It is at this time of year that synagogues make the most money. During the High Holidays some Jews feel obligated to attend a synagogue service, and for most it comes with a hefty price tag. It will cost anywhere from seventy to several hundred dollars to attend services during the holidays. Then once you attend services you will have to sit through an appeal for more money, for the building fund, the rabbi’s discretionary fund, or for some other worthy congregational cause.
Now clearly synagogues offer a service that cost money. Synagogues also have bills–the rabbi, cantor and administrative staff need to be paid, there are utilities and maybe a mortgage. Synagogues need revenue and if you want to attend you should have to pay. Fair isn’t it?
Well if a synagogue was a business, then this would be a fine business model. Here is the problem: a synagogue should not be seen as a business. Religion should not constantly be associated with money. In the United States there is a financial barrier of entry to virtually every area of Jewish life. Whether it is joining the local JCC, getting involved with the local Jewish Federation or going to synagogue, it all comes with a steep price.
Those of us who care about Jewish continuity, lament the fact that scores of young Jews are voting with their feet and staying away from any sort of involvement with Judaism. But this is not just happening with religion. Statistics show that fewer young people join unions or political groups that cost money. Even from a business perspective, the paid membership model the Jewish community uses is broken.
Yet it is more serious than just an outdated business model. Religion in general and Judaism in particular, should not have such a powerful relationship with money. The sages of Judaism were very particular not to make money from their teaching of Torah and spiritual services. This is not to say that rabbis should not be paid, but clearly, in our tradition the relationship between spiritual and religious services and money is frowned upon.
In the end religion, when it becomes an organization, takes on a hierarchical structure that needs money. This often leads to corruption, politicking and discord. Religion then risks becoming more about the prosperity and continuity of the organization and its hierarchy, than about serving God and spirituality. This is what the ancient sages of Israel steadfastly tried to avoid. It is for this reason that people often say that they like spirituality but they despise organized religion. Frankly I concur, I too dislike organized religion intensely–but I love God, Judaism, the Torah and the value they contribute to my life. It has been my quest to divorce the Judaism I love from the organized religion I hate.
This quest has evolved at Judaism in the Foothills, the community I helped to found about eight years ago. At Judaism in the Foothills there is no membership or dues to be paid. We have a nominal board of directors but there is no hierarchy. I am technically the rabbi, but I have never drawn a salary for that work. Judaism in the Foothills is run solely by volunteers, and as such the expenses are low. Yet we offer everything a normal synagogue offers and more. We have regular Shabbat services, community dinners and lectures (this week a local congressman will be our guest speaker), adult education classes, plus a Hebrew School and summer day camp for kids.
As the High Holidays approach we, at Judaism in the Foothills, are looking forward to welcoming those who the pay-to-pray organized hierarchical Jewish communities have neglected for so long. Given the fact the that so many have become disenchanted by the existing religious structures, getting these unaffiliated Jews to attend synagogue during the High Holidays is no easy task.
But making it known that they won’t be asked for money and will be welcomed into a non-hierarchical, non-organized yet traditional Jewish community at least takes away some of the barriers that would otherwise repel them completely. If this sounds like a community you would like to become a part of, please feel free, because its free to join us.