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Pinched by the pandemic, congregants are cutting synagogues dues from their household budgets

Across denominations and across the United States, Jewish families under financial pressure from the coronavirus pandemic are deciding that synagogue dues are an expense they can cut.

“More congregations are seeing declines in members than are seeing growth,” said Amy Asin, vice-president of Strengthening Congregations, the synagogue advising arm at the Union of Reform Judaism. “We don’t know whether or not it will be long-term. Are they simply taking a year off, or are they not coming back?”

The evidence so far is mainly anecdotal, but rabbis and other Jewish professionals are saying the same thing: Congregants are struggling, so their synagogues are, too.

Congregations whose membership numbers are stable are fielding more requests for dues relief, Asin added.

Likewise, Jennifer Stofman, director of Synagogue Consulting at the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, is hearing reports that members are taking a kind of year-long sabbatical from synagogue.

“They prefer to do that than ask for assistance, even though it is very clear that congregations want them to stay regardless of how much they can pay,” she said.

The Conservative Movement, which is about 20% of American Jews, found that about 163 of its synagogues retained more members than they had expected, although in general, the number of dues-paying members is lower now due to the pandemic.

Slightly fewer than half of the movement’s 560 synagogues responded to its survey. The Reform movement, which includes about a third of America’s Jews and is the country’s largest denomination, is now conducting a similar survey of its 850 congregations that it plans to share next month.

Some congregations “are doing just fine,” said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, CEO of the movement’s rabbinic and congregational arms, pointing to Beth Sholom Synagogue in Memphis, Tennessee as an example.

Rabbi Sarit Horwitz said the pandemic has not affected the synagogue’s bottom line, but that two members had died from COVID-19, and others have needed financial help from the synagogue. Beth Sholom created a fund to support those people, and Horwitz also made some disbursements from her discretionary fund.

“My biggest goal is to maintain connections between people,” she said. “I spend a lot of time on the phone with people.” She holds services for 15 people at a time in her 400-person sanctuary.

At Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, California, the story is very different. That synagogue, also Conservative, has had to lay off some staff members and cut salaries.

In normal times, afternoon Hebrew School is the reason why Reform and Conservative families join synagogues. Now, both kids and parents want the child off the screen at the end of a virtual school day.

“Kids who are doing all of their secular education at home by video find it very hard at the end of the day to then do another two hours of religious school,” Asin said.

That can translate to fewer members, said Vogel, who said he normally has at least 140 students in his religious school and now has only 40.

Rabbi Adir Posy, director of the Orthodox Union’s Department of Community and Synagogue Services, said the pandemic “has had a significant financial impact” OU synagogues. The Orthodox are about 10% of American Jews, and the OU works with a network of 800 congregations, 400 of which are member organizations.

He is hearing that synagogues are trying to work with less revenue because congregants have asked for lower dues. Sometimes, he added, less money coming in is offset by lower expenses — because the synagogues aren’t very active right now — and aid from the federal government.

Leaders in the Reconstructionist movement’s 97 synagogues are reporting that they haven’t yet had to make any layoffs, although hiring has slowed, said Teresa Grauer, vice-president for Thriving Communities at Reconstructing Judaism. Reconstructionist synagogues are changing as necessary to serve their congregations, she said.

That’s the key, Vogel said: “Judaism and the Jewish people have survived for 2,000 years because we were able to adapt, and this is another moment of adaptation we are going to figure out.”

Stewart Ain is a freelance reporter based on Long Island. He previously worked for The Jewish Week.


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