Synagogue Dues

In today’s HaShavuah newsletter, I opened a discussion about the impact of the tough economy on synagogue membership.  Many are not able to afford dues and are dropping out.  Synagogues are seeing fewer people signing up and, of course, lower dues revenue.  As community members we want to support our institutions, and synagogues want to be available to those who are seeking.

The situation made me think about how these two co-dependent entities – synagogues and members – can work together to help each other out.
 
So I asked 2 questions.  Assume that shul dues average about $1800 a year:
 
For those who cannot afford synagogue dues, would you join if membership was offered, just for this year, for half the regular amount?
 
For those who can afford more, would you be willing to pay, just for this year,  50% more, or double the regular membership, in order to support the shul and struggling families?
 
If you’re in neither category but want to share your thoughts, please feel free to do so.

Shortly (once I get permission) I’ll post some of the responses I received.

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27 Comments on “Synagogue Dues”

  1. L.D. Says:

    I think more people would join if it were less expensive. Period.

  2. D.M. Says:

    I live in Boston and I am currently a synagogue member. I wouldn’t be able to afford 50% more. I think your idea of 50% off for a year for those who cannot afford $1,800 is an excellent one. If synagogues manage to double their membership they would have the same revenue.

  3. M.B. Says:

    If I could afford to do so, sure.
    But as I had to start my career over at 35, I’m still playing catchup with salary, retirement, savings, and college fund. Unless I unexpectedly inherit a few million $, I won’t be able to.

  4. H.S. Says:

    Rabbi Davidson –

    In response to the email inquiry regarding slashing dues in half, I don’t see your membership increasing from that offer. One of the reasons I have not been affiliated with a synagogue is because dues are so expensive. That money goes to household and medical bills, it could go towards much needed home repairs including new windows for my house. Even if I could afford $1800 per year, I am choosing to save my money in case of an emergency. For many in these tough economic times, it is not just saving for an emergency; that money is essential to keeping a roof over their head. $900 is still a great impact on finances.

    I don’t believe you have found the cure to your problem yet. However, it’s nice to know that the community is reaching out to find a compromise for all. The numbers presented in your email are not compelling enough to change my mind. You have covered donations/doubling of dues for those who can afford it. I would suggest a sliding scale, but if the executive director has a problem with slashing dues in half, then this would be even worse for him. Have you thought about fundraisers; events with a cover charge and then opportunity to purchase things (i.e. – a silent auction or art fair) or perhaps a raffle? Have local organizations donate items for purchase and all proceeds go to paying membership dues for struggling families. Not too outside the box as far as ideas go, but still “food for thought.” This is a tough dilemma for you with no easy answer.

    Hope you find that answer soon. Best of luck to you!

    Best Regards,
    H.S.

  5. D.A. Says:

    After reading your idea about slashing dues I came up with an idea that may be beneficial for all, and then some. Why not have those of us (myself included) contribute to the synagogue in other ways by offering services to families who may need assistance with certain things, and have those donations go to the synagogue instead of asking people to pay what they can’t afford?

    I am a certified dog trainer and would love to be able to join a synagogue, but with this economy I am having to take money out of my savings just to get by and pay bills. I’ve been looking for another job as well, however like many others there are too many unemployed folks and not enough jobs to go around. If we’re able to create a monthly “Pay What You Can” service for people like me who will be able to offer a service (such as my dog training), we would be able to offer synagogue memberships to many more people, business services to current member families at discounted rates, and help market current businesses to boost the economy!

    I’m sure there are a few technicalities that will need to be worked out, but I think it’s a start to a great concept. Please call me to discuss in detail if there’s any interest!

    Warm Regards,
    D.A.

    • LD Says:

      The barter idea is a good one, but so NOT the Jewish way. I’ve actually trained to be a religious school teacher, in hopes that it would allow me to send my kids to religious school for free or at a reduced rate. No such luck. They just “can’t do that.” And I’m sure they would be equally uninterested in my various skills — be it typing, editing, cleaning the facility, or teaching some craft or hobby. What I don’t understand is what, exactly, these exorbitant dues actually fund? How much does a rabbi earn? How much do the siddurs cost? Surely the cost of running a synagogue cannot be exponentially greater than the cost of running a sizeable church. Sure, we have to hire security, which is pricey. But it can’t be THAT expensive! Yet, church is free, and synagogue costs an arm and a leg. EVERYTHING about Judaism is expensive. I don’t think it was always this way. I can’t imagine my ancestors in the shtetl were factoring shul into the yearly budget. And yes, people (including my family) pay a ton for cable TV and Internet and all the rest. But that’s for a commodity. What is it, exactly, other than the rabbi and the fellowship, that you’re paying for at the shul? Because you can get the fellowship for free by having a get-together with fellow Jews ANYWHERE. And to be Kosher? Exorbitant! Sure, that is somewhat understandable due to supply+demand. But how do you explain why it costs $800+ to be married by a rabbi (if you’re unaffiliated and hire someone to do the ceremony), yet in the same circumstances it costs around $100 (maybe less) to be married by a member of any Christian clergy? And from what I’ve seen, the Christian clergy person actually sticks around for the party — they don’t just collect their check and run off to the next event.

      • LJ Says:

        Actually, Church is not at all free. Churches raise funds from members via two means: passing the collection plate at all services and gathering “pledges” from members where each family pledges a certain amount for the year. Those pledges range in amounts so some can certainly be as high as synagogue dues. If you are ever at a church service and see someone put a small white envelope in the collection plate in lieu of cash, they are putting in part of their “yearly pledge”.

  6. E.L. Says:

    Dear Rabbi,

    I would consider paying more if I could and I have at times, but …

    We have a program at (xxx) called the Double Chai. It requires only $36 extra per month and gives only a special designation. To date, few people havesigned up. Now, we changed the program and offered something in return.

    We have many congregants on dues relief now. That process can somewhat ardous. I was wondering if a more “pay as you pray” program would be more equitable all the way around.

  7. A.B. Says:

    It would still be way too much money for us.

    I appreciate you having this program – “Do Jewish.” What a wonderful idea and great opportunity for our community. I hope many people take advantage and get involved.

    Thanks,
    A.B.

  8. M.G. Says:

    Doesn’t effect me. We go to Emory Hillel services for the High Holy days where they will let anybody attend services even if they can’t afford. We give a contribution that we can afford.

    We are associate members of (xxx) for the rest of the year. We go to Shabbos services and all the holidays except the High Holy day services. There are members of synagogues that only go for the High Holy days. If a person wanted to go to services they can go for free anytime except for the High Holy days.

    It seems shuls are using the High Holy days as a form of black mail. If a person only goes to the Holy day services are they really practicing Judiasm? I think there are a couple of synagogues that are free. Have shuls turned into businesses?

    • LD Says:

      First of all, you do not have to attend shul to be Jewish or to even “practice” Judaism. And second, of course shuls are businesses. When weren’t they? The point is, so are churches, but somehow churches manage to survive and thrive, without exorbitant dues. They have their house of worship (usually in pristine condition) with all the necessary books and hymnals, they have their multiple services, pay their clergy, have Sunday schools and adult education, as well as charity and outreach programs — and yet, they do it all without exorbitant fees for membership. Last time I checked, church membership was absolutely free. And no, we can’t “pass a plate” on Shabbos, but we could come up with some alternative that doesn’t actively turn people off. The church gets a lot “wrong,” sure, but as far as membership goes, I think they do a lot better than we do!

  9. T.S. Says:

    While I don’t mind helping by sending ‘more’ I couldn’t possibly do 50% more. Meanwhile I’d ask that the other ‘commitments’ be let go while this happened. For instance I pay with a commitment to the capital campaign fund that basically is double the dues and a bit more. I can’t do that, dues and pay double more too – it’s just not possible. I also ask that the temple stop preaching about us giving more money as a congregation it’s a continuous song and I already feel the pressure such that I cringe when it’s mentioned…

  10. R.S. Says:

    I LIVE OUT OF THE COMMUNITY ADN AM A MEMBER OF MY SHUL, HOWEVER, I THINK FOR YOUNG PEOPLE, SINGLE PEOPLE, EVEN MARRIED PEOPLE, IT IS NECESSARY FOR SHULS TO BEGIN THINKING IN THIS MATTER. ONCE THEY GET INVOLVED, MAYBE THEY WILL MAKE THE EFFORT TO ADD ALITTLE EACH AND EVERY YEAR. THIS WOULD ADD INCOME AND ADD JEWS TO ESTABLISHED JEWISH LIFE. IS THIS NOT WHAT CHABBAD DOES TO GET PEOPLE IN..EXCELLENT IDEA AND GLAD SOMEONE IS THINKING…..

  11. A.W. Says:

    Cannot afford $900 a year for just myself. How about pay per use? Friday night service $15 with kiddush wine. Saturday morning, $25 with kiddush lunch. Yartizih $10?

  12. D.R. Says:

    Actually, at this moment, I can not afford even half dues. At my shul, fortunately, they do make exceptions for families in dire times and I have been allowed to pay what I can. I’m sure that is because of others who can pay more and I am grateful for that.

  13. H.W. Says:

    Thank you for doing this survey. I’m not sure what good it will do; it is now and has for a long time been very expensive to be an affiliated Jew. Many, if not most of us wait until we have to join (for Religious School), because it is so expensive. And then when we join, it’s not only the dues that get you, it’s the addition of building fund. The synagogue that we joined last year charges a substantial amount for the building fund, for (I think) 8 consecutive years beginning in the second year of membership. (One can “save” actual dollars if this is paid in one large payment before year 2 begins.)

    On top of that, is the additional annual expense of Hebrew/Religious school for children. At some point, usually when this starts, many of us choose to drop membership in the MJCCA — which at the same time raises the dues under the illusion that school-age kids and their parents will be using much more of the programs. This is an illusion, especially in East Cobb, which offers very little quality for high expense in terms of facilities and programs for adults and kids. We have been members of the MJCCA for nearly 10 years, but are likely to drop our family membership for just this reason.

    Synagogues and the programs and services of Jewish agencies and organizations play a vitally important role in keeping our sense of Jewish community. But the expense of membership is so high, that it really can’t be a surprise to anyone that assimilation has a much stronger pull than writing a check has (and another check, and another check…).

    Halving the cost of synagogue membership for one year is a good marketing tool – and acknowlege that that is what it is. What will happen in year two and beyond to make membership and easy and obvious choice. That is really the question you need to be asking.

    Thanks again for doing this. And as for us, we would be immensely grateful for the 50% reduction in dues this year.

  14. G.A. Says:

    After losing the job due to the economy my only choice has been 100% commission which is unpredictable. Even half dues, or $900. annually, would be impossible. Paying monthly still would not work.
    I want to become a member of a conservative synagogue before this fall partially so that my daughter can attend children’s services on Shabbat. She attends (xxx) so knows the prayers and Hebrew. In the past (xxx xxx and xxx have been nice about giving me a membership for a much reduced amount. But now that the recession has hit everyone it may be challenging to get a membership.
    Belonging to a shul is important to me and is top of mind right now.

  15. M.B. Says:

    It would be a lot more feasible to pay 10% or 20% more so that 5-10 families would be able to support 1- 2 families… just an idea

  16. N.R. Says:

    In response to your question, no, I would not join a synagogue for half the price because I would not want to give up the $900.00. You see, if you went to a church, they would let you go for free until you could afford to join.
    Unfortunately my husband was unemployed. Fortunately he has found a job, but we were both quite amazed that the synagogues were not welcoming folks with open arms to help with employment networking, while numerous church’s were. As my husband said, he prayed to Jesus more in the few months he had been out of work then he prayed to g-d.
    We should be embarrassed.

  17. R.H. Says:

    What about asking those that can afford the dues to anonymously sponsor a family that can’t?

  18. S.L. Says:

    We were members of three synagogues – associate members of two – we had to cut back to one synagogue and that is even hard in this economy.

  19. Lucy Says:

    I would love to be a member of a synagogue, I feel lost not being a member. After our daughter was bat – mitzp we just could not afford to pay the yearly membership. Doors should be open to all jews, how can we keep our heritage if it cost so much. We only have one income and it just is impossible to go and pray and support our faith

  20. DM Says:

    I don’t think that most Jews understand the value of joining and supporting a synagogue, because if they really did, they would do so. Many people who are unafilliated and say they don’t join because of the high dues, are also paying on the average of $150 for cable TV and cell phone service. Without a connection to Judaism to their American lives, they see no reason to invest the time or the money. In most cases I don’t blame them. Many congregations don’t really focus on the individual and help them grow in the way they can grow. When rabbis become teachers, and not judges, the 80% of the unafilliated may find the comfort, solace and enjoyment of knowledge that becomes a value to sacrifice for. DoJewish is trying to do that with unilateral outreach programs and by opening up forums, as this one, to hear what Jews really mean when they can “afford” synagogue dues or be able to help others. Tzedaka is Charity, not just money. Let’s give our ourselves to help others and see that it will come back to all of us in positive ways.

  21. Stephanie Halpern Says:

    I have heard from numerous young people in my generation the bad taste left by the constant pressure that you must have money in order to really participate in most Atlanta shuls. Weekly I receive solicitations for donations and events most of which are quite expensive. Most of us have started doing our own things as a result because of the feeling some of us get of exclusivity. I know that with a child on the way 1,800 a year is out of the question….we’re getting creative and especially for those intown we are expressing our Judaism primarily in our own homes and with friends. My gut feeling is that this trend will continue in my generation.

  22. Joe Hinerfeld Says:

    I fully support synagogue affiliation. My wifeand I are long-standing members…I’m charter…of a reform congregation in Dunwoody area. We are senior citizen class and at some point will be retired. Senior dues are steeper than we would like and assessment and other solicitations thrown at us frequently to our dismay. There should be more flexibility without feeling like beggars. At some point we may have to look at other options.

    JBH

  23. Don Pozin Says:

    Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta has begun a program that allows congregants to voluntarily choose a higher level of dues. This program is designed to help subsidize families who are having difficulty making their annual dues payments. The volunteer sheet was just sent out with annual dues statements and we will see what the response is. We have had several families tell us they plan to participate.

  24. May Bauer Says:

    Rabbi:
    This forum/survey has alleviated my feelings of guilt for being an unaffiliated Jew because we cannot afford the cost of dues, building funds, and endless other costs related to being an affiliated Jew. We are trying to maintain our Judaism/spirituality by practicing our faith at home, reading the Torah, Pirkei Avos, daily meditations from AISH, etc. Even though local synagogues here in Texas say they will reduce the annual dues on individual need, nobody seems to “get it” that the whole ball game is too pricey for some retirees/semi-retirees. I recently met a Jew retiree from Brooklyn now living in Texas. He told me he is still a Jew but is now attending a Baptist church … he said the people are very welcoming and it has saved his life … He said the synagogues in Texas just aren’t the same as in NY … From what he said, apparently the dues are an issue for him, too, and the church thing is his way of avoiding loneliness. It was heartbreaking, and scared me not a little. Not all Jews are made of $$. Career choices, divorce and life decisions make affiliation difficult because of the dues structure and an emphasis on costly programs. Why should, we, who have no children pay exhorbitant dues and building fund fees that primarily serve families with children. I know there’s a better way to support a shul than the tradition of today, where sky high dues and building funds would cost us $2,000.00 a year just to get through the door. That’s a sizable portion of our fixed income and quite scary to take on this year or any year for that matter.


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