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Rethinking synagogue dues to help more Jews

Synagogues may be among the last buildings to open their doors after the Covid-19 pandemic. But they are busier and more important now than ever before. A second pandemic of loneliness, malaise, and grief is setting in. Synagogue community is an inoculation against it.

The answer on the part of many synagogues has been to create a plethora of social, learning, prayer, and cultural opportunities available online. Our own community at East End Temple is connecting more now than before. We have been pleasantly surprised at just how powerful and effective the virtual connection can be, especially when they join together for virtual B’nai Mitzvah and shiva minyans, which give our entire community cause for celebration or consolation. Our community has even created a COVID-19 Community Relief Fund to support one another in this time of financial hardship.

While we have been gratified by the deepening of relationship within our community, and the continuing growth of our community, there are countless other people in our city and country who deeply need community – and are not finding it. What is keeping people who are Jewish, Jew-ish, Jewishly inspired, or Jewishly connected, from finding hope and support in synagogue communities?

One answer might be that they are finding it elsewhere – streaming shows from Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera, not to mention Netflix, social media, and the 7:00 p.m. applause that has turned evenings into physically distanced block parties.

Another answer is that they are longing to connect with contemporary synagogue life but fearful of engaging because of the unfortunate culture around money. Many fear being turned away simply because they cannot afford synagogue membership dues. Communities that no longer (or never did) engage in this practice still have to overcome the misperceptions of so many would-be congregants.

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Many communities offer variations of dues relief, while still more are experimenting with new dues policies. East End Temple, along with a number of synagogues across the country but surprisingly few in the New York area, is experimenting with a voluntary “Community Commitment” donation for those new to join, while continuing with a policy that gives existing members as much in dues relief as they request.

Following a successful pilot program last year, we are redoubling our Community Commitment experiment this year, especially in light of the emotional pain and financial hardship that people are experiencing right now. This is a year when our physical doors may stay closed longer than we could imagine – but the doorways to our community will be more open than ever, to actively welcome as many people seeking connection and a spiritual home as we reasonably can.

We hope to join with synagogues across New York and the nation to make changes in the way we approach dues, in order to provide much-needed relief and support for people in our area and allow those with means to commit more. If we fail on this front, the costs to Jewish life could be profound.

According to historian Jonathan Sarna, 20% of members left Reform synagogues after the 2008 financial crisis, many of them never to return. One can only imagine that the financial crisis led to a spiritual one – which their communities struggled to answer. By answering today’s pandemic of loneliness with love, open arms, and understanding, we could together renew Jewish life in New York and help people recover from unprecedented emotional, physical and financial suffering.

Too many Jews are wandering in the desert. Let’s welcome them home.

Rabbi Joshua Stanton and Cantor Shira Ginsburg are the spiritual leaders of East End Temple in Manhattan.

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