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Why Do Jews Have to Pay to
Gil’s Jewish Email columns began on his popular America Online feature called "Judaism Today: Where Do I Fit?". Gil welcomes any additional questions or comments about this topic or any other Jewish issue. Email him at GilMann@beingjewish.org.
If a person doesn’t have big bucks, no temple really wants them. Dues can be heavy for families and seniors on fixed incomes… so no temple affiliation for them.
Reform temples are notorious for high dues. I realize that temples require $$$ to exist but churches collect at Sunday services… synagogues can do the same with no hardship.Churches get turnout and temples do not do as well. My Christian friends have no problem at all attending Sunday services. I have not attended a temple service since I moved to Florida. I never had this problem back home up north. T
With the High Holidays around the corner, I have chosen your email for this week’s column because I know many others feel as you do. Paying high dues for synagogue membership is a common complaint. This complaint becomes even more bitter around the High Holidays, when most synagogues require tickets to attend services.
The complaint often sounds like this: "Imagine the audacity! I must pay to pray!"
Right from the get-go, I want to say that the issue you raise is not unique to the Reform Movement. Requiring synagogue dues has nothing to do with movements; it has to do with the need to pay the bills.
Further, no one has to pay to pray. Judaism does not require you to pray in a synagogue. You can pray anytime you want for FREE! However, if you want to take advantage of the special facilities, equipment, and trained staff of a synagogue, that costs money. Someone’s got to pay the bills. That money comes from members.
This is no different than exercise. You can exercise for free. But if you want to use a health club, their equipment and staff cost money. That money also comes from members.
Unlike a for-profit health club, however, most synagogues will work with a congregant to adjust and lower dues to allow them to participate. I know there are dues horror stories… I have written about them. But, in your case (especially living in Florida, where there are many shuls), I would say that you should do a bit more shul hunting. I am positive you can find a synagogue or rabbi who will accommodate your fixed income.
The notion of revealing your income to the synagogue may be distasteful, but I don’t know of another way to ascertain a person’s fair share or whether a person truly deserves a break on dues.
You mention that churches do things differently. Someone I know who is active with the Roman Catholic Church once said to me that he admires how synagogues charge dues based on ability to pay. He said relying, as the church does, on voluntary offerings of an amount you are "moved" to give constantly leaves the church struggling to make ends meet.
A church and a synagogue both have fixed expenses that don’t change whether people are coming or not. So dues make even more sense to me than depending on offerings. Related to this, people have complained to me that they hardly ever use the synagogue, so paying the high dues is not only irritating, it’s not a very good deal.
My response is twofold. First, a member has the option to attend often if they wish. Second, most synagogue members expect that the synagogue and staff be on call 365/24/7. So even if they get little from services or seldom attend, if there is a sudden family emergency… the rabbi had better be there. If a child is entering nursery school or having a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah, the synagogue is just supposed to be available. The same is true if a wedding or funeral occur. Not only is the expectation that synagogue be there, but it should be up and running well — with no leaky roof, and good AC and heating. Many also expect nice carpeting and furnishings to boot.
We expect the fire department to be at our beck and call with trained staff and good fire trucks even if we never take advantage of the services. Few of us object to paying taxes for fire protection, though most of us, thank goodness, never call the fire department.
The synagogue is there for our emergencies too, and our High Holidays, but even more for our day-to-day needs. Paying dues to keep it healthy is OK by me. And paying more to help subsidize those who have less is also OK with me… provided that everyone is honest about what they can afford.
I’ll end with a Shana Tovah wish to you… in a shul that is sensitive to your soul and your limited income.