Synagogues under stress as High Holy Days approach

Rabbis are telling the worst-off members they can stop paying dues until their finances improve.

Rabbi Charles Klein 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
Rabbi Charles Klein 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
The calls come in nearly every day. Rabbi, I can't make the donation I promised. I can't afford my synagogue dues. I can't even pay my mortgage. The callers say they are humiliated at the prospect of becoming objects of pity in the congregation and try to quietly quit without telling the other families. "I have had more of those conversations in the last year than I've had in my 31 years here," said Rabbi Charles Klein of Merrick Jewish Centre on Long Island, where many members have been laid off from the financial industry. "I'm calling up universities and talking with admissions officers, trying to advocate for scholarships for kids because the parents can't pay the tuition," Klein said. The Jewish High Holy Days will begin Sept. 18 with people leaning heavily on synagogues for help. Rabbis are telling the worst-off members they can stop paying dues until their finances improve, even though the synagogues themselves are hurting. Congregations have stepped in to offer aid that ranges from counseling to money for medicine. Fundraising appeals during the holidays will focus on keeping the service programs and the synagogues afloat. The Merrick congregation created a fund that covers members' bills, and drafted volunteers who advise the jobless on resumes and interviewing. A social worker provides free counseling. Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, formed a job network and a support group for teens stressed by their parents' financial plight. Many in the congregation of about 3,300 families worked for automakers or had jobs linked to the industry. At Beth El Congregation in Baltimore, some members, often retirees on fixed incomes, have brought baggies for leftovers to the community reception held after Sabbath services. "I know the food they're taking home is probably going to be their main meal for that afternoon and the next day," said Gil Kleiner, Beth El's executive director. "That's OK. If they come to services and they eat, that's fine. That's part of what Judaism is all about." The increased need comes at a time when many synagogues have their own money woes. Investment income and donations are down and Jewish philanthropies are making fewer grants. Some foundations were wrecked by the Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff, although the scandal has had little direct impact on synagogue life so far. Overall, U.S. Jewish organizations are estimated to have lost 25 percent of their wealth in the downturn, according to Steven Bayme, an expert in contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee in New York. Still, the most significant losses for congregations come from members who are unable to pay dues, which can run into the thousands of dollars per family. (Unlike churches, synagogues don't pass a collection plate and instead charge a fee that covers much of a congregation's budget.) Rabbi Brian Zimmerman of the Union for Reform Judaism, who works with synagogues in the South and Southwest, said that clergy in the worst-off states report that as many as a quarter of their congregants can't pay full dues. Dues are an especially sensitive issue around Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when congregants are often required to be paid up to get seats in packed sanctuaries. Nonmembers who wish to attend holiday services usually must buy tickets, which can range from $200 to $650 for the 10-day period. Rabbis say they are making concessions so that no struggling member is turned away. Separately, some synagogues seeking new members offer free tickets to nonobservant Jews. "There will be members of the congregation who we just have to continue to consider members who can no longer afford to pay," said Klein of Merrick. At Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim of Silver Spring, Md., whose membership comprises mostly retirees, some are so embarrassed by money problems they try to leave without saying why. "We very sensitively try to find out," said David Sacks, president of the congregation, who has suspended dues payments to keep members. Those adjustments, along with the other drops in income, have left synagogues with painful spending decisions of their own. They have frozen or reduced salaries, put off repairs on their buildings, cut jobs and eliminated programs. The High Holy Days are usually a period when synagogues can make up for shortfalls. Many fundraise on Yom Kippur, when Jews recite the Yizkor memorial prayer, in which they pledge charity in the name of the deceased. Several congregational leaders said they must make the appeal despite the economic climate. Temple Israel doesn't seek donations on Yom Kippur, but has started a charity campaign called No Family Without High Holy Days. "There are days I honestly go home depressed," said David Tisdale, Temple Israel's executive director, "but we try to be optimistic."