Reinventing the congregation
Rabbi Chuck Diamond will be leaving his position as spiritual leader of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation next summer, pursuant to an agreement recently negotiated by attorneys for the rabbi and synagogue.
Diamond’s upcoming departure is a consequence of shrinking membership and dues revenue at TOL*OLS, according to the congregation’s president, Michael Eisenberg.
The congregation can no longer afford to meet the financial terms of Diamond’s 10-year employment contract, which was executed in 2010 and slated to conclude in 2020, Eisenberg said.
Diamond will continue to serve as the rabbi of TOL*OLS until June 30, 2017, but will be paid through June 30, 2018, according to the new agreement.
Diamond, a Pittsburgh native, was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1985 and worked as a rabbi at Temple Israel of Great Neck in New York until 1988. He next served as the rabbi of education and youth at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Mich. In 1991, Diamond moved back to Pittsburgh and worked at Congregation Beth Shalom as its assistant rabbi of education and youth for the next 14 years.
In 2005, Diamond left Beth Shalom and founded Congregation Or L’Simcha, which initially held services at the Anathan House in Squirrel Hill. Or L’Simcha moved into the Tree of Life building, sharing space with that congregation, in 2008.
Two years later, Tree of Life and Or L’Simcha merged, with Diamond as the new entity’s senior rabbi.
“Tree of Life, at that time, was having declining revenues,” Eisenberg recalled. With the merger, the congregation increased by 120 members, and the future was looking bright. The congregation entered into a 10-year employment contract with Diamond, which contained automatic annual salary increases for the rabbi.
“Everyone was expecting the congregation to keep growing,” Eisenberg said, “so the contract reflected that optimism.”
TOL*OLS did experience an increase in revenue from 2010 to 2011, but the uptick was short-lived.
“We peaked in 2011, and it has declined ever since,” said Eisenberg, who served as the congregation’s treasurer at the time.
Under Eisenberg’s tenure as treasurer, the congregation began making financial adjustments in response to its budget problems, including restructuring expenses in the school and revamping employee health benefits. Its experiences are not dissimilar from those at many small to medium Reform and Conservative congregations across the United States.
The changes were not enough to put TOL*OLS in the black.
“The biggest problem we had was the personnel line item in our budget,” because of the automatic salary increases built into Diamond’s contract as well as the contract of executive director Joel Don Goldstein, Eisenberg explained.
The congregation has since renegotiated its contract with Goldstein, and earlier this year, Eisenberg was authorized by his executive committee to approach Diamond to attempt to renegotiate his contract as well.
Diamond declined to take a reduction in salary. Both sides retained attorneys, who according to Eisenberg, served as a buffer that allowed “the process to be carried on amicably.”
The parties’ respective attorneys “were able to negotiate a good compromise,” Eisenberg said.
“I was willing to give back the last two years of the contract, which was worth a lot,” echoed Diamond. “In return, I was getting a year’s ‘sabbatical.’”
His upcoming departure from the congregation has engendered “mixed emotions,” Diamond said. “I’m very sad. … I’d love to fulfill my contract. There’s a sanctified relationship between a rabbi and his congregants. Some have been with me for a long time. It is very difficult for me to not be able to be there to lead the congregation into the next stage of its existence.”
Eisenberg also expressed regret.
“I wish we had kept growing,” he said. “I wish there was plenty of money.”
Although he is disappointed that he will be leaving TOL*OLS, Diamond, 61, sees “exciting possibilities” as he moves into the next stage of his career.
“The year sabbatical gives me time to put some of my ideas into action without having to worry about the financial effects,” he explained. “I’m much more worried about the synagogue’s future than mine.
“From now until June 30, I will be continuing to serve as best I can as rabbi of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha,” he continued. “But come July 1, the Jewish community should be put on warning that I will be unleashed.”
Diamond is considering a host of potential projects, including writing a series of children’s books and starting a “part-time shul for part-time Jews with part-time dues.”
“I have a lot of creative ideas and I have a lot of confidence in my abilities and what I have to offer the Jewish community,” he said.
TOL*OLS, which is currently evaluating its future, is considering the possibility of collaborating with other Jewish communal organizations, most notably the Jewish Association on Aging (see The Jewish Chronicle, Sept. 9, “Congregations, JAA examine occupying one site”) but has no definite plan in place regarding future spiritual leadership, Eisenberg said. TOL*OLS will allow Diamond to officiate at simchas to which he was already committed, and the congregation “will be actively seeking a rabbinical replacement over the next year,” Eisenberg said.
“We will reinvent ourselves,” Eisenberg continued. “I’m feeling good about the future. We would like to figure out a community solution to the underutilization of synagogue space. We will be talking to other community organizations and synagogues. I see the solution as in the community, not within our walls. If we all sit in silos, everyone loses.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.