Paying dues to the synagogue

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:

From Young Jews rebelling against paying dues – The Washington Post:

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!


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  • James Sarver

    “Cheerful giving” is motivated by the Gospel. What the Gospel produces is truly miraculous. New life and cheerful giving too! What’s not to like about that?

    Unfortunately much of Christian stewardship talk falls back on Law. Beating our sinful nature into compliance is easier to measure I suppose. Maybe that is the appeal. If all one has is Law it is certainly scary to give up reliance on it. Christians have an alternative that should not scare them.

  • sg

    Seems just like simple home training, or lack thereof. If you have your kids give 10% of every dime they ever get, it just becomes habit. The big change would be to stop giving. Maybe these parents didn’t train their kids to give, and now they are just seeing a continuation of their kids’ habit of taking but not giving. The lack of perceived spirituality likely follows a similar path.

  • helen

    I was lectured by a [‘church growth’] enthusiast that is was my duty (being older) “to give to things I would not use, so that others could use things to which they wouldn’t give”.
    My thought is that is quite true of the youth group’s trip to Higher things (although I’ve had a “visitors’ day pass” to Higher Things) but the “praise band” [non Lutheran service] “not so much”!

    It’s not only young Jews who want the place of worship to be there when they choose to show up; we have plenty of “Christmas and Easter” Christians who also want to give token support.

    If you want to use OT criteria, the “dime of every dollar” was just the beginning of giving!
    (Most of our church treasurers would be ecstatic if they consistently got the dime from everyone though.)

  • helen

    first sentence: is = it

    And many of the youth who attend Higher Things do work to contribute to the cost of their trip.

  • Hanni

    The Lord “honors” a cheerful giver. My mother worked till 72, never made more than $6 an hour, always gave 10%. Sent 3 girls to college (she was single mom), worked 6 days a week (my grandma helped), fed and clothed us all. After she retired, she continued to give, now 25%, as she said, to thank the Lord for his generosity.

  • Some big pastor needs to develop a packaged sermon series. “Thirty Days to Become a Cheerful Giver” or something like that. If it’s religiously generic enough, it could probably be adapted for the synagogue.

  • Advocate

    In the 19th century, “pew rent” was a common practice of Catholic, Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches in the United States. I have read letters from military chaplains in the Civil War stating that one of the great advantages of the chaplaincy was it freed them of the administrative burden of collecting pew rent.

  • Steve Bauer

    Mike @6

    Since the core of what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 8 & 9 and being a “cheerful giver” is 2 Cor. 8:9 “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich,” I doubt it could be made generic enough to be useful for synagogues.

    Or perhaps you were just being snarky.

  • Steve @8,
    Yes, I was being snarky.
    On the other hand, don’t underestimate the ability of certain big-name evangelybeans to completely forget to include the Gospel into whatever it is they’re preaching about.

  • Christians give from the heart.

    We are not (or should not be) ‘calculated’ givers.

  • sg

    @ 10

    Calculated giving is from the heart.

  • Steve Bauer

    @ 11
    You are correct. 2 Cor. 9:7.

  • Matt Jamison

    Maybe the larger problem is that Reform Judaism has become so worldly, so politically and socially liberal, that younger jews see it as a complete waste of time. As silly as much mainline protestantism has become, Reform Judaism is even worse.

    I think if I were a jew, I would either be drawn to the more serious, traditional and demanding denominations of judaism or I would chuck it altogether for athiesm. Why pay dues to your parents’ ethnic social club?