The Synagogue Tax - Or can I pray for free?

Rachel S. Harris
March 13, 2013
Share:email print

Taxes are a way of working towards the collective good; which sounds like a nice idea – until we have to pay them. So then why pay the self-imposed tax of synagogue membership?

Yes of course synagogue represents the collective good: all those nice services, provisions for children and the elderly, maybe even an education course – yet research has shown that people in their 20s and 30s are delaying synagogue membership. Despite significant social changes in the past three decades there has been an assumption that synagogues are failing to attract new members due to two major reasons. Prohibitive costs for membership which are proving a barrier to entry, and changes in religious observance such that synagogues no longer provide the religious programming younger people seek.

In response to these arguments synagogues have created sliding scales for membership fees based on income, offer discounts to young and single members, or hint that it may be possible to negotiate a rate, working on the assumption that once a member, individuals are likely to stay members into their (more  prosperous) future.

Arguments against the very structure (and infrastructure) of synagogues often point to the success of roaming, or alternative minyans. These groups, which suggest transience, though that may not always be the case, come together periodically (such as once a month) or on high holidays, offering a variety of services, including egalitarian, carlebach or ‘alternative’ ways of engaging in religious worship. Usually free to attend, and often hosted in someone’s home or a community center, these groups are often described as combating the establishment’s determination to fix religious boundaries, and compete not only with the traditional synagogue model but also with Chabad communities. Like this latter group, their ‘free’ model  implicitly undermines  synagogue membership dues, which then appear as a poll tax for those who only wish to attend high holiday services for example, but to do so are required to pay for membership, or prohibitively high ticket prices.

Thus the overriding arguments for the fall in synagogue membership seem connected to age, economic stability, and religious ‘taste’. Or more simply: the old synagogue is too expensive and too out of touch, so why should we pay? At least until we have kids and want to use the playgroup!

I think something in this argument is flawed.

Despite not becoming synagogue members young people are demonstrating a willingness to participate in other kinds of activities related to a Jewish identity and for which they may pay membership or even ticket prices for attendance. Various charitable groups have capitalised on this population, including the Federation through their young leadership division, Friends of the IDF, Friends of Hebrew University (and lately other universities in Israel), AZM (American Zionist Movement), Kehillah, Bnai Brith to name but a few.

Young Jews pursue additional learning opportunities including becoming involved in the mixed denominational Limmud (which began in the UK and has become an international phenomenon with events throughout the world). Jewish cultural programming has seen a dramatic rise, including music, literature, theatre, dance and art productions, often linked to Israeli artists but not solely, and these events are attended by a diverse range of age groups. Younger people find ‘meet up’ groups with Jewish or Israel content, join Jewish sports leagues and visit Jewish museums. These organisations and events offer both social and romantic opportunities – which are further supported through membership in  Jdate, Saw You at Sinai, Speed dating, and a host of other Jewish friendly dating services – so if it isn’t money, and if there is clearly a desire to socialise with other Jews, or engage with Jewish and Israel connected events what other reasons might also be factors for the disconnection between Jewish engagement and synagogue membership?

I posit several discussion points as a way to start this conversation.

I left after my Bar Mitzvah!

For those Jews who attended synagogue as children but do not do so as adults there has been a break.  Following Bar/Bat mitzvah there are few opportunities for young Jews to stay connected to a synagogue community. Unlike youth movements where activities continue throughout the teen years, eventually transforming participants into leaders, often synagogues do not have clear programming for teens and young adults.  Though youth movements have often taken up the slack, they reinforce the idea of Jewish identity and continuity but not necessarily through synagogue provisions. Certainly, by catering to groups defined by age, the traditional notion of community is displaced.

One model used by the independent synagogue in Oxford (England) may be worth considering. The community, which sought to continue to keep teens involved post-bar/bat mitzvah trained older children to teach younger ones at the Sunday school (cheder) run by the synagogue.  For two years youth were offered the opportunity to assist in classes with small children, then they graduated to assistant teachers, finally becoming able to take a class on their own at 17 or 18, or teach Bar/Bat mitzvah. These positions were paid commensurate with the level of responsibility and expectation as a result of which participants in this scheme were incentivized to continue. The program not only enabled students to remain connected to the community, it provided useful life skills. In turn, many of the graduating students went on to teach at Sunday schools around Britain when attending university, further connecting them to their new synagogue communities despite moving away from the familiar environs of home. Creating a pattern of independent affiliation at this stage is likely to encourage ongoing connectivity at a time when individuals are most likely to move away from synagogue membership.

I’m Still at Work

The illusion of the 40 hour working week belies the reality that many young adults early in their professional career spend many more hours engaged in work directly related to their jobs. Whether they are working late on evenings and weekends in the office, or simply leaving the building and continuing to work at home, employment is significantly affecting the way people even into their 40s are able to spend time, and profoundly limits leisure time.

For some, career development may require studying for an additional degree,professional certification , or qualification exam. Medicine, Law, Psychology are just a few of the fields in which membership of the profession requires more than the completion of a degree. For those employed, evenings and weekends offer the only opportunities to study.

Moving for a new job takes its toll. In the past 20 or so years, Americans have been re-sorting themselves across the national landscape, moving every few years, disrupting the traditional career model of long term investment in a job and its concomitant investment in the community. The energy expended in settling into a new location, finding the amenities, establishing a base in the new place of work, means that little extra time is found for developing a social network through a synagogue, whose timetable is fixed, while other Jewish  groups have more flexible (and often evening) events. By the time many are ready to investigate the local shul it may be time to move again.

The spread of working hours across the clock, the rise of 24 hour and online services and the fall of traditional retail, has opened the doors for alternative schedules. Working long hours does not preclude the need for laundry, grocery shopping, dry cleaning, getting to the bank and the hundreds of other domestic tasks that certainly don’t  or can’t take place during the traditional work week. Moreover the significant percentage of women working in the labor force in their 20s and 30s has profoundly upset more conservative notions of work and daily life.   With both men and women responsible for domestic tasks, pushed into the weekend, there seems little time for other activities such as socialisation, exercise and relaxation, let alone four hours of synagogue on a Saturday morning. In many communities Friday night services remain almost exclusively the province of men with families, therefore neither younger males, nor females, are predisposed to attend.  By comparison, a once a month evening  minyan, with its social agenda, may be a manageable (and even appealing) time expense .

I Go to the JCC!

There has been a division between the synagogue’s role as provider of religious services, and of community facilities. The latter has often been taken up by  JCCs (Jewish Community Centers) many of which are not connected to a single synagogue and which may provide a wide range of amenities including but not limited to cultural and social events, gym equipment, yoga and dance classes and swimming pool facilities, educational programming and festive meals. If young Jews are not attending services, then membership at a JCC may make more economic and social sense.

There isn’t anything for me at Shul/Synagogue/Temple!

Though the reasons outlined above suggest that it is the result of external factors that have led to declining membership, synagogues have also been critiqued for failing to provide for the needs of the entire community. This is a complicated issue, since it is those in their 20s and 30s who often prove the most transient population, least likely to advocate for their own needs within a synagogue community and hence least visible. This creates the inevitable catch-22 whereby synagogues don’t provide young people with what they need because young people don’t attend, and in turn, they don’t attend because their needs are not met.  Though some have called for radical reform, particularly of the status of women in leadership positions within the synagogue movement (where Orthodoxy lacks behinds strides made by Reform and Conservative Movements) and where egalitarian minyanim highlight this discrepancy and synagogue failures, even less seismic shifts might have significant consequences.

Thinking about my own experiences, and those synagogues which have successfully attracted younger membership I present some suggestions:

  1. Some synagogues offer an early service at 7am, before the later service at 8.45am establishing the notion that multiple minyanim in the same building may be desirable if they serve community needs. That’s a great idea, and the timing makes sense if you are used to a traditional work week and your natural body clock is in tune with an 8am weekend wakeup. But more and more people are working non-conventional hours in alternate work spaces (from home or the local coffee shop).  Working as independent contractors and consultants or studying for advanced degrees, they may be operating on a different clock. Not subject to the needs of children even the late service seems pretty early. What about considering a later service (without a sermon) beginning at 10am. It can even be finished in time to join the rest of the congregation for Kiddush!
  2. Consider hosting a Friday night service for the elusive 20-40s crowd followed by a meal under the aegis of the synagogue. Creating a pattern of regular attendance redefines the role of synagogue for an age group likely to attend ‘never’ or only on High Holidays.
  3. Create groups for ‘Young Professionals’ or sports teams with competitive leagues that are co-ordinated by the synagogue
  4. Stop charging for High Holiday tickets,  - it might be the only time people come to shul, but it could also be the start of a beautiful friendship –
  5. Ok if you must charge for tickets…. consider being flexible. If my parents have paid membership elsewhere where I can attend for free, I’m likely to visit them rather than build my relationship with my local community.  At least encourage me to attend, and offer them the opportunity to visit over Rosh Hashannah by using a trade/credit system for the fees they’ve paid elsewhere, so that neither they nor I have to pay additional costs. Give people a reason to join – even if it’s just guilt from the parents.
  6. Find ways to employ younger members new to the area within synagogue affairs. Don’t just assume that because they aren’t likely to stay in the long term, that they don’t have something to contribute in the now.
  7. Advertise that you are interested in attracting young people. Word of mouth is great – but when you’ve just moved to town and don’t know anyone, that might be pretty hard to find out.
  8. For synagogues (particularly those for whom this might be unexpected) if you’re gay friendly, find a way to let gay Jews know.
  9. Create synagogue events compatible with religious attendance that are fun and bring in a younger crowd. Yes, beer and jello shots in the succah sound ridiculous but they put a synagogue on the social map.
  10. Offer hospitality to new visitors. Not just by asking people if they’ve seen a stranger, but by providing someone at the synagogue dedicated to matchmaking between hosts and guests.

Synagogues are not oblivious to these problems, and many are attempting to change or offer additional programming, but perhaps these suggestions will inspire conversation about what each community can do locally for its particular population (and demographic) issue. Nor can synagogues be held entirely responsible, life changes and a transformation of social habits have affected the way individuals choose to engage in society. Nevertheless, by becoming aware of these reasons, and not solely blaming declining membership, particularly among the 20-40s population, on the lack of disposable income, perhaps the dialogue between synagogues and their potential members can find new ground.



Share:email print
Related Topics:

Rachel S. Harris is Assistant Professor of Israeli Literature and Culture in Comparative &World Literature and the Program in Jewish Culture & Society at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has published on contemporary Israeli literature and culture in the journals Israel Studies, Shofar, and Modern Jewish Studies. She has written on suicide in Israeli literature, and more recently on women in Israeli film. Her co-edited volume bringing together articles on a range of subjects “Narratives of Dissent: War in Israeli Culture and Arts” will be published in the Fall through Wayne State Press. She is also the series editor for the Dalkey Archive Press “Hebrew Literature in Translation Series” and the Hebrew editor of “The Levant Notebook” an online literary magazine bringing together Middle Eastern fiction and poetry in English translation, along with reviews, and opinion pieces on the state of culture.


  1. Why are Synagogue dues so high that young people resist paying the dues?

    It is partially because the salaries and benefits demanded by Rabbis and other clergy are out of proportion to the salaries of other similar professionals such as college professors or social workers. Then there is also the cost of building and maintaining large buildings that are only needed a few days a year.

    Posted by
  2. I have never noticed a lack of young people, kids, teenagers and young adults in any of the numerous Orthodox Synagogues that I have attended. I guess that if you are in a frum area there is no lack of all ages in Shul because Orthodox Jews doven (pray) regularly. If you are not in a frum area, you have a problem.

    Posted by
  3. I think many young people are more interested in being Jewish and personal observance rather than being committed to an institution. For me a shule is associated with politics, a preoccupation with finances, and baby boomers dominating its running.
    To survive shules need to focus on hospitality, creating a shule family, and ensuring that the focus is less on ideology and denominational interests and more on activities that people enjoy being part of.
    Younger people also really dislike inter-movement wrangles. I am affiliated with both an orthodox, and a reform/conservative synagogue because I don’t want to be labelled. I am just a Jew.

    Posted by
    david barnes
Sh’ma does its best to present a multitude of perspectives on the topics that it presents, and promotes the active participation of its readers on its website and social media pages. In keeping with this, Sh’ma is committed to creating a safe and open space for its readers to voice their opinions in a respectful manner. Disagreement on subject matter is encouraged, but Sh’ma does not tolerate personal attacks or inappropriate language. Sh’ma reserves the right to remove any and all postings that do not fit the criteria outlined herein.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>