My Interfaith Family Can't Afford a Synagogue Membership – Kveller
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dear gefilte

My Interfaith Family Can’t Afford a Synagogue Membership

Dear Gefilte, 

I am Jewish and my partner is not. We can’t really afford synagogue membership, and I’m worried that without it, my kids will have no Jewish identification. What do we do?


To Dues or not to Dues 

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Dear Dues-y,

Please send me an inventory of your current expenses for the past week including all incidentals—coffee, gas, herring, hair gel. If you are a true Jew, you can wander in a desert for 40 years without a cappuccino. [1]

Or maybe check out this beautiful quote from the greatest Jew to defy hair gel—Albert Einstein: “Love is a better teacher than a sense of duty.” (I’m linking the fascinating article that quote came from about raising creative children. Thank you for the inspiration, Adam Grant.)

This instruction goes for you as much as your kids, Dues-y.

What do you love about going to synagogue?

What do you want your kids to love about it?

Have you ever uttered the word “love” and “synagogue” in the same sentence before?

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These are not easy questions to tackle, and believe me, I’m trying to answer them with you. It could be the cantor’s minor chords, the sunlight trickling through the stained glass, the smell of the cleaning fluid the staff uses on the floors.

For me, it’s all about the synagogue preschool where my son goes. The teachers are warm and wise and teach him about planets and hibernation patterns and how shaving cream can make the whole world feel like fluff. I definitely struggle with getting my whole family to services though, and that’s my own fault. I need to try more and see what kind of teachings we can all enjoy. The last time we all went together, the rabbi told a story about dropping feathers from a tower that gave me the oooh-I-want-to-save-this-feeling kind of shivers.

So, what exactly would paying dues add to this synagogue experience?

Preschool tuition discounts—yes.

A sense of giving back to the awesome staff and clergy—yes.

More shivers? I don’t think so.

Here are a few things I’ve spent a lot of money on in the past, hoping that they could give me a sense of purpose or belonging (spoiler alert: they didn’t):

-the puffy paint sweatshirt dress that made me so self-conscious and itchy I wore it exactly once before leaving it on a hanger for three years
-protein bars, gym memberships, diuretic teas, Spanx
-a speed reading course where the teacher gave us books and then played a cassette recording of beeps that were supposed to make our eyes move faster

On the flip side of that, here are some things I spend a hefty sum on and I feel is money well-spent:

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-Therapy and psychotropic drugs
-A yearly trip to visit my cousins at the beach
-A fantastic pair of support socks (even gefiltes get creaky in the joints)

Dues-y, if you think a monetary commitment will make you feel more connected to your synagogue, please by all means, talk to the clergy or administration about how you can do it. There is usually some way to do a payment plan or “dues-lite.” I’m actually going to have that conversation myself this week because reading your note made me see how important this synagogue is to me.

But I also have to say there are a lot of other ways to contribute to the synagogue and show your kids what this place means to you. For starters:

-volunteering at special events
-being an usher at the High Holidays
-offering something for the annual synagogue bazaar (doesn’t every synagogue have a bazaar?)
-bringing snacks for the preschool
-cooking food for synagogue families in need
-recommending the synagogue to (potentially rich) friends
-singing loudly at services
-organizing a food drive (aka gefilte house party)

And here’s another ingredient to consider. What does identification or belonging mean to you? Are you looking for jar-swapping and communal parsley rallies? (That’s what we do at B’nai Rodesh Gefilte.) Or are you hoping for a support system, a place to feel heard, a second home?

I have a dear friend who went through the murky deep of divorce a few years ago. She told me how lonely it was for her and how her neighbors treated her like splitsville was contagious. She longed for a community to bring her soup or help with laundry. One guy said he’d help her move heavy furniture but then never showed. She wasn’t looking to get rid of the armoire anyway. She just wanted to know that she and her kid would have a new family to help them through this tough time.

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Listening to her, I realized that support groups for divorcees are desperately needed. I also realized I’ve never given that kind of care to my divorced or newly single friends. Feeling alone is possible for any species. Connecting through soup is, too.

I’ll be blunt. No synagogue is depending on your shekels to survive. And Jewish identification cannot be bought. So skip the Spanx, get to an oneg, and ask yourself, what do I love about being here?

I hope it has to do with fluff, faith, and feathers.

With love and schmaltz,


[1] I joke to mask empathy and hide from the fact that this question plagues me too.

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