn’t work at their son’s bar mitzvah,” says Morton Landowne, a former Lincoln Square president. “It resonated because of the problems in the previous building.”

While lay leaders of the congregation are looking into ways to cut costs, since the building’s structure is already in place, many changes would only increase costs, rather than save the congregation money.

And finally, there’s the possibility that Lincoln Square simply overreached. While the building’s design by architectural firm CetraRuddy — with its distinctive, $3 million glass façade — won awards and is on show at The Center for Architecture in Manhattan, there are those who question whether synagogues really need “show buildings” to attract members.

“Did we really need the third floor? Probably not,” a prominent lay leader of the synagogue told The Jewish Week. “If we were doing this all over again, I think we would have waited to build the third floor at some point in the future.”

Lincoln Square’s leadership may also have gotten carried away with the mandate of designing the only synagogue on the Upper West Side to be built in the past half century. “Decisions were made with good intentions and great pride in our institution,” says Davis. “But we had big eyes.”

The third floor, which can be converted into 12 classrooms and a number of offices, may actually be the synagogue’s saving grace. In a philanthropic gambit that is relatively novel in the Jewish world, Lincoln Square is hoping to raise significant funds by seeking out a joint-venture partner who would either sign a long-term lease or purchase the space. “We have space, and we need money,” says Davis, chair of Lincoln Square’s joint venture committee. “It’s a natural thing to think about.”

Halting construction will allow Lincoln Square to make changes to the building’s design to accommodate the joint-venture partner. The current design features two entrances, one of which could be used exclusively by the partner organization.

The synagogue is in talks with one possible partner and is scheduled to meet with two potential joint-venture partners this week, confirmed Davis. “I can’t name names at this point,” Davis said, adding that the synagogue is open to both Jewish and non-Jewish partners. Many of Lincoln Square’s congregants are involved as top lay leaders at a diverse group of Jewish organizations, so it is likely the synagogue will seek out a compatible partner in a Jewish institution. Doing so would allow for the greater possibility of joint programming.

Lincoln Square had originally conceived of the idea for a joint venture partner three years ago, when it first began conceptualizing the new building, yet the idea was shelved. “At the time, it was a nice thing to do,” Davis says. “Now, it’s something we have to do.”

Davis is joined by 40 or so volunteers who have been devoting between two and four hours a day “trying to make things work.” Including his firm’s pro bono fundraising support, he estimates that the synagogue is the beneficiary of pro bono assistance in the “six-figure range.” (In fact, at a recent meeting, a prominent lawyer who has been active in helping the synagogue raise funds needed to complete the building announced, “You have no idea how much money I’m not making [while volunteering].”)

It is possible that the organization that would come to a real estate agreement with Lincoln Square, or someone associated with that organization, would also want the naming opportunity.

“In the area of Jewish philanthropy, there is great merit to anonymous giving; however, namings stimulate further philanthropy and are therefore a healthy and appropriate thing to do,” says Davis.

In addition to naming the building, donors will also have the opportunity to name the 10,000-square-foot ballroom, which Lincoln Square says will be the largest, kosher ballroom in Manhattan.

Since the synagogue announced earlier this month that it was halting construction until it raised more funds, approximately $50,000 in unsolicited donations have come in, ranging from $1,800 to $10,000. And some of the people who have already given are increasing their gifts. “This has caused a great deal of upset, but it is not being expressed in a way that is obstructive to the capital campaign,” says Davis.

Once Lincoln Square secures a joint-venture partner and a significant donor seeking naming rights, the synagogue plans to tap its own members to fill any remaining gap in funds. Of the $7 million that has already been raised, approximately half of the funds came from non-members. “We did outreach before we did in-reach,” says Getzler. “Some grew up in Lincoln Square and have wonderful memories. For others, Lincoln Square is where they started their religious lives.”

Of the 650 member families, as many as 500 have yet to be approached to help fund the new building.

The synagogue recently received authorization from its board to borrow as much as $5 million, though it has yet to do so as that would strain the synagogue’s day-to-day operating budget. This is “the money of last resort,” says Landowne. n


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