Ghost in the synagogue foreclosure case

A story with a strong religious element showed up today in The Baltimore Sun business pages, of all places. This is precisely where this religion-news story should have been, methinks, but this does not mean that the editorial team needed to leave out a few highly relevant religious facts.

At the heart of this story is two powerful trends in American religion. Alas, only one made it into the newspaper.

The news hook is that a synagogue in a major suburb of Baltimore is facing foreclosure. This is part of a trend, as the story makes very clear:

Once nearly unheard of, foreclosures on houses of worship jumped to record numbers nationally in the past two years, showing that religious facilities are not immune to the wave of foreclosures that followed the bursting of the credit bubble.

Adat Chaim’s leader, Rabbi David Greenspoon, declined to comment when reached by phone, saying: “Thank you for your call. Have a nice day,” and then hanging up. The synagogue board’s president, Art Wolf, did not respond to requests for comment. …

Adat Chaim is struggling with the same issues that plague houses of worship of all denominations. The synagogue, which opened its current building on Cockeys Mill Road in 1993, has seen its membership dwindle from as many as 300 to its current 95.

Steve Fort, the congregation’s membership chairman, said the synagogue would persevere.

“We’re not closing,” Fort said.

The key to the story, of course, is found in the phrase stating that this synagogue is “struggling with the same issues that plague houses of worship of all denominations.” And what are those trends? Readers need to know.

The story, essentially mentions two. One is, of course, the worst real-estate crisis since the Great Depression. And the other? Here’s the membership chairman, again:

He acknowledged that keeping and attracting new members is a challenge.

“With the way the economy is, when people give things up, the first thing they give up is their religious affiliation and synagogues lose members,” he said.

According to the Sun, this trend is found among all religious groups, which is probably true. However, this is not the same thing as saying that this decline is happening to all groups equally. I would imagine, for example, that few congregations are facing foreclosures if (a) they have healthy birthrates and (b) if they are part of a movement or tradition that is attracting new members, in general.

Thus, in this case, if would have been good to have mentioned that Adat Chaim is part of the Conservative Judaism movement. As strange as it sounds (note the witty art with this post), the Conservative movement is part of the liberal wing of Judaism in North America and elsewhere. It is also a movement that is in decline (read The Jewish Daily Forward on this), especially when it comes to attracting and retaining families and, even more so, in America’s urban Northeastern corridor.

On its website, Adat Chaim makes its cultural identity very clear, stating that it is: “An Egalitarian Congregation serving Baltimore and Carroll Counties, Maryland.”

Could the Sun have spared the time to compare this synagogue’s current situation with, let’s say, the Orthodox communities in Northwest Baltimore and nearby areas? At the very least, the story needs to qualify its statements that all movements and denominations are being hit by this trend. That is only half the equation.

Near the end, the story does contain some additional info that hints are what is really happening. You see, many religious believers are voting with their feet and their wallets, in this tense age. It’s especially crucial when flocks shrink to 100 and below, since that’s the level at which a congregation will even struggle to pay the salary and benefits of a clergyperson.

So what’s happening with membership numbers? Here’s a key source, Stephen Ferrandi, who works with “KLNB Worship, an Ellicott City-based subsidiary of real estate brokerage KLNB.”

Many houses of worship are up for sale, said KLNB Worship’s Ferrandi, whose company now has 10 listed. A few of those congregations are growing and seek larger quarters, but most are shrinking and can no longer afford to keep their property, he said.

“We have more listings today than we’ve ever had,” Ferrandi said. “The supply of churches has overwhelmed the demand for churches. More and more people are no longer going to their neighborhood church.”

Yes, many are leaving. Many are going elsewhere. This report needed a few more facts, to let readers know the religious trends that shaped this story, as well as the real-estate trends.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Nail, meet hammer. Terry, I agree. What gave me pause was this quote:

    “With the way the economy is, when people give things up, the first thing they give up is their religious affiliation and synagogues lose members,” he said.

    That sentence struck me as a classic opportunity upon which to add the facts and trends you’re writing about in commenting on the story.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It seems to me that the line blaming the economy for the demise of this synagogue is scapegoating or covering up for other systemic reasons most “liberal” religions are slowly dieing.
    t.matt’s posting here made very clear that, in spite of its name, Conservative Judaism is on the “liberal” wing of the religious spectrum I think very few readers would realize this so the story’s writer should have been as clear as this posting.
    Many, many, years ago, Cardinal John Henry Newman evaluated “liberal” religion as a religion embracing its own death. A story such as this seems to prove his point.

  • Mike O.

    I think the author might have been better off in focus more on the local story than trying to show it as part of a larger national story. While she did quote the chairman as stating how hard it is to keep membership, the story would have been helped by interviewing current and former member to see why that is.

  • sari

    Like the bursting of the stock market bubble, this was an inevitability hastened along by economic factors. It’s happening everywhere, though the shift towards a more liberal perspective may not be the only or even the primary reason. Historically, Jews came to this country and usually sought out neighborhoods where other Jews lived. That was as true for Reform as it was for Orthodox and everything in-between. As economics allowed or necessitated, neighborhoods shifted, old shuls died and new shuls were born. Shifting demographics has always been a factor.

    Right now some very old and established synagogues in the Philadelphia ‘burbs are shrinking as younger families move further out to take advantage of newer, less expensive housing and better schools. Their new shul is growing, growing, growing, So, is it really as the membership chairman says, or are members going elsewhere: to Chabad, which is free; to less expensive neighborhoods; to someone’s living room. Is this a split or people walking away from Jewish institutions?

    I would have liked for the writer to have given a brief history of the Conservative movement, how it’s changed from its inception, and how those changes have affected membership in Baltimore and nationally. I’m a little hesitant to refer to it as liberal, since the basic halakhic procedures still stand, in contrast to Reform, Reconstructionist, and post-denominational Judaism. Still it’s very clear that the decisions arrived at by the more current batch of rabbis suggest that a merger between Conservative and Reform (also bleeding members) will eventually take place if either movement is to survive.

    Lastly, he should have compared Adat Israel with other synagogues in the area. Baltimore has a large, established and vibrant Jewish community and one of the country’s larger Orthodox populations. The Orthodox put less money into fancy buildings and more into religious schools (also not built for aesthetics).

  • Ira Rifkin

    Another example of the stones left unturned when a generalist reporter (who in this case, I believe, mostly covers business for The Sun) is sent out to do what is really a story tailor-made for a religion specialist (which The Sun used to have its fair share of, some of them quite good).

    Perhaps the writer was thinking of Roman Catholic parishes, which in Baltimore and elsewhere have been closing their doors regularly. But throwing in a vague phrase or two about unnamed other denominations is a (lazy) journalism trick meant to give a story tangential heft without doing any real reporting.

    As a member of a Conservative congregation, I’m well aware of the shrinkage the movement – once American Judaism’s largest – has experienced in recent decades (as I said, it ain’t all that new of a story). Had the writer just stuck to the Conservative plight – the more traditionally inclined members tend to drift toward Orthodoxy while the more culturally connected but ritual-averse leave for Reform Judaism, or nowhere) – she could have had a substantial piece.

    Had she simply called the Conservative movement’s regional office (which seems like an obvious call, no?) she would have learned the score. Or she could have called the local Jewish paper for some background – another time-honored reporting technique.

    And by the way, the regional Mid-Atlantic Conservative office recently combined with the regional Southeast office – which sums up the Conservative movement’s downward spiral right there.

  • sari

    Ira,
    She could also have called the local Federation office, since the Federation serves the entire Jewish community, religious or not.

  • Deann

    That stock photo illustration for this story made me laugh out loud. ‘Balagan’ is one of the Hebrew words I learned while reporting on the church in the Holy Land. It means something beyond ‘totally big honkin mess’ — for lack of a better translation, in vulgarspeak, ‘fubar.’