Maybe I’d Feel More Jewish If I Could Afford It?

I’ve often kvetched about the high cost of being Jewish. From synagogue dues to the JEA membership to Sunday School tuition to tzedakah to summer camp, it adds up to many thousands of dollars a year, and don’t get me started on the projected costs of hosting a bar mitzvah in a few short years. Sometimes I add it up mentally and fantasize about the fabulous vacation the family could take (to Israel, even!) or what I could contribute to the kids’ college funds.

Living in a community where it’s clear from the plaques on the walls that the generations who came before paid for entire wings of buildings, I often wonder how the institutions will survive. While there are several generous families around here upon whose philanthropy the Jewish community depends, it seems like most people grumble when membership goes up ten bucks. Us Yentas pay our bills and keep the children clothed, but we’re not really in an income bracket that gets our names etched in stone on the walls of the synagogue.

But that’s how it is, right? We’re all used to High Holiday speeches from the temple president, even if visitors are appalled (read an account of the outrage expressed at Yom Kippur a few years back.) If we want to participate in communal Jewish life, we’ve got to “pay to play”—a phrase borrowed from Lisa Miller’s column in Newsweek this week.

Miller points out that these giant, ornate synagogues and community centers were built at a time when Jews, “in a very real sense, nowhere else to go. The country clubs wouldn’t have them; their community, religious, and social life revolved around the temple. Today, American Jews have all kinds of choices about where to spend time and money—Jews no longer need a Jewish pool to swim in—and the buildings have become a burden.”

Many JCC’s are trying to offset the burden by welcoming non-Jewish members to the pools and fitness centers and day camps to keep them going, even opening on Shabbat to accommodate them (please tell me—where do YOU weigh in on this?), so let’s leave that aside for a moment. What about synagogues? One person in Miller’s articles suggests that Jews will band together to “reduce costs to families through something like corporate downsizing: making alliances across denominations, sharing spaces, rabbis, and staff.”

Huh, maybe, but I’m don’t want to sit in on that board meeting. But I’m all for it if it means getting back to the basics. Mostly, I’m frustrated with the high cost of temple dues because I haven’t been particularly thrilled with the return—I want simple, meaningful rituals sung in tunes I can follow led by a compassionate, thoughtful, learned person. Unfortunately, the politics of synagogue life have overshadowed my experience of spirituality there—the factions, the whispering, the lashon hora (gossip, negative speech-of which I’m totally guilty), the lack of focus on, well, God.

Miller mentions the “wild success” of Chabad, which uses the church-y business model of “come pray, come eat” before anyone asks for cash. I’ve never been to a Chabad house, but I’ve met couples who run them and have always been impressed by their generosity and enthusiasm. You may not agree, but I would gravitate towards this if it was available—which it’s not, perhaps for territorial reasons. Savannah’s a small place and there are already three synagogues, none of which I feel particularly comfortable in.

I find the most fulfillment (and believe my children do, too) in creating a Jewish home, which costs less and El Yenta Man doesn’t have to wear a tie. Yet that’s incomplete for us fast-and-loose Jews who need a rabbi to teach us the stories and rules (even if we’re not going to follow them.) On the other hand, who wants to shell out thousands of bucks for mediocre spiritual leadership when you could be on a Disney cruise?

It’s a big subject. Please, read Miller’s column here and let me know your thoughts.

2 thoughts on “Maybe I’d Feel More Jewish If I Could Afford It?

  1. We don’t have anything like a JCC here, but the synagogue does seem to become less spiritual and more petty if you’re on the wrong kind of committee. Or sitting next to the wrong people.

    This was a great summary:
    “I want simple, meaningful rituals sung in tunes I can follow led by a compassionate, thoughtful, learned person.”

    Have you tried emailing that to the three synagogues to see what they say about that?

  2. OK, I did what you asked; read Lisa’s column and took time to think. The problem is that nothing has changed since the first time I thought about this 56 years ago. When I was 12 my father and I were locked into a Sunday breakfast meeting and dunned for money. Dad, not a particularly timid soul, intimated possible violence against the guy guarding the door and we were excused. That’s when I began pondering temple finances. My thoughts then pretty much match my ideas today.
    The current business model does not work. For those who consider religious affiliation a fundamental need that need must be met. Those that care about the future of Judaism and are disproportionately wealthy must step up to meet it. A sliding scale must be applied to Jewish life across the board – membership, tuition, recreation – all of it. Those who can afford it should pay substantially more and not complain about it. They should welcome the opportunity for the mitzvah. Those of modest means who partake should be able to do so without fear of embarrassment.
    No, the “pass the plate” approach won’t work. We’re too used to having sensible budgets and reliable ways to fund them. There is no central “organized Judaism” to cover the shortfalls. The “machers” will have to continue to step up.

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