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The Schmooze

Pay Now, Pray Later

Anyone who has ever tried to explain to a bewildered Christian friend why you need a ticket to go to shul on the holiest day of the year will appreciate Lisa Miller’s deliberately provocative essay, “The Cost of Being Jewish”.

Miller, Newsweek’s religion editor, pointed out in the July 8 article that while there is much hand-wringing over how intermarriage and anti-Zionism will be the downfall of our people, the numbers tell a simpler story: In these cash-strapped times, Judaism needs to hold a fire-sale or risk seeing its membership decline even further. (Miller cites figures showing that while 3.1 million Americans identified as “religiously Jewish” in 1990, 18 years later — during the recession’s peak — that number was down by almost 13 percent.)

“On the day-to-day level,” Miller writes, “the high cost of the basics — synagogue membership, in particular — is troubling, both outdated as a business model and onerous to families having to choose between Hebrew school and math tutoring.” In 2005, the average yearly synagogue membership was $1,100, but this can rise to over $3,000 in metropolitan centers.

While every rabbi will swear up and down that no one would ever be turned away for inability to pay, this model still leads to — how shall we say it? — a bit of an image problem for synagogues, which, Chabad aside, hardly have a reputation for enthusiastically throwing open their doors to one and all.

Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has a quote in there that is bound to bother those who cringe when Jews air their dirty laundry in public. “We have this very bizarre pay-to-play philosophy,” he tells Miller. “The Jewish community’s first instinct is ‘give us money,’ instead of ‘come in.’” Ouch.

Arnold Eisen, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s chancellor, offers a more matter-of-fact assessment. “The bills are very high,” he says in the article. “People need sacred spaces, but when you’re looking at budgets, you’re looking at heat and air conditioning.”

Aha! Utilities. Therein lies an answer to that age-old question: Why do you need a ticket to pray on Yom Kippur? Answer: Heat. Air-conditioning.

Long story.

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