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.
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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.
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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.”


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