[The Kosher Cooking Carnival for Adar I is here]
Sam was called to the Torah, and immediately after his aliyah he recited Birchas haGomel (the blessing usually recited upon being saved from harm). When Sam returned to his seat, his neighbor asked, “Were you in an accident? Did you have surgery?”
To which Sam replied: “No – but I was so surprised to get called up, I almost had a heart attack!”
The joke is original, but the story is familiar; Jews around the world frequently complain about the scarcity of their aliyos. However, that’s not really the topic of this post. Right now I want to talk about the question of charging money for aliyos.
I know gabbaim who decline to honor visitors, arguing that a synagogue will rarely see a significant donation from a drop-in. Alternatively, they make sure that visitors who are called to the Torah know that they are expected to make a significant contribution.
Some shuls have policies against honoring people who live locally and fail to join the shul. The argument is that people who refuse to support the community do not deserve to be recognized by the community.
The point is valid. Shuls depend on public support, and it’s hard for them to compete against tzedakah drives for schools and orphanages and the needy. Shuls even compete against the rabbi’s own Benevolent Fund. It’s not as though a shul can survive on membership dues alone; shuls generally offer people membership on whatever financial terms people can manage, even donations of a few dollars each month.
So how is a shul to survive, if people take it for granted? In distributing aliyos based on donations, these institutions are just trying to protect themselves with the only currency they control.
And yet, and yet… it still rankles. I know I am not the only rabbi to be uncomfortable with a “pay to play” policy. Torah is supposed to be for everyone, and the idea that we parcel out access to mitzvos based upon contributions does not sit well with me.
Also, this system encourages the publication and discussion of people’s contributions – “He got shlishi on Yom Kippur, he must be a big donor.”
And for rabbis, in particular, this arrangement can be uncomfortable. A shul rabbi makes himself available for everyone, regardless of bank account - but the practice of calling certain people to the Torah, to the exclusion of others, creates the perception that those who make larger contributions are entitled to special treatment from the shul, and therefore its rabbi.
I've written about this before; see these posts:
I guess membership should have its privileges
The high price of holy days
But I still don't have a resolution for the issue. So what should a shul do?