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Temple Emanu-El receives $3.2M donation from anonymous donor

Senior Rabbi Brenner Glickman addresses congregation members at the Temple Emanu-El on Monday.
Senior Rabbi Brenner Glickman addresses congregation members at the Temple Emanu-El on Monday.
Photo by James Peter
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It was a $3.2 million dinner. 

Temple Emanu-El Senior Rabbi Brenner Glickman just didn’t know it at the time.

In February, Glickman was sharing a meal with local and national Jewish community leaders, along with some Temple Emanu-El members. The topic of conversation? What can be done to grow Jewish congregations, keep young Jewish families in the synagogue and encourage them to enroll their children in formal Jewish education.

Big ideas were tossed about —  the guests around the table suggested programs from San Francisco and New York as models.

But to Rabbi Glickman, the answer in Sarasota was simple — it’s the economy. The Temple Emanu-El congregation is mostly working and middle class, he said. Many of its families moved to Sarasota for a higher quality of life at a lower price point — the backyards and better school districts that were out of reach in New York and Chicago, Glickman told the dinner guests. But costs have soared since in Sarasota, due in part to COVID.

Lower the barrier to temple membership, Glickman said. Make it more affordable for young families to be a part of the congregation and pursue formal religious school for their children.

Annual dues for a family at Temple Emanu-El are $2,550 and pay for the cost of temple staff, maintenance of the building and events. Add in the cost of religious school tuition, kindergarten through 10th grade, and the “typical family” will pay $4,500 a year, said Glickman. That’s lower than costs found in big cities, but still a considerable expense for many families, said Glickman.

Brittany Gates, Rabbi Brenner Glickman, Rabbi Elaine Rose Glickman and Shera Friedman

And that was that for a few weeks. Then Glickman got the call. A synagogue member. He was at that dinner in February. Let’s do it, he said. Let’s lower the barrier to entry — for every family with school-age children in the congregation and for the many more who might want to join.

Three weeks ago, Temple Emanu-El received a $3.2 million donation from an anonymous donor, dubbed “Papa Joe,” said Glickman. The money is earmarked specifically to lower the cost of dues for temple members who have school-aged children for the next roughly 20 years, said Glickman.

The big announcement

On Monday evening at the Temple Emanu-El, more than 100 unsuspecting synagogue members assembled for a “transformative announcement” and celebratory reception. 

“I’m pleasantly surprised at how word hasn’t gotten out,” said congregation member Brittany Gates, who added that her job was to provide moral support to the night’s event planner and fellow member Shera Friedman.

The anticipation was palpable as Glickman explained the challenges that religious organizations of all faiths face — declining membership, participation and community. He described the financial challenges that Jewish families and interfaith Jewish families face in terms of tuition and dues.

While Temple Emanu-El offers a number of financial assistance programs and scholarships based on demonstrated need, “For a bunch of families that (financial) hurdle is too high … it’s the great big bubble in the middle — we’re losing them,” said Glickman in his address.

Then Glickman announced the donation and told the congregation members that by vote of the temple board this donation would lower dues for young families from $2,550 to $350. Portions of the gift will also be used for “some kind of sweetness” for religious school students and outreach to encourage donors in other Jewish communities to make similar donations, said Glickman.

Rabbi Michael Shefrin does his best impression of Oprah, as he distributes gift cards at the Temple Emanu-El on Monday.
Photo by James Peter

Due to the newness of the gift, the temple’s board still needs to work out the logistics of the gift, but Glickman said it will provide for at least 20 years of dues assistance and programming. 

It’s the single largest gift in the temple’s history, said Glickman. And it may be one of the largest donations of its kind in the country, said the temple’s immediate past President Barry Gerber and current President Bob Meisel.

The temple leadership hopes the donation will help the roughly 680-household congregation grow from 75 young families to 100 young families.

“This is Our Jewish Future,” Glickman told the congregation. “And it has just begun.”



James Peter

James Peter is the managing editor of the Longboat and Sarasota Observers. He has worked in journalism in a variety of newsroom roles and as a freelance writer for over a decade. Before joining the Observer, he was based in Montana and Colorado.

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