Many Claim Membership But Few Pay Shul Dues

People Claim To 'Belong' to Congregations But Aren't Members

They ‘Belong’ Without Belonging: Many more Jews say they belong to synagogues than actually pay dues to any congregation, surveys suggest.
thinkstock
They ‘Belong’ Without Belonging: Many more Jews say they belong to synagogues than actually pay dues to any congregation, surveys suggest.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published August 10, 2012, issue of August 17, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Roughly twice as many people consider themselves members of synagogues as the number of people that actually pay dues to those congregations.

That’s one intriguing interpretation of a discrepancy that surfaced within the data collected in UJA-Federation of New York’s recent survey of Jews in the New York area.

Members of slightly more than 60,000 Reform Jewish households in New York say they belong to synagogues, according to the survey. But fewer than 30,000 New York households actually paid dues to Reform congregations last year, according to the Union for Reform Judaism.

The same discrepancy also appears to exist among Conservative Jews, but the Conservative umbrella group claimed to be unable to provide the Forward with basic membership data about its congregations.

The inconsistency could point to an error in the federation survey or in the URJ’s data. But experts say it most likely means that many Jews don’t believe that synagogue membership is determined by dues payment.

“I think that there are a lot of folks who consider themselves part of communities or congregations who aren’t members,” said Mark Pelavin, a top URJ official. “At some level, it’s incredibly important to synagogues who pays dues. On other levels, it doesn’t really define the community.”

Most synagogues in the United States charge membership dues in return for providing services like religious school and High Holy Day seating. That’s in contrast to churches, which subsist mostly on voluntary donations.

Social scientists have long observed that Americans generally overreport their own church attendance. One groundbreaking 1993 study found actual regular church attendance to be around half the level that churchgoers self-reported in public opinion polls.

“It’s not exactly that people are lying outright,” said Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University who was one of the authors of the study. “I think it’s more that they think what you’re asking is, are you more or less a churchgoing person, do you consider yourself part of a church.”


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!
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • 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.