By Symi Rom-Rymer
I’ve never really thought about how expensive it is to be Jewish. I’m not talking about the cost of being culturally Jewish, but rather about the financial burden one must assume to be at least a semi-observant, synagogue-belonging Jew. One reason is because I don’t have any kids, so I’m not shopping around for good Hebrew schools. Also, I didn’t make it a habit to scan my parent’s temple bills as a child. So I was content in my bubble of ignorance until I picked up a copy of Newsweek and saw this: The Cost of Being Jewish.
In TCBJ, author Lisa Miller argues that to belong to a synagogue today, one typically must pay upwards of $3100 a year. To her, that fee, especially in a recession, is “troubling…and onerous to families having to choose between Hebrew school and math tutoring.” In smaller cities, that fee is less–closer to $1,100 annually for everything from synagogue membership to High Holiday tickets—but still expensive.
What Miller proposes then, is a change in the business model. Arguing that Jews no longer need Jewish spaces in the same way they did a century or half-century ago when many public spaces were closed to them, she feels it is time for members of the Jewish community to reconsider their behemoth synagogues with their stained glass windows, organ pipes, and basement swimming pools. Instead, Jews should consider what Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary who paid $4,000 in synagogue dues this year, proposes: downsizing individual communities by making cross-denominational alliances and sharing Rabbis and other staff.
I don’t think, however, that Eisen’s suggestions are the solution. First of all, it’s hard enough for Jews within the same denomination to agree with one another. It would only get worse if the clergy was shared. Second of all, what about the issues that shape, at its very core, the different movements: the role of women for example, views on Israel, or Kashrut. Would the Reform movement be willing to bend to save money? Would the Orthodox movement be similarly willing to be flexible? Judging by the recent article in New York Magazine about Rabbi Avi Weiss, I doubt it.
While I understand Miller’s concern, she is basing her radical conclusions on a limited sample. First of all, the only temple fees she quotes are those from big New York City synagogues. She does not mention what temple dues are in Boston or Chicago—both major metro areas with significant Jewish populations. Secondly, in her article, Miller writes that in 2008 2.7 million Americans considered themselves religiously Jewish, down from 3.1 million in 1990. She sees the cost barrier as one of the primary reasons why that number has dropped. She suggests, for instance, that intermarried couples find joining a synagogue and making the commitment to have a Jewish household cost-prohibitive. While it may be too expensive to join a big stained glass synagogue that is not the only option. There are congregations out there for every type of Jew: gay, straight, interfaith, religious, high holiday religious, poor, and yes, wealthy. Especially in a city like New York where it’s impossible not to bump into a Jewish person on the street, all of these options are in abundance. But they go unmentioned in her piece.
One day, in the not too distant future, these issues will become less abstract for me when it is my turn to find a good Jewish community for my family. I will try and weigh the costs and benefits and may end up choosing a congregation whose dues are more than I would like to pay in return for the community and leadership I want. On the other hand, perhaps by then synagogues will have become obsolete and instead, we’ll hold free services in Central Park where everyone, no matter their background or religious leaning, will truly be welcome. Hey, one can always hope.
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.