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October 8, 2010

Of Rabbinical Pay and Congregational Possibility

The issue isn’t that “Synagogue Dues Don’t Raise More Money Than Church Gifts,” as your September 17 headline states, but rather that synagogues and churches both do not receive more community support or new members.

Perhaps the church approach makes it easier for one with financial hardship to participate without the potential embarrassment of requesting a variance in synagogue membership dues, but many synagogues have a majority of members who pay less than the top requested level. In our congregation, only 31% of our members pay the highest dues category, with others contributing whatever they can afford.

I have been a proponent of changing the way that synagogues count members and collect membership dues, but as your article points out, simply adopting a different model does not necessarily increase income. I have also been a proponent of schools of Jewish communal service creating a doctoral program in synagogue management so we can truly research and study these issues.

The North American Association of Synagogue Executives conducted a survey a number of years ago studying the relative costs of maintaining a synagogue, and found that whether it is a 300-household congregation or a 3,000-household congregation, there are no economies of scale, and the average cost was $2,400 per household. So the issue isn’t how to collect more contributions from existing members, but rather how to retain and engage those who have joined, and how to get a larger portion of the community to support synagogues and churches.

A second solution would be to convince the mega-donors in our community to consider synagogues for transformational contributions and endowments. While major donors may lean toward “investing” in sexy new independent programs and institutions, synagogues provide the bedrock for the future of the Jewish people. Imagine what a $10 million or $20 million endowment would mean to an individual synagogue that could then swing open its sanctuary and classroom doors to all, regardless of ability (or willingness) to contribute.

Further serious research is needed to draw conclusions and opinions.

Glenn S. Easton

Executive Director, Adas Israel Congregation, Washington, D.C.

In the September 24 article “On the Pulpit, Rabbis Earn More Than Christian Clergy,” you neglect to mention a significant reason that rabbis in Reform and Conservative synagogues, or at least in synagogues that are members of these movements, are paid so well. The movements are each a national union house that is closed to others. A synagogue that is a member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism may only hire rabbis who are members of the Rabbinical Assembly. Same thing with the Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis. Each rabbinical group sets minimum salaries and expected salaries, and negotiates on behalf of its members. If the movements were not closed houses, or if other professionals in synagogues were represented, as well, the salaries would be significantly lower.

The arguments about schooling or cost of living driving up salaries are partly (but not entirely) spun from groups who have done an excellent job representing themselves over the years. Unfortunately, in our currently challenging monetary environment, this dynamic is placing a real strain on other aspects of tight synagogue budgets.

Eitan Gutin
Gaithersburg, Md.

Giving Without Receiving?

I was astounded to read the nearly full-page advertisement from the Renewal organization in the Forward (September 17, page 5) soliciting a kidney donor for a pious Jew suffering from kidney disease. A kidney transplant can miraculously transform a person’s life, freeing him from the shackles of the dialysis machine. It represents the height of chutzpah, however, to solicit altruistic donors for an act that is seldom, if ever, reciprocated by the Haredi community. The vast majority of gedolim, decision makers about Jewish law and policy, in the Haredi community have refused to endorse halachic procedures to take organs from either normal living or brain-dead people to heal chronically ill patients.

This ad clearly represents a growing medical and intellectual sophistication among Haredim in their approach to kidney disease — but the wider Jewish community should read this ad with the same sophistication. Although altruism, by definition, is an act performed without any reward, it is unseemly and cynical to recruit potential donors when there is no theoretical potential for paying the good deed forward. One should modify the famous maxim caveat emptor to caveat donator! If Renewal wants to utilize its resources in good faith, it should begin to educate the Haredi community and their rabbis about the miraculous potential of organ donation and encourage their own burgeoning ranks to practice it.

Seth Cohen, M.D.
Mamaroneck, N.Y.

E-mail letters to the editor to [email protected] or mail them to the Forward, Attn: Letters to the Editor, 125 Maiden Lane, New York, N.Y. 10038.


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