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The high cost of being Jewish — kosher food, synagogue dues, tuition, etc. — has made secular and religious headlines in recent months. It’s not a new problem, but the recession and the Madoff scandal have taken a heavy toll on Jewish institutions, and there’s more talk than ever of the need to reach out to the growing number of Jews who are unaffiliated and/or in interfaith marriages.
The discussion has culminated lately in a wave of stories about the high cost of attending Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, and whether it’s counterproductive to charge “high holiday Jews” big bucks on the rare occasion that they attend synagogue. To mix my metaphors, do you catch more flies with honey, or can synagogues not afford to give up what amounts to their Black Friday, the holiday rush they depend on to get out of the red? (Keep in mind that Jewish law prohibits synagogues to pass a collection plate.)
Rabbi Steven Weil, Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union:
Most congregations look at what people can afford, and for those that don’t even make the attempt to become members, there are free or discounted options… But, the best way to outreach the unaffiliated is in a more intimate atmosphere, when they can have engagement and a dialogue. It’s much easier at a social event, or at classes that address issues with a give and take (than at a crowded service).
Rabbi Laura A. Baum, of Congregation Beth Adam and OurJewishCommunity.org:
We have real expenses and it’s a challenge that we face. You need to run an institution, but you also want to be inclusive and welcoming. I’ve been saying for the last couple of years that synagogue membership for families is becoming harder to understand, and we have a lot of interfaith families and getting a bill annually for $1,000 to $2,000 is such a foreign concept to the non-Jewish partner, so that presents a challenge, too. If you were raised in a Jewish home, you understand that that’s how it works, but people who join the community as adults get confused.
Jonathan Sarna, Jewish history professor at Brandeis University:
Everybody wants high quality, everybody wants a beautifully aesthetic synagogue, a great cantor, and efficient office with someone answering their calls, and nobody wants to pay for it, like our attitude towards government. We want government to be responsive and active when there is an emergency, but we don’t want to pay high taxes…. But, the government is not going to bail out the synagogues.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.