Tensions rising along with new shul complex
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Tensions rising along with new shul complex

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An architect’s rendering of the new Ahavath Torah building in Englewood.

Some five years after a proposal for a new synagogue complex was approved by the membership of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, the building process is nearing completion – but with cost overruns that have created tensions within the 700-family Orthodox congregation.

On July 1, the membership gave the go-ahead to raise family dues from $1,450 to $2,500 in order to help offset the shortfall, said Kenneth Eckstein, whose presidency ended on the night of the meeting. The synagogue’s leadership also plans to obtain two bridge loans.

“The project has certainly been expensive, and we had to make sure we had funding in place to cover remaining obligations,” said Eckstein. “It’s hard to raise money now in this financial climate, so we’ve had to go back to the membership, and ultimately it overwhelmingly endorsed the board’s recommendation.”

Several weeks ago, he wrote to congregants explaining that while the “hard cost” of construction was first estimated at $15.5 million, the actual price tag is $22 million, in part because the original plan was expanded to include a mikvah and a Sephardic center.

The number climbed even higher (Eckstein did not specify exactly how high) because of “soft costs.” Those include architect fees and rental of the climate-controlled tent that has housed the congregation since the demolition of the sprawling old mansion on the former Broad Avenue estate of Baroness Cassel Van Dorn in which the congregation has been based since 1958.

“While the situation was frustrating, our community approached it constructively and positively, and approved both the dues and the permanent mortgage,” said Eckstein. “I was very encouraged that we have overwhelming support.”

Michael Wildes, Englewood’s mayor and an Ahavath Torah member, said, “As mayor, I can tell you this phenomenon is occurring among other communities and houses of worship. As a member, I recognize this is an extraordinarily challenging economic time. However, I derive some comfort in knowing that what we build roots itself in the continued growth and vitality of our city and generations to come.”

Eckstein said that the increased dues take into account operating and mortgage costs, and include High Holiday seats. “Other shuls in the New York metropolitan area also have high dues now because of mortgage costs,” he said. “We found that most shuls are running $1,500 to $2,000 [per member] for operating costs, and ours are $1,700. The additional amount represents amortizing the cost of the new building.”

Three longtime Ahavath Torah members, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Jewish Standard that despite the positive outcome of the vote, there is resentment toward the 72 percent dues increase, which comes at a time when most families have just finished paying off the five-year, $7,500 assessment implemented at the start of the project.

In these difficult economic times, one man commented, some cannot afford the increased expenditure but are embarrassed not to. The synagogue’s rabbi, Shmuel Goldin, acknowledged this reality when he told his congregants last week that they should pay only as much as they feel they are able.

“It has always been our shul policy that our membership dues are set according to what we need, but anyone who can’t afford the full dues can join for what they can afford, no questions asked,” said Goldin. “We are anxious to have more members, and finances should not be an obstacle.”

Some congregants were unhappy with prospect of the new construction or soured on it as costs went up and the economy faltered.

“This was one of those projects conceived when the world was rosy and people wanted a large edifice,” one congregant said. “If they would have the vote today, it wouldn’t carry.”

“If the construction had gone according to plan, people might have been happy with it,” another member said. “But it spiraled out of control.”

According to Eckstein, the new complex has four sanctuaries to accommodate a congregation that offers several different services each Shabbat. The main sanctuary has permanent seats for 530 and room for 190 additional chairs. A separate section of the building contains a sanctuary, beit midrash, and social hall for the 75 families of Ahavath Torah’s Sephardic community.

The two-story, 60,000-square-foot structure also includes a ballroom, multipurpose rooms for youth groups, adult education, and small events; a mikvah with a separate entrance; and two kitchens in order to handle more than one event at the same time.

“When people start to realize the benefits of the new building, we will get over the hurdles caused by the current situation,” said Eckstein, who expects the new synagogue to be ready for occupancy by Labor Day.

Goldin pledged to do his best to heal any remaining rifts. “We have a lot of work to do, as we always have in a community like ours with disparate points of view,” he said. “As we move into the new building, we will be working very hard to continue bringing people together.”

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