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Pay to Pray?

In the middle decades of the 20th century they were called "mushroom synagogues."  They popped up in the waning days of summer to provide High Holiday services, then disappeared at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.  Today, "mushroom synagogues" are once again in voguebut with a critical difference.  Where once they were organized mainly by entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity to make a quick buck, today quite a few of them announce, or even advertise, that attendance is free.

Relevant Links
The High Cost of American Jewish Living  Jack Wertheimer, Commentary. The economic recession has exacerbated an ongoing and multifaceted crisis.
High Holy Day Scalpers  . Chabad of East Bruswick solves comedian Larry David’s ticketing dilemma. (Video)
Free Tickets to Non-Members?  Steve Friedman, Maxine Sukenik, Two presidents of Reform congregations debate the issue.

Two related factors have driven the seasonal demand for these services in recent years.  One is that American congregations rely on a dues model to sustain themselves financially.  In order to pay clergy, maintain facilities, and offer programs ranging from worship to education, recreation, and social action, synagogues require participants to pay membership dues.  The annual charges range from as little as a few hundred dollars up to $5,000 per family.

This payment model is a product of the separation between church and state.  Historically, in some countries that lacked a firm wall between the two, governments once collected taxes from Jews and remitted the funds to Jewish communities to pay for synagogue construction and maintenance.  U.S. synagogues, lacking such state support and forced to be self-reliant, have levied dues to pay for their programs.  Because there is more demand for High Holiday services than for other synagogue services or programs, congregations have been able to leverage a package deal: no membership, no High Holiday seats.

The second, related factor is that relatively large numbers of American Jews are not affiliated with synagogues.  Some estimate that in the mid-19th century, to judge by the seating capacity of existing synagogues, no more than 35 percent of American Jews were members.  Fifty years later, with the arrival of huge waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the percentage was about the same.  In the late 1950's, at the peak of synagogue affiliation, an estimated 60 percent of Jewish families belonged to synagogues.  But by the beginning of this century, according to the most optimistic reckoning, that figure had dropped into the 40-percent range.

Demographic surveys have found that synagogue membership is associated with income.  In Chicago, for example, half of all Jewish families with household incomes over $100,000 say they are synagogue members, compared with roughly a quarter of those with lower incomes; lower-income families also report that costs have kept them from joining synagogues.  Therefore, it is not surprising that the recent economic downturn has exacerbated the membership gap.  Congregations have lost members who have fallen on hard times.  The pattern is reminiscent of the Great Depression, which has been described by historians as a religious Depression as well as an economic one.

What are non-affiliated Jews to do if they wish to attend High Holiday services?  One response to the economic realities has been a call for synagogues to eliminate their "pay to pray" policies altogether.  Churches, after all, charge no membership dues.  They support their activities through voluntary givingplate-passing, tithing, or other types of offerings.  Why, some Jews ask, should synagogues maintain a heavy-handed, materialistic bar to participation precisely on the most sacred days of the Jewish calendar?

The simple answer is that congregations require funds to keep their doors open year-round.  The more complex answer is that over the past 20 years, most congregations have instituted stratified dues scales.  Most synagogues have lower fees for younger people just starting their careers; most offer reduced dues for widows and widowers, divorced people and singles; most are responsive to those who have financial difficulties.  Apparently, however, many Jews find it demeaning to ask for such financial accommodations and do not do so.  For different reasons, others resist the idea of paying even token amounts to help defray the costs of running religious institutions.

Some synagogues have adopted a more radical approach.  Rather than charge a flat fee for a package of services, they have instituted a "fee for services" system.  In this business model, the synagogue is envisioned not as an overarching community offering its members a comprehensive range of activities but as a department store in which Jews can select those services that appeal to them and take no responsibility for supporting the other departments.  The rapidly expanding network of Chabad Centers comes close to this approach.  If a family wishes to enroll children in a Chabad Hebrew school, the Center typically does not require synagogue membership.  This model reduces the cost of attending High Holiday services, though it does not necessarily eliminate fees altogether. The model might also capsize most congregationswhich do not have large endowments and, for better or worse, sustain themselves by relying on dues from members who rarely avail themselves of all the services offered.

The other solution to the "pay to pray" dilemma, increasingly adopted by congregations and "freelancers," is to offer High Holiday seats at low or no cost.  Most Chabad centers follow one approach or the other.  And quite a few mainstream congregations, in recent years, have set aside some seats for distribution at no charge.  The altruistic reason for such a policy is to provide places for those who cannot afford payment.  The more strategic reason is to draw newcomers to the synagogue in the hope that when they have the means, they will join.

These High Holiday arrangements have considerably eased the pain of the "pay to pray" blues often heard at this season of the Jewish calendar.  At their best, however, synagogues are religious communities offering rich benefits for members prepared to pay in the currency of sustained commitment.  Most such communities now offer low-cost or, as one advertisement puts it, "free, walk-in High Holiday services for those who are searching."  But, as the slogan implies, the lunch is not really free, at least in a moral sense.    Those who avail themselves of such opportunities have an obligation to be actively "searching," not passively expecting service.  Synagogues should not be spiritual department stores or transient, once-a-year gathering places.    

Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is the author of A People Divided, among other books, and the editor of the forthcoming The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping American Jewish Life (Brandeis).

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SYDNEY on September 28, 2011 at 12:57 pm (Reply)
Going back a thousand years, there was a tax levied on the members of the Jewish community to sustain the local community facilities. Today, people want the shul/synagogue to be there when they need it, but they don't want to sustain the community. But when they need the community or a rabbi, they complain.

The Chabad model is not a good one: They exist by "schnorring." They are "free," but to the detriment of other communal institutions. They make you feel good as a Jew, but there is no commitment on the part of the congregant--no dollar commitment and minimal mitzva commitment. Feel-good Judaism at no cost.

To all, Shana Tova
hana blume on September 28, 2011 at 2:14 pm (Reply)
The issue is complicated by the fact that many synagogues have bloated costs: mediocre but generously remunerated rabbis plus cantors, administrators, youth directors, education directors, and edifices that are large, though rarely spiritually inspiring.

These congregations are not only expensive to join, but the seeker of a serious, to say nothing of a profound, religious experience would be hard put to find anything approaching that within their environs.

Who wants to spend thousands of dollars to pay for religious leadership that is neither scholarly nor spiritually profound but is housed in a grandiose structure whose maintenance, utilities, and staff require the large sums that mandate huge dues?

The once-denigrated three-days-a-year Jew is a decreasing phenomenon, as increasingly secular and/or intermarried Jews find even three full days too much to take from the "important" demands of their busy lives. A "mushroom" synagogue (a concept I never heard of before) doesn't seem like such a bad idea for Jews who still desire to be part of a community seeking a serious encounter with God and the profound religious observance He mandates.
Dave on September 28, 2011 at 3:53 pm (Reply)

You say Chabad exists by "schnorring," to use your word. I attend my local Chabad and have never been asked for a cent. Not once. But, assuming they did on occasion ask me to donate money,what is wrong with that? Better that than being hit with whopping membership dues every year.
Hershl on September 28, 2011 at 7:56 pm (Reply)
Great comment by Sydney and very helpful article.

I have often wondered about these things. I moved to the area in which I now live and wanted to participate in High Holiday services after many years of not doing so. I was charged several hundred dollars to attend. I walked out in the middle of the Rosh Hashana service. I knew no one and had no one with whom to eat lunch. (The rabbi had asked congregants to pick people to take home with them to eat.) I was left standing alone in the hall after the rest of the congregants had picked people. I left and drove to a treyf Chinese restaurant, filled with rage and sadness. I chose to drive because I lived 30 miles away and had no one in the area who could allow me to sleep over and avoid driving. I have never gone back.

That shul deserves to be publicized for alienating someone who went to yeshiva, did two advanced Jewish studies degrees, and is no longer part officially part of the Jewish community. It is Kesher Israel, which describes itself as the Georgetown Shul. For me, this was the last straw in a long but ultimately discouraging journey in the Jewish world. I have since gone on to people who really support and care about me as a human being, not only as a Jew. It is sincere people like me who account for the steady decline of the American Jewish community. Simply put, we often feel unwelcome in a way that is genuine for us. Forget Chabad. They are only interested in you if you want to join their sect and follow their rules.
Jerry Blaz on September 28, 2011 at 9:11 pm (Reply)
I believe that, in a sense, the Jewish community is too diversified and suffers from what has long been called an "edifice complex." Los Angeles has a separate Jewish Federation with affiliates, but the Jewish Community Centers have shrunk since 1990; there are only two, after they had reached more than three times the number of JCC outlets. The last one in the San Fernando Valley section of LA, which reputedly has the seventh-largest Jewish population of any American urban center, the Bernard Milkin Center, is in the process of being turned into a Jewish high school. It was constructed as a JCC, and the members have the only physical education facilities available to the Jewish community; but in a devil's agreement, the Jewish Federation took title to the property, which is now being sold out from under the JCC.

The nursery schools are going to be the first to go. Where? I don't know. Next will be the very active senior group, which has many activities. They have been assured a place to go, but where and how convenient it will be to the current members are questions that still remain unanswered.

I believe that one of the reasons this fate is befalling the last JCC in the San Fernando Valley is an alleged pact between the JCC and the synagogues to the effect that the JCC will not engage in any religious activities, a kind of division between community and synagogue. However, this pact doesn't prevent the synagogues from carrying on adult education, some of the congregations being very inviting to non-members, etc.

So, some one-sided agreements gave ownership of the last-standing JCC to the Federation and gave the synagogues the right to do anything Jewish that they want to do.

Is this community organization? Does it guarantee that the synagogues will flourish? The answer is a simple no. There are several congregations whose memberships are old and shrinking and whose spiritual leaders are part-time or even lay leaders.

As in most of the United States, it is easier to build a Jewish building than to maintain it; but whether it promotes the synagogues or the Jewish community in general is another question altogether. We need both healthy synagogues and healthy communities. The Federation is a fundraising organization; without its affiliates, it is nothing more. We need a more organic approach to the community, similar to the organic community approach broached by Mordecai M. Kaplan, ztz"l, who advocated such a community but found that the denominational structures had egos of their own. So his students, who were for the most part rabbis, started a movement to promote Kaplan's ideas; but in doing so, they became another denomination.

Only when the High Holy Days come around do the Jewish juices start flowing, it seems. But we are all Jews, 24/7, 365 days of the civil year. Could it be that our bifurcated structure contributes to the perennial Jewish amnesia that is prevalent for most of the year? It is pathetic that several denominations cannot share a building and its upkeep and spend more of their income on activities--and even include the JCCs in the mix of activities, since the centers are now closed on Shabbat and holidays.
Steven on October 2, 2011 at 3:39 am (Reply)
Hershl writes: "Forget Chabad. They are only interested in you if you want to join their sect and follow their rules."

This is completely not true. As someone who's been going to a Chabad House for a few years, I can attest that they accept everyone for who they are and don't ask or expect you to live your life the way they live it. They are simply welcoming and open to every Jew, regardless of your background or how committed you are or want to be to Judaism.

Please don't make these untrue statements about a movement that is a oasis of Yiddishkeit and a truly welcoming place - with no expectations at all - for so many Jews.
Jack on October 2, 2011 at 11:04 pm (Reply)
Regarding the comments here on Chabad, and any other shul: Where do people think they get their operating funds from? Thin air? It takes money to operate a shul. I know - I ran a shul in my home for a couple of years. We survived because of donors within our shul who had the means to provide the support we needed to continue operating.

As far as Chabad is concerned, in my experience, in the five or so Chabad houses in which I have spent significant time, nobody was twisting my arm regarding ideology or money. Furthermore, Sydney's comments about "feel-good Judaism" and Chabad Centers being a detriment to other communal institutions are just plain silly. If anything, Chabad increases Jews' awareness of their identity and increases participation in Jewish communal life.
Stephen on October 3, 2011 at 3:06 am (Reply)
In reply to Sydney and Hershl:

How do you "make" someone do a mitzvah? Chabad encourages Torah life and learning and appreciation of the beauty of our heritage, but with complete acceptance and no pressure whatsoever. There is, rather, joy when you can make a small step along your journey--but it is your journey. I would have been very surprised if Hershl's bad experience had been at a Chabad House.
sydney on October 3, 2011 at 3:07 pm (Reply)
I guess I incited a lot of comments.

Many of our synagogues were built in the post-war era by very committed Jews. They are beautiful buildings, but the committed Jews who built them are no longer around--actually, it's their grandchildren who are running things, if they are not yet assimilated. (I would refer you to a quote from the previous Lubavitch Rebbe, mentioned in Rabbi Riskin's Hagada, about the four sons and their parallel in American Jewry. According to that analogy, we are in a transition from the fourth son to the fifth, which explains the lack of interest in maintaining orattending synagogues. Think of the capacity of our synagogues in relation to the numbers of people who actually attend now, compared to 50 years ago, when the synagogues were built)

As for the "bloated" salaries, let's recognize our rabbis, etc., as professionals and be prepared to pay them accordingly. But we should expect them to be involved in ensuring that budgets are covered.

That's the difference with Chabad: They know they have a budget to cover. And their schnorring might be subtle or not, but that's how they exist.

Yes, Chabad might increase your awareness, but do they really increase awareness in general? What Orthodox rabbi would countenance the fact that the vast majority of his congregants drive to his shul on Shabbat? But for Chabad, it is common. So long as you come? No demands, feel-good Judaism--like a chabura (and what happened to the chabura, I think in San Francisco?).

And for Hershl, I feel for you. The irony is that if you had gone to a chassidishe or even a yeshiva stiebel, they would have grabbed you and accepted you with no strings attached. Kudo's to the rabbi in the shul who at least tried to get his members to do hachnasat orchim, even if it didn't work out for you.

to all, G'mar Chatima Tova

Dave on October 3, 2011 at 4:09 pm (Reply)
I attended my local Boulder, Colorado Erev Rosh Hashanah services (drove there). The rabbi and his family were gracious, kind, and welcoming to everyone who attended, including the tattooed Israelis who showed up. No judgment, only warmth and love. It was a moving experience at Chabad, as always.
Jerry Blaz on October 3, 2011 at 8:40 pm (Reply)
Chabad is not for everyone. Judaism is not a "one size fits all" religion, culture, etc. We have modern Jews who view the past differently than their grandparents, whose experiences are in vast contrast to the generations past or to Jews in different circumstances.

While Chabad may be inviting to Jews who see their Judaism through their grandparents' or great-grandparents' reading glasses, most of us do not. Many could not literally find a common language with Tevyeh der Milcheker, or whatever this literary creation of Shalom Aleichem was called in Yiddish. We have Jews from many diasporas both in Israel and over the world, not only because of persecution but because of the ease of travel today. And many of them never knew Yiddish, and didn't learn Torah with a Yiddish explanation.

Some of the Chabad outposts in Asia serve as sort of surrogates for the kosher deli in a warm atmosphere. But, like the kosher deli itself, it isn't a place to eat every day. And some Jews find Chabad very strange, and it is mutual. For instance, many Ethiopian Jews are considered suspect Jews and are not welcomed by Chabad in Israel, though they protest loudly if someone considers this as racial prejudice.

And if, as some rabbinic sources claim, they know that their rebbe is the moshiach and that he is coming soon to redeem the Jewish people, their deviation puts them a short distance away from the dÖnme in Turkey who still believe that Shabbatai Zevi is coming back to redeem them, though they consider themselves a special sect in Turkey. There, the Jews consider the dÖnme as Muslims and the Muslims consider he dÖnme as Jews.

And there is even a larger group of people who came out of Judaism and claim to know the identity of the Messiah,both his first and "last name." If we've read the dÖnme out of Judaism, I don't want to read the Chabad out of Judaism for the reason that they believe they have special knowledge of the future attached to a specific personality. Regardless of his piety and knowledge in his lifetime, I can't imagine he would approve what is being done in his name.
Mark on October 11, 2011 at 1:09 pm (Reply)
Regarding Chabad, I am a non-religious Jew who has been going to my local Chabad for over nine years. Never once was I asked for money or told I should not drive on Shabbos or the holidays. I was accepted for what I am.

Two points about Chabad:

Once, a new Chabad rabbi came to the area where I live. I insulted him and was rude (I am a professional, and should have known better)and never apologized. Two or three years later, my sister and I needed to know something; both her rabbi (I non-Chabad) and mine (Chabad) were out of town. I called the rabbi I had insulted and offered to pay him to answer the question. He said no and yes--I could not pay and he would answer the question. He did. I asked him why he wouldn't accept money. He said it was a question about honoring our ancestor (our grandfather), so there was no charge. This was not the first time a Chabad rabbi refused money from me for a favor.

Several years ago a friend of mine was going to the Chabad House of the rabbi I had insulted. It was Erev Yom Kippur. Her daughter was rushed to the hospital. She called me to ask me to call her rabbi (she didn't have his phone number) to say a prayer for her daughter. I had misplaced his phone number and couldn't find it in the phone book, so I called a Chabad rabbi I knew and asked him to make the call. The rabbi I called could not reach the other rabbi--so he drove to the hospital, for a congregant of another shul, a person he had never met, to try and help and offer whatever spiritual and other guidance he could. He got back in time to grab a quick meal before Kol Nidre and a 25-hour fast. He, too, refused money from the woman (her daughter recovered, thank G-d), saying it was part of his obligation to help a fellow Jew.

Herschel and others, if you had a bad experience at Chabad, try another one. I wish that they ahd been around, or that at least I had known of them, 30 years ago.

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