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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