Timing Is Everything
"Eventually the negotiations with the DJCC Development Corporation hit a point where we felt we still needed greater clarity as to what we as a congregation were going to be doing about our space needs," Keeper says. "We just felt that we couldn't continue to negotiate endlessly while letters were going to parents asking them if they would consider moving their kids from one section of Hebrew school to another because we don't have the space."
In August, Beth Israel's board set a self-imposed deadline of Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 20) for the end of negotiations. "When Rosh Hashanah came and went without the resolution of the issues, I sent a letter to the DJCC saying the time has passed. When the unresolved issues did not change by the time Yom Kippur arrived, I discussed it at great length with the rabbi; we drafted the remarks and presented them to the congregation," Keeper says. That presentation, at the Yom Kippur service, outlined plans for a new sanctuary and concluded with Keeper's announcement that rather than negotiating any longer with the DJCC, the temple's board would begin investigating other options -- the first of which involves buying an additional acre on Shoal Creek and attempting to raise an acre the temple already owns out of a flood zone.
"All along, we were having to work with the DJCC's timetables, deadlines and issues -- all the things that go along with having to coordinate someone else's development schedule," Keeper says. "Given the fact that we have spent so much time trying to resolve the issues between us, and that the deadlines came and went, we thought the easier alternative might be to go back to where we started from -- 3901 Shoal Creek -- and see if development could take place there or possibly somewhere else."
The decision to look at expanding the current Shoal Creek site isn't a new one -- it was one of the temple's primary options before the congregation voted to move to the DJCC. But some within the temple's congregation are reportedly upset that Keeper and Folberg made the announcement to pull out without again consulting either the board or congregation at large. According to Folberg, however, the announcement was made at the Yom Kippur services precisely because it's the largest service of the year and the easiest way to reach the majority of the congregation.
"I want to squash the finger-pointing now," Folberg says. "Nobody torpedoed this and messed it up out of ill will. I think you had a situation where the concept was very, very exciting in its general aspects, but when you hammer out specifics you can find the needs and timetables are just too different. Even with compromises, which there were a lot of, you have to ask at what point are the compromises so great you're hurting your organization by making them. That's not a result of anybody trying to deliberately do the project in."
And while even the leader of the DJCC Development Corporation -- the three-member commission overseeing the DJCC's development concerns and charged with negotiating with the JFA, synagogue, and temple -- maintains that no one in particular is at fault, he admits he was somewhat surprised by the timing and tone of Keeper's announcement.
"I knew they were considering pulling out and encouraged everyone to consider all options," says Michael Deitch, the president of the Development Corporation. "We want people to go to the campus because they wanted to go. But they're still welcome. The announcement, to me, is not a definitive statement. It remains their choice. We're all part of a family, and family members sometimes say things in anger or haste to each other and don't take it personally. Obviously there was an expression of frustration that followed what the temple announced. We're trying to get past that and are close to getting all the final details worked out for the campus at large. When we do, if they change their minds that's fine. We'll welcome them back with open arms."
Already, there has been speculation that Keeper and Beth Israel may be bluffing -- that they pulled out only to establish better leverage and an invitation back into the DJCC fold, only this time with better terms and a faster timetable. Keeper denies those allegations, but says he's less optimistic than Deitch that a deal could still be worked out.
"I've talked to the JFA about it and what I told them is that I'd never say never," Keeper says. "It would be improper of me as the president of the congregation to unilaterally foreclose any option that might be available to my congregation. However, I also told the JFA that we need to move on and that it's our intention to do so."
In turn, assuming the temple does move forward with its own plans, this raises the question of what the DJCC will do with the land allotted for Beth Israel at the northwest site. And while there's been talk that one of the city's smaller congregations could fill the vacancy on campus, the more popular theory is that Beth Israel decision may force a split between the temple's leadership and the congregants who had their hearts set on the DJCC. Potentially, a Beth Israel splinter group could emerge and make its own play for the land. And while Deitch says the DJCC Development Corporation will not explore any new options "as long as there's an inkling of hope the temple will come back," people are still talking nonetheless.
"There has always been talk that at some point the temple would get too big and there would be a need for another mainstream reformed congregation in Austin anyway," says Sandy Dochen, the JFA's past president, a current JFA board member, and Beth Israel congregant. "That's been talked about for a while, and this move might exacerbate discussion along these lines. I don't want to throw stones, because I don't know a whole lot about the negotiations, but I think the initial shock and wondering of what this means could foster some more discussion. And this stuff happens all the time -- people are members of something, and they decide they don't like what's going on and form something else. That's organizational reality. Whether this is a catalyst for that, I'm not sure."
For his part, Rabbi Folberg says he has neither heard talk of a breakaway faction, nor is he convinced that the temple's DJCC decision alone could be a catalyst for such a faction. "I'm not going to say that there aren't people that may feel so strongly that the campus was the ultimate value for them that they want to start a congregation there," Folberg says. "Okay, that's a possibility. But there are all kinds of reasons people feel attached to a congregation. It's where their friends are, where their children are educated, their rabbi, where they're comforted when grieving. Those are in my experience the things that are most compelling for people in terms of affiliations with a congregation. And this doesn't affect our service on that end."
The Fundraising Issue
What the temple's decision undeniably affects is the fundraising issue for both the DJCC and Beth Israel. Deitch denies that the decision could have a negative fundraising effect for the DJCC -- which has to cover construction, infrastructure, and permitting expenses -- but some JFA insiders say it can't help that all of the fundraising to date has been based on the premise that both the synagogue and the temple would be on the campus. In addition, Beth Israel's plans to build a new sanctuary and educational facility on either the Shoal Creek site or a new location will require significant contributions as well -- much more than the move to the DJCC might have required; the temple would have received its educational facilities free from the DJCC and been able to finance the bulk of the move from the sale of the Shoal Creek building. And while Folberg admits that the temple's new plans will take significant fundraising effort, he says that appeals to his congregation for contributions shouldn't hurt the DJCC's own fundraising efforts.
"Everyone involved is wise enough to avoid a competitive situation," says Folberg. "I think people will see it more as an 'and/both' than 'either/or.' I don't think there's anyone in the community that doesn't want to see a new JCC built. The old one is beat up and half of it's in trailers. We have this incredibly expanding Jewish community here that needs its JCC and Jewish Family Service -- which is this really important communal institution for counseling, therapy, and referral services. The gut infrastructure of the Jewish community is here, but needs to be upgraded. And getting the federation offices and the JCC built is going to help with that."
Fundraising issues aside, Folberg maintains that the negotiations between the temple and DJCC may have done more good than bad for Austin's Jewish community at large. "Certainly, folks for whom the essence of the dream of the campus was having these organizations all on the campus together are going to feel disappointed," Folberg says. "But I also want people to know that there are some excellent by-products that came out of this process -- largely variations on the themes of people who have never had the need or occasion to work together, getting together. The community can still come out of this with a lot of good contacts, relationships, and organizational structures in place. That's not spin, that's for real. Unfortunately, it's something a lot of people aren't aware of yet."
In fact, at least one as-yet-unnamed organization created in anticipation of being on the campus has received universal rave reviews -- from both the DJCC and temple camps. The group, which began meeting six months ago, is open to anybody on the payroll of a Jewish organization -- executive or administrative -- and was created to discuss mutual needs, interests, and calendar issues. As a result, community leaders that had never met, let alone worked together, suddenly found themselves in the same room working on the same project.
"Part of what that group did in terms of morale and psychology is that it got a bunch of people in a room to say 'We all care about the same stuff. We all think Jewish life is important and we all want to work for that and to preserve this set of values and the culture.' And I'll do everything I can to make sure that the fruit of this effort doesn't wither on the tree," says Folberg."People came away from those meetings exhilarated, and it's my sense that especially in volunteer organizations, the tone of the organization gets set from the top down and that the people that lead the organization set an example as to mood."
In fact, Deitch says he believes that not only have the negotiations -- failed or not -- led to better communication, but that communication may still leave the door open for Beth Israel to change its mind. "The fact that groups are talking to each other at different levels in an honest, open way is to me a positive," he says. "There's going to be a campus, and there's going to be a JCC on it and certainly one synagogue on it. We think there's going to be another and we hope it's Beth Israel. The goal here is to get people in the community involved, and Beth Israel's members are not just members of Beth Israel, but are going to be using the JCC when it's built. Their children may be going to the early childhood program and there are joint activities between the synagogue and temple.
"I don't see it as the end of the world and the door's still open," Deitch adds. "We're hopeful they're still going to come."