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 vogue—but 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.
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 giving—plate-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 congregations—which 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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