Paying in order to pray never felt right to me. Anyone who has been to synagogue in Israel has seen a different model in which the synagogue belongs to everyone and everyone belongs. There is no cost to membership but everyone donates as much as they can because it is a mitzvah, a sacred act.
This is the model for the new membership structure now being employed by my synagogue, Congregation Or Atid in Richmond, Virginia. It is hoped that every Jew in Richmond will now place his or her name on our mailing list with the knowledge that there will never be a bill in the mail; only the religious directive to give from the heart as much as one can afford in order to support the synagogue.
As a young adult with small children, I am a member of the category that, according to the recent Pew Study, is not affiliating with synagogues. In fact, most of my Jewish friends are not affiliated. However, when I have asked them why not, they respond that they simply cannot afford it. With this new system, inspired by the Israeli synagogue, I hope that young families will not hesitate to sign up and feel like full-fledged members of our congregation.
In the last four years, Congregation Or Atid has already doubled its membership, tripled its religious school enrollment, and built a new building. The synagogue has introduced innovative programming in the hopes of capturing the hearts and imaginations of people of all ages including creative yoga and musical services, family and tot services, world-renowned guest speakers, magic shows, and community meals. It has also built a brand new outdoor playground and introduced Jewish arts and sports to its religious school offerings. The synagogue is filled with people 7 days a week engaged in socializing, adult Torah study, youth group, Jewish films, Bnai Mitzvah preparation, sing-along prayer services, religious school, wine tastings, synagogue governance, US-Israel exchange programs, and fun activities. The synagogue is also on firm financial footing having a 1.5 million dollar endowment with the hope of reaching 2 million within the next year.
At a time when synagogues are having a difficult time keeping their doors open and researchers are frightening us with bleak predictions concerning the future of the American Jewish community, perhaps Or Atid, Hebrew for “Light of the Future” can truly serve as a new and exciting model for a bright Jewish future.