Thursday, September 16, 2010

The High Price of Holy Days

I posted this years ago, in a different forum; it's on my mind again these days, although I am no longer in the shul rabbinate.

Seen on Jewish Jokes:

The rabbi is speaking to his lower East Side congregation and he says, "with Hashem's help we shall walk but first, we must crawl." The congregation replies to the rabbi with exclamations of "ahmein Rabbi, im yirtze Hashem we shall crawl."

The rabbi then says, "And soon we will, run but before we can run, with Hashem’s help, we must first walk.” Again, the pious members of the minyan all reply, "im yirtze Hashem, we shall walk."

The rabbi then works himself into a rhetorical frenzy as he exclaims, “And we shall reach the promised land. Hashem shall provide but first we must run.” The ecstatic congregation gleefully shouts back “Ahmein rabbi, we shall run. Im yirtze Hashem, we shall run."

The rabbi concludes his sermon by stating, "And we will reach that promised land if you dig deep into your hearts and checkbooks and make a generous pledge to the building fund!!" The congregation then replies, “Crawl Rabbi, crawl. Im yirtze Hashem, we shall crawl."

At the start of Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur night we say אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העברינים, “We permit prayer with those who have sinned.” The tradition goes back to ancient times, when people who sinned grievously were cast out of the community; these people were welcomed back for the Day of Atonement. It’s a wonderful concept, marred only by the little fact that - in official policy - we only welcome in people who can afford tickets. Junk bond kings and options manipulators? Come on in! Pious people who can’t pay? Fuggedaboudit!

I once knew a priest who, when told that Jews needed to get tickets to attend shul services, thought it was a joke. His church is straining to get people in the door, not to lock them out!

Of course, in my shuls anyone with a tale of woe could evade the cost of membership or a guest seat by coming to the soft touch rabbi. And, in truth, even paying didn’t have to be that expensive; people could become members and pay what they could afford, making appropriate arrangements with the shul finance committee. So it’s not really as bad as it sounds.

But BOY does it sound bad. All the anti-Jewish cliches come to mind: cheap, penny-grabbing, you name it. Want to come pray for Divine forgiveness? Sure, just join our synagogue. Or, prove you’re a member elsewhere and fork over some change for a guest seat. Frankly, it makes me want to flip over the table of the money-changers, if I didn’t think that might lead to Crusades a millenium later. I didn’t charge families even for time-consuming things like teaching bar mitzvah leining and handling funerals/weddings, because I couldn’t stand the idea that people in need of religious services should go broke paying for them.

But: Paying for Judaism is old news, as old as Jewish communities and the half-shekel collection. The Gemara (Yoma 35b) tells of the great Hillel being locked out of the beis medrash [Study Hall] because he couldn’t afford the entry fee! What has been the justification all these centuries?

I think we haven’t looked at dues and tickets as charging for a religious service; we’ve looked at it as supporting the community. If no one pays, who’s going to cover the utility bills? The mortgage? The repair bill for the roof? The kiddush costs (especially high on Yom Kippur, of course)? The exorbitant salary that paid for my Lamborghini, second home and twice-annual vacation? We charge for tickets as a way of enforcing community on each citizen, whether he’s ready for areivus or not.

But times they are a-changin’ in two major ways:
1. Post 19th century Europe we no longer have an all-encompassing, self-governing Jewish community. There is no king granting the Jewish council the right of self-government and self-taxation. Civil marriage is readily available (outside of Israel, a topic for another time), and ex-communication in our communities is a joke. Shul boards are taking a long time to catch up with reality, but no one really must join the Jewish community anymore unless they want to. So you can’t impose a fee like this; people just opt out.

2. Second, Chabad and the breakaways have changed the way the game is played. Armed with granted dollars to launch their institutions, with funds and discounts to cover much of their programming, Chabad opts not to rely on dues. Small breakaway synagogues don’t charge either, since their costs are low and what they really need is attendance. The result is that synagogues selling tickets lose a lot of people to the free Chabad or breakaway down the block.

So I’m of the feeling that ticket fees are going to go the way of the babirusa in a generation or so, if that long. Perhaps they’ll be replaced by some new fundraiser. Perhaps they’ll be replaced by community philanthropists who want to see free services for all who desire it. Or perhaps they’ll just cut the rabbi’s salary. Stay tuned!


  1. As someone who runs his own chabad house can tell you many of us maxed out our credit cards long ago for the programs we run and do not know where the next dollar is coming from. We have trouble paying basic bills but we are open to all. There are times when I make a 5 star event but do not have money to pay for diapers! I resent the implication that we all have oodles of cash. We get NOTHING NOTHING from brooklyn everything is raised locally and many of those who come may give $18 or nothing at all. We have to fundraise and those who do not do it enough or are just not good at it suffer for it.
    We do it because we believe (or act:)) that everyone should have access to their heritage. A gmar chasima tova to all your readers and don't forget give a lot of tzedaka!

  2. Anonymous shaliach-
    I hear what you are saying, and I have softened the language. I stand by the main point, though: If you wish to run a Sefer Torah campaign, there are families in Crown Heights who will donate the Sefer Torah. If you want to print mailings, there are massive discounts on and beautiful templates. If you want to run a summer camp, you have personnel available, and at salaries far lower than others need to pay. I know this does not benefit the shaliach personally, but it does make programming much easier for the shaliach. Gmar chasimah tovah!

  3. I am sorry for coming across harsh..I just have to go fundraise TODAY $12,000 just to cover loans that are overdue that I took from locals and they are overdue! You are right there is a huge support network out there that helps us do what we do. I agree about the staff and the programing know how and marketing etc. However in general the costs are shared by the collective. 500 shluchim make the same calendar. Someone is making a living (or some extra spending money) off this most of the time Not to make a big deal out of the details but the collective buying power and market of the shluchim should not be confused with crown heightsers paying for torahs..I wish I knew someone who would pay for my torah. I just want you to do the math the lubavitcher community in crown heights is under 3000 families and not all are rich to say the least in material possesions. there is that number of shluchim around the world. Of course our own families help us if they can but they have a tough time their paying the tuition bills and other good causes shuls and bikur cholims etc. The reality is that although for the first year or two shluchim may have pledges (you know what those are worth in my business about .50 on the dollar)from friends and family back in CH after that they have other new shluchim to support and 90+ will be locally raised. Thank you for all your thoughts I may use your apology & patriots on Yom Kippur (now you know which region I am in). So New England is not California:)Some communities do better than others..

  4. If there were a better way, no shul would charge membership. No one wants to be the guy who reminds people to pay, who chases them to pay, who enforces the rules about no kibudim to those who don't pay.

    In an ideal world, every shul would be open to whomever wanted to be there, whenever they were moved to be. There should never have to be a tax on prayer. But the building isn't free, the lights and air conditioning aren't free, and the guy who sweeps the floor also expects to be paid.

    As the "anonymous" above illustrates, the idea that a shul can run on voluntary donations and fundraising doesn't seem to work, at least not everywhere.

    Since you mentioned the Xtian model, remember that while they do not charge membership, most denominations do take up a collection at every service, or at least they hand out donation envelopes. We can't make people pay when they show up, so we have to ask for the money beforehand.

  5. The shul that we belonged to in Boston had a section of seats on each side of the mechitza that were never sold. They were left open so that no one would ever be turned away from shul.

  6. Anonymous shaliach-
    Sorry to hear it; hope you were successful! And I agree that it's the power of the collective. I've pushed the OU to do the same, but it hasn't worked. What are the odds the OU and Chabad could team up, to achieve even greater benefits for both? [Good luck with the Patriots thought; I used it in a shiur yesterday, and it went well, B"H.]

    Another Anonymous-
    Agreed. And they draw on a much larger membership.

    Yes, my shuls did that as well. I wish those could have been mixed in with the rest, so that they would not have felt 'marked' as not paying, but I don't see a good way to do it.