Many Jews will make their yearly pilgrimage to the synagogue this weekend not to be seen there again until next Yom Kippur. From recent reports it seems, however, that even this yearly synagogue visit is doing a vanishing act. A national rabbinic survey conducted by Minnesota-based STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal) this summer revealed that rabbis are concerned about synagogue membership growth.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency quoted STAR's executive director, Rabbi Hayim Herring, as saying that, "Shifting denominational affiliations and larger numbers of interfaith families are challenging synagogue growth and rabbis keenly recognize their role is not just about increasing ongoing membership participation, but reaching out beyond current congregants by attracting a more diverse community."
Last week the Jewish Week reported Gary Tobinas, the president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, saying that, “There is no way that synagogues are going to be financially solvent as we go forward in the next 25 years if they just depend on dues.” Clearly this is because membership of synagogues is declining.
The solution to this problem is closer than one may think and it is found in Jewish tradition. Funds for synagogues traditionally were never raised in the form of dues. Throughout the ages, synagogues were not seen as clubs. They were seen as houses of worship and communal centers. All Jews had the right to enter them to pray by virtue of the fact that they were Jewish and wanted to serve God in the Jewish manner.
This model still exists in many Orthodox communities from which an example should be taken. Orthodox synagogues in places like Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Brooklyn are supported by wealthy members who make large annual contributions in return for being given the honor of doing specific mitzvot in the synagogue throughout the year and there is no fee for others to come and pray.
As a former congregational rabbi I can understand why synagogue membership in America as it currently stands is in decline. In the UK, most synagogues membership comes together with Jewish burial rights. So although people may attend only once a year, they nonetheless feel that their payments are going towards something tangible. In the United States, however, it is a different story.
Not only does synagogue membership not come with burial rights, but the dues are also generally much higher than those in the UK. Whereas dues at the synagogue in London of which I was the rabbi were equivalent to $600 a year for a couple, most synagogues in the US have yearly memberships which start at about $1,200 dollars per annum.
For a club which is used only once or twice a year that is a lot of money to pay. Yom Kippur is a time for introspection, not just on the part of laypeople but on the part of communal leaders as well.
Congregational leaders and rabbis have a tendency to demand that their congregants and members make more commitments to the synagogue, and they are right to do so. At the same time, however, they must ask themselves whether these financial demands are not preventing people from joining a synagogue.
In addition, in the United States there are two main ways of associating with Jewish life. One is through the synagogue and the other is by getting involved with the local Jewish Federation — both of which involve financial obligations. Unfortunately, here in the United States there are many Jews who are not yet sufficiently committed to Judaism to want to pay to be a part of the community. And there are not enough avenues for Jews to connect without feeling obliged to pay for it.
Synagogues in the United States must look back into Jewish tradition and follow the examples of their counterparts in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Brooklyn and find other ways to fund themselves besides dues.
I am not suggesting that they should give people a free ride; but the Jewish community must consider other methods of raising money, such as a policy by which people “don’t pay to pray” but do pay for services such as funerals, bar/bat mitzvot, Hebrew schools and counseling. In addition, Jews who care about the future of Judaism in this country should be solicited to help synagogues attract those other Jews who are discouraged by the obligation to pay.
Unless we change the way Jews in America are able to affiliate with Judaism and the Jewish community, Jewish life in the US will continue to wane. On Yom Kippur all communal leaders and philanthropists have the obligation to do introspection in this regard.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is executive director of Judaism in the Foothills
and the author of numerous articles on a whole range of topics and issues, many of which can be found on his website