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How Many Rugelach Do I Get With That?

As a rabbi, I find myself in a bit of a bind when it comes to the question of synagogue membership and the High Holidays. On one hand, I’d never want to turn anyone away who wants to pray at the holidays–who would? And we don’t–non-members can still purchase tickets at my synagogue, and we always make sure that even those are discounted for anyone who can’t afford them.

So why charge fees at all? Well, besides the obvious point about synagogues’ needing to pay the bills, which Rabbi Grossman points out, there’s the additional issue of community. In short, simply purchasing–or not purchasing–High Holiday tickets reinforces a consumer à la carte mentality: Pay for what you want, leave the rest.


This is great when it comes to cell phones–I just signed on for a new plan, and it was great to select only the options I wanted and not to be charged for services I don’t need. But unlike a cell phone plan, a relationship with a community isn’t–or at least shouldn’t be–utilitarian.

Can you imagine a membership plan that included High Holiday tickets plus entrance to another holiday of the member’s choice, two pastoral meetings with the rabbi, coffee at kiddush but no Danish, and no more than one life-cycle event per year? True, you might pay less, because you only purchase what you use, but you lose much more–a sense of belonging, of emotional connection, of expansiveness, of knowing you have a stake in something and that it has a stake in you in return.


Organizations that promote no-membership High Holidays may have found a great outreach tool and capitalize on resentment against membership dues that are justly criticized as too high. But by encouraging a consumer approach to Judaism–shop for the best bargain, never make more of an emotional commitment than you have to–they may be doing the Jewish community a grave disservice.

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posted September 12, 2006 at 9:23 pm

While I agree with Rabbi Waxman about community building,and being part of a community, part of the problem is that for may congregations there is NO connect with the rabbi, only constant demands for money. I remember growing up, and going only on high holidays to services with my grandparents in Queens, and wondering what the rabbi and cantor looked like, as they always wfaced the Ark, and not once faced us, or did we get the feeling they wanted any of us there for anything other than we were a body in a the pew. My mom is a 50+ woman, who’s kids are WAY beyond Bar/Bat mitzvah age, and she herself sees little need to join, what do we say to people like her? She used to do services at the Jewish group at Rutgers Hillel because all she had to pay for was the holidays, and nothing more. at some levelI agree with her, but I am part of a community, and happy to help out my synagogue when I can.

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posted September 12, 2006 at 11:21 pm

I agree that most congregations need the membership dues to pay the day to day operating costs. Here is a look at the reasons why I personally chose not to join anymore. I’ll just pay for whatever service I chose attend. (If I ever do again.) My son and I started attending a new shule when we moved. After several weekends of attending services we talked about it and thought this would be a good place to become part of the local community. I contacted the business office, was quoted a price, although I felt it was rather pricey we reshuffled the finances and joined. Two months later there was a problem involving another boy. My son has ADHD and has a high functioning form of autism and I tried talking to the other parent conerned and was told they had been there a long time and that they “belong here he doesn’t”. I spoke to the Rabbi and was willing to work things out with the other parent. I was told he didn’t have right then to “investigate” but would get to it as soon as he could. Attitudes and rumors started running rampant and mean hurtful things were being said to my son by other children right in front of their parents without anyone saying or doing anything about it. I once again appealed to the Rabbi, I was told he hadn’t had time yet. (Approximalety 3 week had gone by since my first conversation with him.) Yom Tov came and things just got worst to the point that I was ignored when I spoke to people and people blatantly ignored my son when he offered to shake their hand on several occasions. He cried all the way home one Shabbat and refused to go back again. After the holidays I phoned the Rabbi several times, but calls were NEVER returned. I can tell you quite honestly I have no porblem pulling my weight within a congregation but being hurt and abused like this on top of paying for the privilege is more that I can handle. I can guarantee it will be a VERY long before I am willing to try that again.

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posted September 13, 2006 at 6:41 pm

Tzvi, I just turned 58, both daughters deceased, obviously no need for some of the family oriented activities in the shul. Yes, it is true that I can read the Torah portion at home, light yahrzeit candles at the appropriate times, etc. I do not need services, per se; however, as my rebbe reminded me, I do need community prayer and the sense of being connected to my people. IMO, that is what you say to people in the 50+ range. ### Rachel, I read your post and felt your pain. No child of any ethnicity or religion should be exposed to that type of treatment! You mentioned you had recently moved; are there no other shuls in your area? From my experience, many rebbes do not have have the authority to “investigate”; the shul board does. Have you contacted the board? Also, if you live in an isolated area or one with a very small Jewish community (as I do), have you contacted the Chabad? They have wonderful outreach programs, a lot available on-line.

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Cheryl E.

posted September 13, 2006 at 6:51 pm

Rachel: I don’t belong to a congregation either. I just wanted to say that I feel badly for you and your son and the horrible experiences you had at the temple you joined. The rabbi was apparently so busy with the ‘business’ of being a rabbi that he forgot that a rabbi has the opportunity to exemplify through his behavior what it means to be a Jew. The way he treated you was very unJewish; indeed I’m sure it was also very unChristian, unMuslim, unBuddhist and unHindu, etc. Hopefully, the explanation for his rude behavior is that he was very young and very new, and he was just feeling overwhelmed. Is there a Jewish Family and Children’s Services agency in your area? Perhaps they could help you in some way. Was your son involved in a school at the temple? Was his teacher given sufficient information about his ADHD and his particular form of autism? I wish you and your son all the best. . .

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posted September 14, 2006 at 2:42 am

On the one hand, shul membership dues are necessary because we literally do have to run utilities, upkeep, maintenance, staff salaries, etc. Most of our members can afford it and more; many choose to delay payment and some are delinquent. We make allowances for those with financial hardships. Growing up in Brooklyn as a once a year Jew, I walked down the street to the local orthodox synagogue, sat in the back in a balcony and had no idea what was going on. However, I was not charged. As an adult in another area now, and having been an active member of my shul, I understand the need for dues, not being subsidized by a larger organization in a way similar to the way I understand Catholic churches are run (sincere apologies if I got that wrong). Anyway, we have to charge. And due to security concerns, we do not allow anyone off the street to walk in for services, but advertise ahead of time that non-members may buy tickets. Even members must purchase tickets to attend high holiday services (though ticket costs are not extravagant by any means). On the one hand, I understand how dues paying members might feel more entitled to services than those “off the street”. On the other hand, I find the whole list-checking thing and turning away non-members for high holidays so distasteful that my husband and I just refused to do the usher thing this year. I hate that job; I hate the guilt of turning away those who want once a year services (I have no problem with that; it’s better than not coming at all); I hate the appearance of looking for money and turning away members who are not paid up in dues. I understand the business realities of the shul. It’s just hard to reconcile it with the spiritual nature of the season.

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Adam J. Bernay

posted September 14, 2006 at 7:02 pm

Am I the only one who thinks the claim that *NOT* charging for services promotes a consumerist approach to Judaism is just a little… counter-intuitive, if not RIDICULOUS? In point of fact, it is the other way around: the concept of purchasing tickets is, in and of itself, an exercise in Jewish consumerism — you’re getting what you’re paying for, even if the price is way too high (the only time Jews pay retail or higher, except when ordering from “The Source for Everything Jewish”). It also amazes me that people who do a whole lot of thinking for a living (rabbis) should think the problem is the membership dues, the High Holidays fees, or Hebrew liturgy confusing people. These are merely symptoms of a theology that has grown totally hollow since the destruction of the Temple.

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Millah Mandel

posted September 15, 2006 at 12:46 am

I have wanted to belong to a synagogue for awhile. This year as a single person I checked out prices at various synagogues in my area. The average price was $1500.00 – $2500.00 per year. Sorry, I cannot afford anything like that. I am not willing to show the board my last tax return. So I will stay unaffiliated. We need a better system. What do the churches do? Most Christian places I understand just pass a basket around. Maybe that is offensive to the Rabbi, but it is affordable to me. Maybe poorer people could attend more and therefore you would not see empty synagogues on shabbat. Just a thought.

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Cheryl E.

posted September 15, 2006 at 5:36 pm

Adam: You refer to a ‘theology that has grown totally hollow since the destruction of the Temple.’ Wow! That is a huge statement covering a huge time period. And you do not follow it up with even one tiny example! Could it be that you are just feeling bitter? What do you mean by ‘hollow?’ Do you mean that you see no examples anywhere of any Jew who practices what she preaches; not ever?

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Christine in Canada

posted September 16, 2006 at 12:19 am

Millah Mendel wrote: “What do the churches do? Most Christian places I understand just pass a basket around.” From the Catholic churches I’ve participated in, members are given envelopes covering all the Sundays and special holidays in a year. They put their money into the envelopes and drop it into the donation basket. It’s used to track who gives what and I think people may get a tax receipt at the end of the year, but I’m not 100% sure. (It’s been 11 years since I’ve gone to mass regularly and I was a teenager when I stopped) Anyone else can just put money in the basket. It seems like many religious institutions are feeling the money crunch. My father left his church because he felt the emphasis was more and more on money raising (ex. fundraisers, bake sales, donations, etc.) rather than building a strong community.

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Laura Michelle

posted September 23, 2006 at 2:50 am

I don’t believe in paying in order to be able to pray. I am a student and cannot afford a 1000 membership. I wanted to attend the services for Rosh Hashanah at the shul where my friend is a member, and I was turned away because I did not purchase a ticket, and there were not any tickets left. How is Judaism going to attract young members if it is such an elitist institution? It’s disgraceful.

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posted September 27, 2006 at 7:40 pm


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posted September 27, 2006 at 7:48 pm

laura, did you tell them you were a student? at most shuls thye will let student s go to the overflow. I know that this year with increased security you needed to call and make a reservation so that you name would be on the gate list. If you are a grown up and live in town then they will charge you for your tickets. rachel, i do know that there many rabbis today who don’t understand that part of their duties are to mediate certain situations with the board re congregants. We had a situation with our son while living in Baton Rouge and the Rabbi handled it all beautifully. My son was happy to go back knowing he had a supporter in the Rabbi. We had a situation here where the Rabbi did not improve the problem at all, but if anything made it worse be-cause of his harsh attitude. This time it was a friends son and fortunately he has survived the crisis and is doing well. I like to think that this was because a large number of congrgants supported him and made him aware of it, without discussing it ad nauseum. Is there another shul in the area??

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