Orthodox Jews synagogue_311.
(photo credit: Reuters)
In the middle decades of the 20th century they were called “mushroom
synagogues.” They popped up in the waning days of summer to provide High Holiday
services, then disappeared at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Today,
mushroom synagogues are once again in vogue – but with a critical difference.
Where once they were organized mainly by entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity to
make a quick buck, today quite a few of them announce, or even advertise, that
attendance is free.
Two related factors have driven the seasonal demand
for these services in recent years. One is that American congregations rely on a
dues model to sustain themselves financially. In order to pay clergy, maintain
facilities and offer programs ranging from worship to education, recreation and
social action, synagogues require participants to pay membership dues. The
annual charges range from as little as a few hundred dollars up to $5,000 per
This payment model is a product of the separation between church
and state. Historically, in some countries that lacked a firm wall between the
two, governments once collected taxes from Jews and remitted the funds to Jewish
communities to pay for synagogue construction and maintenance. US synagogues,
lacking such state support and forced to be self-reliant, have levied dues to
pay for their programs. Because there is more demand for High Holiday services
than for other synagogue services or programs, congregations have been able to
leverage a package deal: no membership, no High Holiday seats.
second, related factor is that relatively large numbers of American Jews are not
affiliated with synagogues. Some estimate that in the mid-19th century,
to judge by the seating capacity of existing synagogues, no more than 35 percent
of American Jews were members. Fifty years later, with the arrival of huge waves
of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the percentage was about the same. In the
late 1950s, at the peak of synagogue affiliation, an estimated 60% of Jewish
families belonged to synagogues. But by the beginning of this century,
according to the most optimistic reckoning, that figure had dropped into the 40%
Demographic surveys have found that synagogue membership is
associated with income. In Chicago, for example, half of all Jewish families
with household incomes over $100,000 say they are synagogue members, compared
with roughly a quarter of those with lower incomes; lower-income families also
report that costs have kept them from joining synagogues. Therefore, it is not
surprising that the recent economic downturn has exacerbated the membership gap.
Congregations have lost members who have fallen on hard times. The pattern is
reminiscent of the Great Depression, which has been described by historians as a
religious Depression as well as an economic one.
What are non-affiliated
Jews to do if they wish to attend High Holiday services? One response to the
economic realities has been a call for synagogues to eliminate their “pay to
pray” policies altogether. Churches, after all, charge no membership dues. They
support their activities through voluntary giving – plate-passing, tithing, or
other types of offerings. Why, some Jews ask, should synagogues maintain a
heavy-handed, materialistic bar to participation precisely on the most sacred
days of the Jewish calendar?
The simple answer is that congregations require
funds to keep their doors open year-round. The more complex answer is that over
the past 20 years, most congregations have instituted stratified dues scales.
Most synagogues have lower fees for younger people just starting their careers;
most offer reduced dues for widows and widowers, divorced people and singles;
most are responsive to those who have financial difficulties. Apparently,
however, many Jews find it demeaning to ask for such financial accommodations
and do not do so. For different reasons, others resist the idea of paying even
token amounts to help defray the costs of running religious
Some synagogues have adopted a more radical approach.
Rather than charge a flat fee for a package of services, they have instituted a
“fee for services” system. In this business model, the synagogue is
envisioned not as an overarching community offering its members a comprehensive
range of activities but as a department store in which Jews can select those
services that appeal to them and take no responsibility for supporting the other
The rapidly expanding network of Chabad centers comes close
to this approach. If a family wishes to enroll children in a Chabad Hebrew
school, the center typically does not require synagogue membership. This model
reduces the cost of attending High Holiday services, though it does not
necessarily eliminate fees altogether. The model might also capsize most
congregations – which do not have large endowments and, for better or worse,
sustain themselves by relying on dues from members who rarely avail themselves
of all the services offered.
The other solution to the “pay to pray”
dilemma, increasingly adopted by congregations and “freelancers,” is to offer
High Holiday seats at low or no cost. Most Chabad centers follow one approach or
the other. And quite a few mainstream congregations, in recent years, have set
aside some seats for distribution at no charge. The altruistic reason for
such a policy is to provide places for those who cannot afford payment. The more
strategic reason is to draw newcomers to the synagogue in the hope that when
they have the means, they will join.
These High Holiday arrangements have
considerably eased the pain of the “pay to pray” blues often heard at this
season of the Jewish calendar. At their best, however, synagogues are religious
communities offering rich benefits for members prepared to pay in the currency
of sustained commitment. Most such communities now offer low-cost or, as one
advertisement puts it, “free, walk-in High Holiday services for those who are
But, as the slogan implies, the lunch is not really free, at
least in a moral sense. Those who avail themselves of such opportunities have an
obligation to be actively “searching,” not passively expecting service.
Synagogues should not be spiritual department stores or transient, once-a-year
gathering places.The writer is a professor of American Jewish history at
the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the editor of the forthcoming
The New Jewish Leaders: Reshaping American Jewish Life (Brandeis). This article
was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is
reprinted with permission.