I’m a dues-paying member at my local synagogue. And yet, I’ve also been advocating for a pay-what-you-can/voluntary dues model at my synagogue since I first joined. It’s not because I think my synagogue is too expensive or charges too much. Rather, I realized long ago that when it comes to synagogues, people don’t like being told what to pay. Period.
Here’s something else I’d like to make clear. I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where the money I spend on my family’s synagogue membership (not an outrageous amount, but not a small amount either) doesn’t preclude me from putting food on the table or covering my mortgage payment. I recognize that some people genuinely can’t afford to join synagogues at the going rates, but that’s not my situation. But it is for some people—and we can’t ignore that.
Ever since this article came out and essentially blasted synagogues for being overly pricey, the Jewish side of the Internet has been abuzz with feedback and responses. It’s an important conversation to have, and I’m here to weigh with why I opted to join a synagogue a few years back.
I’ve always agreed that Judaism is a community-based religion at its core, and since I don’t live particularly close to family, for me, it’s the next-best thing. Through my synagogue, I’ve met numerous people and families with whom I can share holidays when my own family is too far away and celebrating together just isn’t feasible. And sure, now that I’ve built these relationships, I’m not necessarily reliant on a building to keep them going.
But to me, a synagogue isn’t just a building. It’s a community center in the most meaningful sense of the words. It’s where my children are being taught to love and embrace Judaism, and enjoy the many wonderful holidays and traditions our religion boasts.
Another reason I chose to join a synagogue? I can’t raise my kids Jewish alone. My husband and I make a point to incorporate a Shabbat routine into our schedule, and we’re constantly talking up the holidays and celebrating them as best as we can. But at the end of the day, it’s easy enough to blow off Simchat Torah when it falls out on a workday and you’re booked with meetings. On the other hand, if your synagogue is running a program, and your friends are going, it’s reason to enough to take the day off–at least for me.
Because I’ve made the decision not to send my children to day school for financial reasons (while I can swing my synagogue dues, I genuinely can’t afford the cost of full-time tuition), I feel that I should be supporting a local institution in some way. In fact, one of the things that made that decision easier was having my synagogue’s religious school to fall back on. But without my synagogue, there’s really no easy way for my children to get a Jewish education–and that’s reason enough to keep paying dues, even though I’ve yet to start utilizing that school (my kids aren’t old enough).
So yes, I joined a synagogue and pay my dues because I need that synagogue in my life. I want that synagogue in my life. It’s important to me. And although I’d love to be able to pay less, it’s still more than worth the cost.
I recognize that for many people, belonging to a synagogue isn’t worth the amount of money being charged. And that’s fine. But then please, do the rest of us a favor and just say that. I’m not judging anyone for prioritizing soccer club or dance lessons over joining a synagogue–but I do wish people would be more honest about the word “afford” in the context of membership. In other words, don’t blame synagogues for charging what they do, or imply that they’re inflating their costs. The ones that I’m familiar with are, in fact, barely just covering them. It’s OK to have different priorities, but we need to be honest about money—especially as that’s not fair to people who genuinely can’t afford it.
The money that I spend on synagogue dues is money I don’t have available for other luxuries. For example, my dues payment could instead buy my children an additional after-school activity, or buy me and my husband some extra (and, frankly, much-needed) date nights. It could also buy us more flexibility–if we weren’t spending that money to be members, we could pay our kids’ college accounts, order more takeout on the nights we’re too tired to cook, or outsource any number of the home maintenance tasks we currently undertake ourselves.
But for us, having access to a synagogue with great programming is worth the money we’re spending. And that’s why we spend it.