In Shul, Cost Hasn’t Been a Barrier

Opinion

By Linda K. Wertheimer

Published July 28, 2010, issue of August 06, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

There had to be a catch — and a price tag. A rabbi left a message on my home answering machine inviting me to join an adult bat mitzvah class. But I was not a member of this rabbi’s suburban Boston synagogue.

Intrigued, I returned the call. At 40, after spending the majority of my life disconnected from Judaism, I wanted to learn more about my faith. But I was tentative about steps like synagogue membership. The rabbi said there was no need to join the congregation. The fee was zero.

“Why does it cost so much to be Jewish?” asked Newsweek’s religion editor, Lisa Miller, in a much-discussed recent article. Citing, among other things, the high cost of synagogue dues, she wrote: “Costly barriers to entry need to be taken away, or, at least, reimagined.”

Yes, some Jewish organizations, particularly those that are primarily devoted to fundraising for various causes, act hungrier for our financial support than for our presence. But that, based on my experience, is not the way synagogues behave.

An Orlando synagogue offered free Hebrew classes when I lived in Central Florida in the mid- to late-1990s. I took the classes, but never joined. I paid a $75 non-member fee to attend High Holy Day services and did not object to having to pay to pray. Clergy, after all, are professional staff with salaries that require money. Prayer books cost money. Air conditioning costs money. Torahs cost money. Still, at regular Shabbat services, no one checked for a membership card. I was not ready to join a synagogue at the time, and no one seemed to mind.

Moving to Dallas in late 1997, I joined a choir at Temple Emanu-El, the city’s largest Reform congregation. I sang in the chorus for more than a year, then debated whether to join the synagogue. Single and in my late 30s, I was saving money for a house. The dues, at well over $1,000, seemed prohibitive. I felt awkward, but asked for a price break and received it.

Joining a synagogue was low on my priority list when I moved to Boston, though I wanted to connect to the Jewish community. The rabbi’s invitation to enroll in the adult bat mitzvah class at Temple Shir Tikvah in Winchester, Mass., was the perfect solution. I knew and liked the rabbi, who had officiated at my grandmother’s funeral in the winter of 2004, less than a year after I moved to Boston. For nearly two years, I studied for my adult bat mitzvah with seven other women. It was a deeply spiritual and personal journey that cost me little other than time.

In the spring of 2006, I chanted from the Torah for the first time at age 41 — rather than the usual age of 12 or 13. The Torah passage outlined who belonged in the circle of mourners — parents, siblings and spouses. Each was entitled and obligated to observe Jewish mourning rituals.

This passage had special personal meaning: My middle brother died in a car accident when he was 23, and I was 21. For two decades, I viewed myself as the stepchild in the ranks of mourners. I saw my role as comforter for my parents — not as one who should be consoled. In my speech about my Torah portion, I talked about Judaism’s wise decision not to establish hierarchy among mourners. Each mourner in the immediate family deserves comfort from the community at large.

No one asked me to join Shir Tikvah, but I became a member. It was a way to give something back in exchange for a priceless gift — a fuller understanding of my faith and myself.

Now married, I belong to a synagogue in Lexington, Mass., where I live. My husband and I sang with the synagogue’s chorus for a year before becoming members. Temple Isaiah, like other synagogues I joined during the last decade, never pushed membership.

Synagogues want and need paying members to survive. But their leaders also want to help keep Judaism flourishing in a nation where more Jews are intermarrying and making choices about whether to have a connection to any religious institution.

Our synagogue, like so many others, offers reduced dues to those who cannot afford to pay the full amount. Yes, the roughly $3,000 a year my family now pays for dues is high, but it is not too steep a price. Our synagogue, like other houses of worship, surrounds members with community in times of sorrow and joy. Barriers to entry — and ultimately membership — in Jewish institutions are often those we create ourselves.

Linda K. Wertheimer, a former education editor for The Boston Globe, is writing a memoir about finding her way deeper into Judaism after the loss of her brother. She blogs at jewishmuse.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.