Can the bottom line be the only line for a Jewish organization?
That question is being asked in response to Temple Emeth’s abrupt announcement that its early childhood center will not open in the fall.
The classrooms used by the early childhood program in Teaneck, which serves 2- to 3-year-olds, instead will be rented to the board of education in nearby Bergenfield for that town’s special education program.
The decision, announced in a Saturday night email, left parents furious, particularly because registration at some other programs already had closed.
“We told the parents the same week the deal was concluded,” said the congregation’s Rabbi Steven Sirbu. “An opportunity came to the board’s attention about two month ago and it needed full vetting.
“It’s a sad time for everybody at Temple Emeth, because we’ve enjoyed having these children in our building. Education is an important part of our mission. It’s sad for us that we’re losing this piece of our programming.
“A lot of parents are upset with us for making this decision so late in the year. I can certainly relate to that, because I’m a parent and it would throw off my plans if this happened to me. But the demographics have changed, so that we just couldn’t get enough people to come through our doors and take advantage of our programs.”
The money it gets from renting the space will bring “financial stability” to the synagogue, which last year ran a deficit, Rabbi Sirbu said. If the early childhood center been operating at full capacity, there would have been no need to rent out the space.
Instead, enrollment is only at 68, half of capacity, according to Amy Abrams, a member of the Temple Emeth board and head of its space optimization task force.
She said that when the task force first was created, it wasn’t looking to replace the early childhood program but to find supplemental income.
“The early childhood center was only using half of the space,” Ms. Abrams said. “We were hoping we could design something where we could use the other half of the classroom wing. If we were looking to toss the early childhood center and start over, we would have made the connection with Bergenfield much earlier.”
Instead, the task force only learned that Bergenfield was looking for classrooms in late March, she said.
“If we could have fixed the timing, believe me we would have. We honestly did not know we had a deal until the Bergenfield board of education agreed to the agreement in principle. We still don’t have a signed lease. We did talk about trying to share space and defer closing early childhood for a year. Unfortunately those were not options. We had talked a number of time about putting the entire process off for a year. They were not in a position to do that.”
The synagogue officials also knew that the early childhood program had been founded, more than 20 years ago, as a feeder to move young families toward synagogue membership. But “that trend has decreased until we don’t have any potential member families that I’m aware of in the program at the present time,” Rabbi Sirbu said.
While the program has been adapting to its increasingly Orthodox and Conservative constituency, it recently experienced “a really big drop off from what we had been anticipating in enrollment,” said Ms. Abrams.
She attributed that in part to an increased focus by Orthodox day schools on their nursery schools, “encouraging parents to go there to be assured of getting a place for kindergarten.”
As to whether Temple Emeth should have put the needs of the early childhood families and staff ahead of the congregation’s immediate bottom line, “I don’t really know what to make of that,” she said. “We certainly aren’t looking to hurt anybody or inconvenience anybody and we truly do regret the timing. As people who are responsible for the future of our temple, this was not an opportunity we could pass up.”
But talk of the synagogue having acted responsibly doesn’t sit well with parents at the Early Childhood Center, who speak lovingly about the program and its staff, and bitterly about Temple Emeth.
“I’m sure they didn’t consider the parents or teachers or administrators or anybody, because the way they made the decision was so haphazard,” said Devin Cohen of Teaneck, whose son Zevi, now 6, spent two years there, and whose daughter Amira, who just turned 3, is enrolled for the summer and would have been enrolled for the fall.
Mr. Cohen found a place for Amira at the nursery school at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, where her brother goes to school.
Mr. Cohen said that his synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, “was put in a similar situation about a year ago,” when the idea of closing the synagogue’s Hebrew school came up. The school had been losing money.
“We took the time to think through what this meant to us as a society and as a Jewish community,” said Mr. Cohen, who since has joined his Beth Sholom’s board. “The ultimate conclusion we came up with was its not about dollars and cents,”
Temple Emeth, he said, “completely lost sight of their duty to the Jewish community, and they’ve done a lot of damage that can’t be undone.
“To just take this rash decision and say it has to happen now and without warning, I couldn’t have in good conscience voted that way.
“You have to be a human being first. I’ve made many decision in life that have adversely affected my bottom line, but I have to be able to sleep at night.”
Rabbi Gavriel Bellino is another angry parent. He too has a 3-year-old, Keshet, in the early childhood center; an older son, Honi, also used to go there.
He is the rabbi of the Sixth Street Synagogue in Manhattan’s East Village, and he that said his communal experience gives him some insight into Temple Emeth’s choices.
“I understand how professional Jews operate,” Rabbi Bellino said. “I understand the incompetence of volunteers. This seems rather cold-hearted. You don’t tell someone on May 18 that they’re not coming back the next year.
“There are people who have worked there for 10 years plus; to find out in the middle of May that they won’t be returning seems crazy to me. If they told them in March or February that this was in the works, they could have begun to move elsewhere. This left everybody optionless.
“I feel terrible for the parents and kids who don’t what to do.
“I understand these sort of hard decisions. As a professional Jew, I get that. Sometimes our institutions have to run like families, and sometimes they have to run like businesses. That said, there’s a higher standard for these sort of these decisions. I think they could have acted a bit more like a family.
“This speaks to desperation and incompetence, and I think there’s a lot of that there.
“I understand the predicament the temple is in. They’re largely irrelevant in this community. They know their building in a few years will be either an Orthodox synagogue or a breakaway from the Korean church across the street.
“This lets them last an extra five years,” he said.