As unseasonable storms ravaged Texas, many, myself, and my family included, were faced with the prospect of no running water and days-long power outages during freezing conditions. With Ted Cruz holidaying in Cancun, Texans felt abandoned by the government and its unconscionable response to this disaster.
Yet, in the face of this tragedy which saw 23 lives lost in Texas and across the Central United States and many suffering from frostbite, I was left deeply inspired by how ordinary Texans, from all walks of life, came together across their differences to help their fellow citizens with what few resources they had at their disposal. Witnessing the power of the collective, I could not but ask myself, is this not the ‘model’ that many Synagogues should model to build a community that is ‘owned’ by all its congregants, and not just by a handful of donors?
In the wake of the pandemic’s economic ramifications, many Jewish leaders are asking, how they can reach Jews who do not have the financial means to afford steep membership dues, but have a deep desire to grow their Judaism, live more meaningful Jewish lives and give back to the community in the ways that they can. How can we encourage community members to realize the benefits of communal Jewish living, that allows them to give what they can afford and does not become financially prohibitive or, even, off-putting?
We should follow the Texan example in helping each other in all matters of life. Many Jewish communities across the United States from Brooklyn to Chicago have successfully created synagogues that act as integral communal structures. Chabad of Austin came through with packages of food for the homebound and fundraisers to rebuild what the storm destroyed. But Texas needs a more sustainable Jewish community that can help Jewish families not just survive but thrive.
Young Jews normally join synagogues when they plan to marry and start a family. With the younger generation nowadays taking longer to settle down, yet comprising a large share of the Jewish population, the base of the Jewish demographic pyramid is becoming more reluctant to join a synagogue because either they do not see their place in the larger Jewish community or their increasing financial hardships in a post-COVID-19 economy makes it impossible to do so.
With a lack of dues deriving from millennials, the Orthodox Jewish community will encounter financial roadblocks as it tries to grow its grassroot community base in states like Texas. Millennials normally do not join institutions with membership dues, and the incentives for people joining synagogues offer great rates for those under 30. These synagogues need to draw their millennials into their robust and engaging community life by showing them that the synagogue can sustain them at whatever stage of life they are in even after 30.
Worship should never entail financial sacrifice. To join a synagogue with a reduced membership rate, one often must show their recent tax return to prove financial need. Many resent this option, and simply decide not to join a synagogue to protect their privacy. Volunteering towards synagogue membership is an option in some synagogues and should be encouraged for those with financial needs. This way, everyone can contribute while still feeling that they have an equal voice in the synagogue’s mission.
While many of the large funders hold the community’s finances together, we need a more sustainable approach to keep the synagogue’s community life growing. This way, when we encounter hard times like the COVID-19 economy crises, the community growth does not stop due to lack of large donations. The auctioning of Torah portions, with the reading of the Hakafots on Simchat Torah cannot be the way we keep the Orthodox synagogues, which are the lifeline of the Jewish community afloat. All the community members want to contribute to our synagogue’s mission and focus om community life, and should be able to contribute what we can by either financially giving or volunteering our time.
For the Jewish community to grow in cities like Austin and become the sustainable Jewish community that many need, it needs resources. When individuals and families see the Jewish community as an essential lifeline that is there like Texans were during this recent winter storm, they will donate yearly dues, likening the community’s sustainable importance to equal importance to their children’s education and family trips. When the Jewish community builds up the foundation of the community life, we will be successful in our expansion and growth.
Aliyah Jacobson is a writer and educator living in Austin, Texas. Her articles have appeared in the Night Call News, the Vanguard, Jewish News Syndicate, and the Times of Israel.