American Jews love to complain about how expensive it is to be Jewish, as if there were no choice in the matter, as if there were only costs associated with Jewish life and nothing on the benefits side of the equation. As if we were the only ones carrying such a burden.
We look in puzzlement and, likely, with a bit of envy, at our Christian neighbors, who don’t have to pay steep synagogue membership dues and don’t have to sit through the annual Yom Kippur appeal. (Put aside, for the moment, the cost of kosher food, Jewish summer camp and religious education, and of purchasing scores of bar and bat mitzvah presents.)
But do Jews actually contribute more to their synagogues than Christians do to their churches? Not really. The surprising results of a Forward survey of religious institutions around the country found that these organizations appear to raise the same amount per member, despite the fact that church giving is voluntary and synagogue giving is not.
As our Josh Nathan-Kazis discovered, the differences lie more in how financial responsibility is shared and how the money is spent. While churches may raise, in the aggregate, roughly the same amount per person as synagogues, the source of those funds reflects a different expectation of belonging. For Christians, giving is a voluntary act, an expression of an individual’s devotion to God through the church — driven in some congregations by the biblical requirement to tithe. For Jews, giving is a structured communal exercise shared by all, almost a tribal responsibility.
There’s no right or wrong here. But for the Jewish community, there are deep challenges for the future.
For on the one hand, it is always tempting to rail against the way economic status is tied to religious observance. While the old convention of purchasing particular seats for the High Holy Days is, fortunately, dying out, financial barriers remain at this time of hardship and uncertainty for many Jewish families. It gnaws at the soul to think of people who cannot worship because they cannot pay, who cannot educate their children Jewishly because of the burden it places on struggling households. Even generous financial aid is often not enough.
In that context, it’s a relief to hear of the growing number of free religious services for the holidays and during the year offered in cities around the nation, attracting overflow crowds of young, searching, unaffiliated Jews. The outreach for which Chabad has become famous is now being taken up by other denominations, offering a welcome alternative to the “tickets only” approach that has made worship a privilege for those who can afford it rather than an opportunity to be shared by all.
But in the end, living a Jewish life is not free. There is a cost of belonging. There is a cost for maintaining institutions, paying clergy and teachers, sustaining a social welfare system that takes care of our less fortunate. To the extent that the American Jewish community acts otherwise — and free Taglit-Birthright trips to Israel are just one example — we run the risk of transmitting a perilous message to future generations.
Some of the Christian clergy interviewed by the Forward expressed admiration for the way that a dues-paying membership model encourages Jewish families to feel invested in their synagogues. Surely, as a community, we can figure out how to lower the financial barriers to belonging while still asking something of everyone.