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Membership has its privileges

When an octogenerian dies and the synagogue she no longer belongs to won't announce her funeral, is it petty or practical?
Illustrative. Congregation Beth Yeshurun, Houston, Texas, with congregants' cars parked out front, in August 2009. (Wikipedia)
Illustrative. Congregation Beth Yeshurun, Houston, Texas, with congregants' cars parked out front, in August 2009. (Wikipedia)

I quibble with the editor of the Jewish Standard, who penned an opinion piece a few weeks back scolding a synagogue for not honoring an octogenarian congregant who had let her membership lapse and was denied some of the basic rites of membership when she died, including a funeral announcement from the house of worship (“A woman alone vs. a shul community,” October 26). In the specific case the editor mentions, I agree that the approach of the synagogue seems egregious, short-sighted, and petty.

However, there is a growing number of families who are resigning from synagogue life but seem to want to appropriate the benefits that come with membership. This is a problem.

It is not uncommon for our congregation to receive a phone call asking for our synagogue clergy to officiate at lifecycle events, predominantly funerals, for the loved ones of people who used to be members. For an illustrative example, the Schwartz family resigns from Congregation Abraham and have not been members for three years. Mr. Schwartz’s mother dies at the full age of 98, and they want the synagogue’s clergy to officiate. If they do officiate, they have undercut the entire paying membership. If they do not officiate, they are viewed as selfish, money-hungry, and insensitive.

What about the post-college 20-something who asks synagogue clergy to officiate at her marriage to her mate, whom she met at Hillel while they were in college? But the family no longer belongs to the congregation. What does the clergy do? Support the wedding and undermine members (this wedding could fill a calendar date that members might want for their own wedding) or tell the couple no, they are not members and leave them to fend for themselves. (At a time when welcoming and engaging future leaders is critical, this direction will likely work against the grain.)

Recently, a family whose heads of household are in their early 50s and have resigned from our synagogue more than four years ago presented a challenge. As the rabbi, I met with the family and tried to regain their membership shortly after they resigned, both in writing and in a personal meeting. In this particular case, I even offered this family a new year with no dues to give our shul a second chance to right that which they thought we did wrong. They returned that offer with silence and without rejoining. Fast forward three years and the family loses a parent. They beg the synagogue to provide them with mourning chairs, books, and accouterments that accompany shiva. Our congregation provides those things to all of its members. Why should those appurtenances be supplied for people who are no longer members? Should we deliver them? Why?

While sounding like an American Express commercial, synagogue membership has its privileges. If we pivot to a model of no dues, or no expenses, or everyone is free to come and use what they need, when they need, how they need, with no financial obligation, explain to me how the costs of security will be met, the electric bills will be paid, and maintenance sustained? How will a congregation remunerate its clergy? The clergy who buy kosher meat, enroll their children in expensive Jewish day schools and Jewish summer camps, and visit Israel with some regularity.

In our community, we deal with every situation and every request on a case-by-case basis. No soul is denied access to the privilege of membership for financial constraints. Not one! We do, however, put constraints on people for not making the shul a priority. People who ask for a bar mitzvah and are unwilling to pay dues, yet drive $80,000 cars and brag on social media about their expensive vacations, where they are living it up in first class, unfairly and inequitably expect our current members to absorb their share.

Yes, the octogenarian should have had the proper death announcement. No question about it. But a member of our shul who resigned, and six years later, when her mother died, insisted we send a bereavement notice to our entire community does not fit into the same category.

I am afraid if we look at this situation only through the eyes of who is slighted, we will fail to see the obligation and benefits of synagogue membership for our greater community and paint all of this picture in a monochromatic tone.

My two shekels.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis, President of the NJ Board of Rabbis and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel commission and is a member of the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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