Monday, August 4, 2008

I guess membership should have its privileges

[Warning: If you are on a shul board - particularly mine - you may wish to stop reading here.]

I would guess that most of us don't believe in holding people hostage for membership dues. Speaking for myself, I certainly don’t like the idea that a Jewish service, such as provision of a synagogue in which to daven, should be for sale. I have never charged for a funeral, a wedding, or even the endless hours of bar mitzvah training. Anyone can have my time, whether they are members of my shul or not.

I would also guess that most rabbis, myself very much included, cringe when people talk about synagogue dues. Part of that is guilt, because we know into which pocket 25% of our shul budget goes, but, more fundamentally, the expectation of “pay to pray” still makes our skin crawl. Of course, our synagogues would never turn anyone away at the door for failure to pay for seats – but the whole dues enterprise is just so crass and distasteful.

That said, another rabbi recently convinced me that I am, at least theoretically, wrong in my distaste for dues; membership ought to have its privileges.

We were talking about the common Jewish practice of discounting graves for synagogue members, and he explained it quite clearly, saying something along the lines of, “You can’t thumb your nose at the Jewish community, refuse to get involved in maintaining its institutions, refuse to attend minyan or volunteer or pay for the building, for an entire lifetime, and then, when you need something, demand the treatment given to people who do support the community.”

He was right. It's not about money, per se; it's about the currency of community, about collating mailings or chairing an event or sitting on a board or arranging machzorim for Rosh HaShanah. It's about driving for a youth program or making phone calls or cooking for a chesed committee. It's about caring enough for the people around us to commit time and effort to making their community stronger. And, sometimes, it's about money as well. It’s about community.

So, in theory, he’s right... but that won’t change what I do. Maybe because I'm self-conscious about benefiting from dues, maybe because I'm just a softie, maybe because second-chances, third-chances and fourth-chances are at the heart of Judaism.

But while I’ll still never treat a non-dues-payer any differently from a dues-payer, still, the next time someone complains to me about shuls charging dues, my answer will be like that of my rabbinic colleague. It’s not about the Benjamins and Grants and Jacksons; it’s about the Binyamins and Yehudahs, the Rivkahs and Dinahs. It’s about all of us being in this shul/community together, and doing what we can, in whichever way we can, to support each other.

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  1. In the past, communal membership was an enforceable obligation, so that there really wasn't a class of permanent non-members that had to be dealt with - anyone who could physically afford the fees had to pay them. However, people who had not lived in a city for a sufficient period of time that would incur these obligations did have decreased access to some of the privileges of residency - support for aniyyim comes to mind.

  2. it's much simpler where i live. here in brooklyn almost no one pay dues. maybe chai for an aliyah. but that's it.

  3. The Recon movement has a whole thing about this, using their "values-based decision-making" model.

    Jewishly, we have two complementary precedents. First is the half-shekel, mandatory minimum "dues" to the Temple. This was the same for everyone, from beggars to the wealthy, and represents our communal responsibility to each other to support our religious, social, and educational endeavors. For example, someone with no children or grandchildren in the synagogue STILL has to support the religous school, because educating the young is a communal responsibility.

    Oon the other hand, you have the "gifts from the heart" of the mishkan construction, where community members give of their best (money, time, energy, skills) on a voluntary basis. Of course, in the Tanakh, when you ask them to give from the heart and don't specify an amount, they always give more than you need... not sure that applies in every synagogue.

    Basically, dues are not about money. They are about values, moral judgments about what is worthy of our time, money, etc. If someone thinks maintaining a Jewish community center is important, or wants to make sure that there is always someplace for Jew to go daven or say kaddish, or cares that the community's children grow up learning Hebrew and Torah, then they should put their money where their mouth is.

    It's really that simple.

  4. Josh-
    Agreed, although I would note that aniyyim did have access to support even without being residents. Kupah and tamchui were open to travelers.

    Even in the established shuls (as opposed to the shteiblach)?

    The shekel vs. nediv lev split is a good one, I think.
    On your last point, though, I have to say that there are many people, from my own experience, who make use of services they will not personally support. Everyone has their justifications, too.