Area Shuls Begin Levying Fuel Taxes


New York area rabbis are praying for a warm winter.

With heating oil and natural gas prices up about 60 percent over last winter, some area synagogues are now imposing fuel surcharges on members, increasing dues and consolidating events in order to close their buildings and lower the heat a few nights each week.

And the annual Kol Nidre appeal — used in the past to raise money for new programs — will now be used by some synagogue presidents to solicit donations to keep the lights and heat on.

“Some synagogues are saying that rather than asking for a surcharge, they hope to inspire people to give more on the High Holy Days,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue
for Conservative Judaism.

That’s the approach of Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence, L.I.

“We are not raising membership dues or trimming programs in the coming year and hope that continued fundraising efforts will cover this additional expense,” Michael Novick, the Orthodox congregation’s executive director, said in an e-mail response to a Jewish Week inquiry.

The National Council of Young Israel held a meeting here Monday to discuss developing a list of suggestions synagogues might consider to reduce their energy bill, according to Rabbi Pesach Lerner, the group’s executive director.

“It’s going to be a simple list of things to do to save electricity,” he said. “We’re compiling it from various sources. We’re hoping it will make people think twice: do they always need to use the big sanctuary, are they using too much electricity, do they need all the lights on throughout the day? We have to start thinking along those lines because of energy costs and the need to cut back on foreign energy.”

Some synagogues have opted to add a fuel surcharge to their dues bills. The Huntington Jewish Center on Long Island, for instance, tacked on a $60 charge to help pay its natural gas bill. The Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, L.I., added a $30 utility fee.

“Energy costs last year were a little more than 3 percent of our budget,” said Joel Podell, the congregation’s president. “This year we have it budgeted at 4 percent, a 25 percent increase.”

Although fuel surcharges may be new here, the Suburban Orthodox Congregation in Pikesville, Md., imposed a $50 fuel surcharge two years ago “because Maryland utilities’ costs skyrocketed up to 72 percent due to deregulation,” according to Eileen Creeger, the congregation’s executive director.

In an e-mail reply to the Orthodox Union, of which the congregation is a member, Creeger said the $50 fee was maintained for the coming year and dues increased $20.

“Our concern now is that the increases in gasoline/oil will now impact revenues (i.e. dues, etc.),” she wrote. “Our programming is increasing with the hope that funding will come from donations.”

Many synagogues are taking steps to reduce energy costs. “We have increased the thermostat this summer by two degrees to 71 or 72 instead of 69 or 70,” said Yoel Magid, executive director of the Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale. “We plan to reduce the thermostat by one degree this winter. And we have had a private company check our electric and heating bills to make sure we have been charged at the non-profit rate. The company has saved us $10,000.”

Magid said dues for the 1,200-member congregation have been increased this year by $200, in part to pay for rising energy costs.

Rabbi Eric B. Stark, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Greater New York Council, said that although everyone will be faced with the rising cost of energy, “synagogues, particularly those on Long Island that have older buildings built in the 1950s that are not as energy efficient,” will be particularly hard hit.

To help deal with the high cost of natural gas heat, Temple B’nai Torah in Wantagh, L.I., will be “closing the building a lot more than we have,” according to Steve Goldman, its executive director.

The congregation, a merger of Temple Judea in Massapequa and Suburban Temple in Wantagh, is operating from a building 53 years old. Goldman said committees would be encouraged to meet in members’ homes rather than at the synagogue to permit the building to close.

Asked about renovating the building to make it more energy efficient, Goldman said: “That is a major project and we probably don’t have the money to do that now.”

At the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, L.I., dues have been increased $150 in part to offset rising energy costs, according to Justin Sivin, the administrator.

“We’re now in the process of installing energy-saver light bulbs and putting light switchers on motion sensors,” he said.

Congregation Beth El in Massapequa, L.I., has moved all of its religious services into the chapel during the summer to avoid having to run the air conditioner in the main sanctuary, according to Irwin Scharf, a past president.

“The chapel opens into a classroom” to provide additional space for Sabbath services, he noted. “The chapel has a wall air conditioner, so it saves us energy.”

But Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan does not have that luxury because it has only two large rooms — the sanctuary and Frankel Hall, according to Harold Goldman, its executive director.

“This time of year things are pretty quiet, but once we get into September, the building is used heavily … and we tend to run programs every night of the week,” he said. “We only have this one building and we rent space for our offices. I’m sure [the landlord] will pass on the extra fuel costs, so there will be a lot of additional expense. And if we have a cold winter, it will drive the cost of heating the synagogue that much higher.”

Calls to a number of large Manhattan congregations, including Temple Emanu-el, Central Synagogue and Park East Synagogue, were not returned.

A number of area synagogues have renovations planned and are including energy-saving features in their plans.

“Our building is 55 years old and we are replacing the air conditioning and heating system to make them more energy efficient,” said Podell of the Midway Jewish Center.

Westchester Reform Temple, a 1,200-family congregation, is also planning a major renovation of its building, which is more than 50 years old. The sanctuary, which was built for 600 families, will be rebuilt with a more efficient heating and cooling system. And heating vents will be placed in the floor instead of the ceiling where much of it is wasted, according to Magid, the executive director.

Just how high heating oil and natural gas prices will rise this winter is unknown, but they are already up about 60 percent over last year’s price, according to Kevin Rooney, executive vice president of the Oil Heat Institute of Long Island, a trade association.

He suggested that institutions and homeowners switch to a budget plan with their oil companies so they know how much their bill will be each month rather than face bills of $1,000 or more per delivery this winter. The price of heating oil is now about $5 a gallon compared with about $2.85 a year ago.

Andrew Heaney, president of HEAT USA, an oil buying cooperative, said synagogues should consider winterizing their buildings now (putting in additional heating zones and insulation) to be energy-efficient this winter.

Rabbi Lerner said he is suggesting to the 200 Young Israel synagogues that in addition to adding more heating and air conditioning zones, they consider installing sophisticated timing devices and window air conditioners so the whole building doesn’t need to be cooled. In addition, he said he is recommending that synagogues have an expert perform an energy survey to make additional energy-saving suggestions.

But a number of these items could be expensive and Deborah Gregor, executive director of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, said it is “a very difficult time to ask people for more money because we’re receiving more requests for assistance” from members.

“We have not imposed any surcharges and we have made a conscious effort to restrict energy use in the building,” she said. “We’re turning off lights, changing to high efficiency bulbs, and we’ll be keep the heat off when it is not needed. We’re also enrolled in an energy curtailment program … that last year paid us $3,000.”

Gregor said energy costs increased 20 percent last year “and that was after we made enormous efforts to cut usage.”

Asked what more can be done this year, she replied: “We’ll pray.”