Churches rely on offerings to meet their financial needs. Jewish synagogues, on the other hand, charge their members dues. Lisa Miller tells how this works and how some synagogues are trying to change this practice to attract more members:
Traditionally, when an American Jew couldn’t manage to pay his annual synagogue dues, he had to apply for relief. This often meant a shameful conversation with the temple’s financial secretary, a plea for mercy and sometimes even a revealing of personal financial documents. It’s not surprising that many people in such circumstances would rather walk away than submit to judgment. . . .
Across the country, young Jews are rebelling against the old, dues-paying model of synagogue membership. Their parents might have written the membership check without a second thought, but these folks don’t part with their money so easily. Not when there are so many other bills to pay. Not when Jewish identity has become as much about what you eat (or don’t eat) and who you marry (or don’t marry) as where you worship – or, in the old vernacular, “belong.”
And there’s a third problem. Young Jews viscerally rebel against the money culture of the American synagogue, where dunning and giving are explicit transactions. Dollars separate not just insiders from outsiders — who gets tickets to High Holy Days services and who doesn’t. Cash donations also sort members into tiers on the basis of who gives the most. In Reform and Conservative Judaism, money talk has become a barrier to the kind of spiritual belonging that young people crave.
“The focus is on power, money and a lot of alienating stances,” says Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a wide-ranging conversation recently. A growing number of Americans of all faiths – 20 percent – are unaffiliated with religious institutions. Only a fraction of American Jews belong to a synagogue. . . .“
Instead of dues, [synagogue president Matt] Shapiro says, he divides the synagogue’s budget by the number of families in the congregation and presents them with a number: in this case, $2,500. He’s very transparent, he says: “This is how much it costs to run the synagogue. Give what you can. And make sure you give of your time and your effort as well.” Shapiro has found that annual giving is “not worse, slightly better” than before the change. A handful of other Reform and Conservative synagogues are experimenting with the give-what-you-can model, but most continue to shy away. Shapiro describes his fellow presidents’ reaction this way: “Oh boy, I’m glad that works for you, but I would never try it. Too scary.”
Even the alternative model presented here–charge members a share of the budget–is quite different from how Christian churches do it. I suppose there are different ways of funding religious organizations. Churches in Europe are funded by a tax. Scripture, though, calls for “cheerful giving” (2 Corinthians 9:6-8). I guess it’s rather miraculous that this works for churches!