Does the high cost of membership in synagogues deter membership? Absolutely.
It doesn’t matter that my synagogue is dedicated to never turning anyone away for lack of funds. I personally know individuals who do not want to have to ask for a special consideration, regardless of how confidentially or sensitively it is handled. Other honest souls want to carry their own weight. Not being able to afford the going rate makes them feel bad, and why be part of a group that makes one feel bad?
The problem, my lay leaders tell me, is finding enough money each year to keep the lights on and pay the mortgage. Most American Jews are well off enough to pay much more than their membership fees if they wanted to, they just have other priorities. Would they be generous enough if a set fee were not required? Would more Jews come?
I was invited to preach at a large church last spring. They held three collections: for the tithe, for freewill offerings, and a third for special vows and gifts of the heart. They do this every Sunday. Sometimes I think if we could pass the plate, Jewish communal life would be easier. I briefly rued the mitzvot that prohibit using money and writing on the Sabbath.
To be honest, many synagogues do “pass the plate.” On the High Holy Days, preprinted cards with fold-down tabs are distributed with each member’s name already labeled upon them. What if we did this each week? Perhaps then we (and our local lay leaders) would have even more incentive to deal with the fact that only a small percentage of our membership attends services on a regular basis at all.
The other day, one of my leaders asked me if we could find a donor so we would not have to charge membership fees for High Holiday family services. There are groups who do have such support. Not far from me, a group dedicated to connecting unaffiliated Jews to traditional Judaism received major foundation support for their building and programming. Are we mainstream congregations just not applying for the right grants? I would love to have the money to train or bring in top people to offer similar outreach programs in an egalitarian setting in which men and women, boys and girls, could sit together and be treated religiously as equals (males and females are separated in the programs run by the group I referred to above).
A rabbi friend of mine in California started a synagogue that will not charge membership fees. They are solely dependent upon free-will offerings. I hope she makes it and the synagogue thrives. If it succeeds, then maybe the rest of us will have the courage, and the faith, to try something similar.