Sunday, September 9, 2012

Your money or your aliyah

I received this question recently:

Dear The Rebbetzin's Husband,

In the shul I attend, a man who receives an aliyah (is called up to the Torah) is handed a card listing various sums of money. Via a paper clip attached to the card, he is expected to inform the gabbai of the sum he is donating to the shul, in response to his aliyah. Lest one think this is on the honour system, the shul's bookkeeping office will send a note that week, reminding him of his pledge.

Here is my question: What do you do when the gabbai calls you for an aliyah unbidden? Try to decline, and the gabbai insists – and now you are required to make a donation, for an honour you never sought.

What do you do?

Held Up in Shul

Dear Held Up,

I recognize the problem, certainly.

I believe strongly in shuls raising funds beyond dues; it's a necessity. In line with this, I understand and accept the practice of soliciting donations for aliyos; shuls need money to pay salaries, keep the lights on, and support programs. The reality of Jewish communal life is that people donate to chesed organizations and schools far more readily than they do to a shul, and so shuls need to fundraise in awkward ways.

On the other hand, it seems to me that gabbaim should recognize the problem here, and hand out cards only when the oleh (person ascending to the Torah) actually requests the aliyah, such as for a yahrtzeit.

I would recommend an off-line conversation with the gabbai, and if necessary the Rabbi and president, at a time other than the aliyah itself, to discuss the policy. I do find shul officials to be open to this sort of discussion, in general.

Best wishes for a כתיבה וחתימה טובה,
The Rebbetzin's Husband

PS You are not the only one – In one shul I visited I was once asked, last-minute, to fill in for a haftorah, and then handed a donation card for the honour of receiving maftir!


  1. funny, I read this a "aliyah" to Eretz Yisrael...

  2. Batya- I also assumed from the title that the subject of the post was going to be Aliya with a capital A.
    R'Mordechai- I feel that shuls have the right to expect those who get an honor to make a donation
    For many years I dovened in a shul where the aliyot and other honors were auctioned off in a public auction (finftzig shekel maftir!)Many were put off by this and it even resulted in a breakaway minyan. I always thought it was a colorful custom that was also another way for the shul to try to meet its expenses.

  3. I view it as an opportunity to make a donation and not an obligation. When handed a card you are only being invited to make a donation an invitation one may decline for any one of a number of reasons and one does not need to feel lacking.

  4. Thinking about money & shul, whether it's dues or aliyahs or simchas torah auctions or whatever, it's easy to feel outraged.
    If it helps, I always try to remember that churches pass a basket around very publicly - everybody watches so you can't get away with putting in nothing.
    Even adults who tithe regularly (ie a series of cheques in the office) will usually put in cash or give their kids something for the basket because of this pressure. Multiply by millions and millions of Christians worldwide, plus priceless property holdings in the case of many churches and you can see the road to financial solvency.
    But us... well, I know people give tzedaka at weekday davening, but it's really not the same and sometimes meshulachim are around to claim funds that might have gone to the shul's pushke otherwise.
    Few shuls are getting rich, and frankly, though the gabbai and some others are watching, it's not like they're embarrassing you in public because the process is so discreet; nobody else will see the amount you select. You are also not obligated to give for an aliyah, however much pressure you may feel, and that should be clearer at the time.
    Having worked in a busy shul office following up these committments (yup, every Monday, I'd send out the bills), I know it's easy (or should be) to call in & correct mistakes or even cancel the debt if it was incurred mistakenly or you can't afford it.
    Essentially, we need every penny; it would be interesting to figure out something similar for the women's side. My mother often complains (weird, I know) that the shul doesn't seem to want her money because she's an older widow with not as many opportunities to give. Some type of routine honour, not necessarily on the bimah, in return for a token chai-multiple. ;-)

  5. p.s. The shul where I worked had a deliberate policy of hiring non-members in order to keep matters like this (and of dues, a bigger issue) completely private. All money-related paperwork had to be kept strictly face-down and far away from shul member volunteers. It was an awesome example of "mah tovu."

  6. I came across this twice. Once, at a shul at which I paid dues, I got a bill (yes, a bill) in the mail, saying I had made a pledge. I mailed it back, writing on it that I would remember having done such a thing, and the gabbai told me that they send this to everyone. He walked away before I could ask him why the shul sent out letters containing lies. I don't think I got any more aliyot, fine by me. Should it turn out that there is no shul in the world where I can get an aliya for free, I will never get another aliya.

    The same shul also handed out donation cards at Yizkor with a paperclip to mark your donation. I unfailingly took them home and mailed them back with a check clipped to the card with the clip, until they stopped giving me a card. I eventually stopped going to that shul for other reasons.

    One cannot extract a pledge from me without torture. Not even a "bli neder" pledge. Nowadays I give money before Yizkor and change the text to say "I gave" rather than "I bli neder will give"

    Next time was at a shul I wasn't a member of. I was handed a tallit (no aliya number however, for all I know I was getting hagbaha or gelila). I asked someone if they automatically threw a pledge into the mishebeirach there and when told they did, I draped the talit on the bench, walked out, and never went back.

    A shul that can't support itself without turning the Torah reading into a fundraising event deserves to close,

  7. The shul I used to go to did this exact same thing. I say used to because this is one of the things that made me leave. It's not that I mind donating to shul, in fact I usually donate around $1000-$2000 each year in addition to the dues and other obligations, but I do it on a strictly voluntary basis, and I certainly don't want it announced. I find the habit of handing out donation cards and then announcing the donation publicly from the bimah to be so crass that I want no part of it or any shul which engages in such behavior.

  8. Batya-
    I thought you would...

    But even if they refuse the aliyah?

    Does the administration agree with you?

    Thanks for commenting. Two thoughts:
    a. In my shul in Allentown, the office manager was not Jewish, and I felt this was very good for the shul for many reasons - including the one you mention.
    b. Perhaps your mother could sponsor seudah shlishit, or an adult education class?

    I hear it. I also like to give in advance of RH/YK and other appeals, rather than make nedarim.

    Anonymous 2:07 PM-
    I guess what Melech and Jennifer are contending is that it really is voluntary - but then it should be made explicitly so.

    1. It doesn't matter if it's voluntary, it's crass. Announcing something personal in public is crass. Blatantly discussing financial matters on shabbat is crass. Announcing how much money someone is donating from the bimah is crass.

    2. True, but I was talking about the aliyah...

    3. What is technically allowed/legal is not the same as what is socially acceptable or normal. Refusing an aliyah is certainly an abnormal act that is not commonly done.

  9. IMHO it's worse because iirc one can not refuse an aliyah.
    Joel Rich

    1. I can understand the logic - like Rav Chaim Brisker not seeking people to take a Torah from him on Simchas Torah - but could you locate a source?

  10. Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)September 9, 2012 at 3:54 PM

    In the shuls I've been to where there was an automatic donation or strongly encouraged donation attached to every alíya, they gave you the option of donating a "matana" (and that's how it was said in the mi-shebbeirakh), i.e. an undecided/undisclosed amount, instead of pledging a specific numerical value.

    1. Steg-
      That's good for privacy, but it doesn't solve the fundamental issue...

  11. "Melech-
    Does the administration agree with you?"

    I have no idea. But even an expectation of a donation is not the same as an obligation. Considering it an obligation is unreasonable. Regardless, most shuls have an option for some sort of unspecified donation without a dollar amount which is an implicit understanding that any donation for an aliyah is voluntary and not an obligation.

    "b. Perhaps your mother could sponsor seudah shlishit, or an adult education class?"

    Hah. Jennifer's point is well taken. Shuls are structured as boys' clubs, primarily run by men for men with disenfranchised women as an afterthought.

    Sponsorship opportunities for adult education events is a reasonable suggestion and was introduced at my shul specifically to give women an opportunity to donate in ways that may be meaningful to them.

    But Orthodox synagogues are primarily structured around the needs of men and creative ways are needed to provide women with meaningful opportunities to donate. At least in my shul, expectations of women to donate towards the shaloshudes demonstrates a male-centric view of shul. In spite of lip service inviting women to attend shaloshudes, women are given many messages and cues that at best it is a male domain from which women won't be excluded. This message is given over in many ways, from two tables at the extreme side for women to crowd around, to women not being able to speak at shaloshudes even if they sponsor it. I have no idea why most woman would choose that venue from which they are mostly excluded.

    And that's the problem with many shul opportunities to donate, that they largely center around what's meaningful to men. What ends up happening in many shuls is women econtribute to and through the Sisterhood, which also exacerbates their exclusion from most shul functions and it becomes cyclical.

    Creative brainstorming is needed to tap into the resources and goodwill of half the shul membership. That needs to start with women in leadership and strategic planning positions where their voices are heard and matter, and aren't dismissed by the boys' club who snicker about women wanting to gain access to synagogue life. And it takes more than an announcement from the pulpit or on a shul flyer that women are welcome to whatever shul event or venue. Those events need to be structured to be seen by women as inclusive, not just seen by men as not an active impediment. For example, not scheduling shul meetings Sunday mornings right after Shacharit, or Thursday nights.

    Many donation opportunities in shuls revolve around yahrtzeits and are structured to honor the memories of loved ones. Women have just as many yahrtzeits as men, and the opportunities to tap into that reserve should reflect the needs of women and be meaningful to women. That starts with inclusion of women in synagogue life.

  12. Well one solution to Jennifer's mother's problem might be to go to a Sephardi shul where they auction off the aliyot. It is a not infrequent occurrance in both the shuls my husband attends that the aliyot and other honours (galila, hagba etc) are bought by women who bid in the public auction system (in one of the shuls he attends, he says it is almost every week that a particular wealthy widow buys something). On winning the bidding, the woman then nominates who it is (a grandson, the gabbai, etc) who actually gets the aliyah or honour. BTW giving away the honour once you have "won" it is also very common amongst the men - very very often if there is a hard fought auction, the man who bids the most will then give the honour to the man who bids the second most. It is a strange form of one-man-upmanship. In particular, almost every time my husband has tried to buy one of the honours they give to katanim for my nine year old son, one or other of the wealthy members of the community has come in, upped the bid way over what my husband would ever dream of paying, and then given the honour to my nine year old son anyway. And it is not as though we are on the breadline, just not in these people's league.

  13. I am puzzled by the phrase "opportunities to donate." Surely every shul accepts donations whenever they are offered, without requiring an occasion. One has an opportunity to donate anytime one is at one's desk with a checkbook, pen and stamp. And if more people took such opportunities, the shul could pay its bills without being so crass. Having been a gabbai and shul officer in my time, I can tell you that this sort of thing is no fun from that side either.

  14. If the donation for an aliyah by invitation of the gabbai is not a fixed dollar amount, the person who accepts can still can scale it as he wishes.

  15. Chana Lutz:
    Yes, women can in theory purchase aliyot for men, but it's not really a solution. It's still women being allowed to participate in a man's game in ways men allow. And the one-upmanship, the competition you describe, is an example of how women can be invited to participate in a fundraising event, but because it is structured in a way that is appealing to men and not to the way women operate, the invitation is shallow. It's women being allowed to participate in a man's game, and playing according to a man's rules, when men allow it.

    I'm suggesting there be opportunities for women to donate to shuls in ways that are meaningful to them, and not just in ways that play by the boys' club rules.

    mike S.: Obviously shuls will accept donations from the disenfranchised, be they widows, or 7 year old boys. But as anyone involved with fundraising will tell you, there's more to successful fundraising than announcing that checks are accepted.

    Further, the goal of fundraising is often not just to raise capital. An important goal of fundraising is to give donors, even the minor donors whose donations don't make an appreciable difference to the deficit, a sense of belonging to the cause. And the more shuls address the desires of women to donate, the more women will feel included in the institution, and the more they will donate. But it all starts with a desire that women should feel a part of shul. That's the missing link in many shuls, where the shuls are happy to accept donations from women, but are not willing to make those same women feel a meaningful part of the institution.

  16. There are many good thoughts here, but just to note one point: There are elements of shul life which exclude women, and there are elements of shul life in which women choose not to participate. Aliyot are the former, but seudah shlishit and shiurim are the latter. In the shul you mentioned, Melech, there are hundreds of women who are not feeding their children or putting them to bed at those hours while sending their husbands to shul. If more than 20 came to seudah shlishit, there would be more than two tables for them on the following week...

    1. I think Melech's point is that what you describe as "elements of shul life in which women choose not to participate" may in some cases be more accurately described as "elements of shul life in which women do not feel welcome or encouraged to participate."

  17. Melech: I agree that women should be a part of the shul to the extent allowed by halacha; I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. But if those who daven in a shul considered contributing a fair share of the required expenses a serious commitment, shuls would be less pressed to resort to such crass means of raising money.

  18. I am the same person as the first anonymous posting. I realize conversations with multiple people named "anonymous" is tough to follow so I'll use this moniker for the duration of this discussion.

    In addition to the feeling of crassness which I delved into in my last comment, I think a lot of people seem to feel tricked by it. The gabbai says "you have revi'i", and then suddenly you're asked how much money you're going to donate to the shul. To a lot of people I think this feel underhnaded. Lately I've been davening at shtiebelach (the one in Katamon) where they auction off aliyahs. This feels much more fair to me simply because it's honest. They're announcing up front that they're selling honors, and you can easily see how much one is worth. If you want it, you can decide whether or not to buy it. It may not be ideal (poor people will get far fewer aliyahs), but at least it's honest.

  19. So here's another thing about this habit which really bugs me. Since I do try donate both regularly and generously to my shul, let's say I gave a large donation for an aliyah. Do people view me as a showoff? Does the gabbai start to give me more aliyot because he knows I give me? (Before a gabbai jumps in and protests, ask yourself if you believe congressmen when they claim special interest money doesn't effect them).

    In shul, no one should be treated differently because of their financial situation. Kibbudim should go to people with more middot (or chiyuvim), not to people with more money.

  20. I've never been part of a community where this was the custom, and I'm genuinely curious how it works. What is the going rate? How much money is raised through this in the course of a fiscal year, and why is that sum not simply divided among the number of members and the basic dues amount increased by that much? That would have the dual virtues of removing discussions of money from Shabbos davening, and clarifying how much it truly costs to be considered a fully participating member of that congregation.

  21. Rebbetzins husband: bratschegirl correctly identified the perrenial issue, that men will argue women don't come or don't participate so why should we change anything to make it more welcoming when they don't come anyway,
    And the women will tell you they aren't coming because they are made to feel unwelcome.

    As for why synagogues solicit voluntary donations, it is precisely because they are voluntary. Dues are only one part of what members pay. If shuls eliminated other voluntary donations, shul dues for everyone would easily rise 50%. The system in place is that voluntary contributions subsidize members who opt to pay less over the course of the year.

    Although the nickel and diming (or the 180-dollaring and the 360-dollaring) is annoying, there is probably a psychology of fundraising at play of soliciting when members are vulnerable such as at yizkor or yahtzeit or when members feel they are directly benefiting from membership such as when they get an aliyah. Shuls probably extract more than by sending one annual bill that more accurately reflects costs.

    Plus ppl WANT to contribute at special times.

    In fact, there is an argument that rather than raising shul dues 50% and eliminating all the small donations, a shul would raise more by eliminating dues altogether and totally relying on the the benevolence and goodwill of the members. I think it is nuts and precludes financial planning but the model exists.

    As for the question of what goes through the gabbi's head when you make a large or stingy donation, I doubt he cares. He does not have the full picture. In theory only the book keeper knows your total donations throughout the year. Interestingly, there was a plan in an orthodox shul to publicly recognize the top 50 donors and there was a hue and cry from the donors that they did not want that sort of recognition.

    Hopefully gabbaim are chosen because they are mentschen, and if they are, they process the cards without any judgements whatsoever, be the donation large or small. What the gabbai thinks ahould not factor into the equation whatsoever.

    1. Just one note here: It is true that women may not feel welcome at seudah shlishit, to use the current example, but I don't see it as a function of number of tables or their placement. After all, one could hardly expect a shul to set up extra tables in an already-crammed space for people who are not present. I think it's a deeper issue.

    2. @Melech

      Gabbaim are mentches. Okay, I'll buy that - while I'm sure there are exceptions most I've met are great people who can be trusted to be non-judgmental. But why announce it to the whole shul?

  22. As for how much money is actually raised, to put some numbers to it, a 700 member synagogue with a 1.7 million dollar budget, may get a million in dues and another 200k in donations and fundraising and yahrtzeit plaques, different voluntary donations.

    Bow let's say you simply raise dues by 20% and eliminate all the voluntary donations. Problem is, if 35% of the shul arent paying full dues, presumably bc they cant afford it, you cannot just raise dues 20%. What you would need to do is raise dues at the high end by more to once again cover the shortfalls. It isn't so simple. Rather, what shuls do is have a base due rate which is obligatory and then it relies on voluntary contributions from aliyot and whatnot.

    It is a similar isse with school tuitions where they publicize some tuition level and then tack on all these extra fees. It would be simpler to just raise tuition and be done with it but it isn't so simple.

    As for the question about what ppl typically donate, I would guess it really depends on the person. Ten dollars. 18. 180. 360. It is a large range. But NOBODY should feel inadequate nor that it is obligatory. You give what your heart tells you.

    As for whether you need to donate every time a hand is proferred, be it an aliyah, a yizkor appeal, a sefer torah dedication, that is a tough one.

    1. At my shul, there is a "baseline" dues amount. Some people can't afford it and pay less (and we also don't ask people to "prove" what they can afford by showing tax returns), some pay that amount, some who can pay more. We also have plenty of additional donations, fundraising, yahrzeit plaques, golf tournaments, donations made in honor of a simcha, etc. etc. But there is never a price tag, not even a hint of one, connected with receiving an honor; I believe this is an explicit policy and not an accident. So it is possible to balance the books without resorting to a practice which clearly makes many people uncomfortable.

    2. Right, but I think everyone is saying that there's always an option of giving nothing or a token amount, and that giving, even though you are invited to give, is optional and not obligatory.

      And again, I would hope gabbaim are mentschen and don't dole out aliyot based on what they perceive to be the potential for shul income especially since they do not know the full picture. They may know what I donate when I get an aliyah, but they can't know how I donate in other ways.

      That said, there is a concept of honoring the rich, that the rich are entitled to a certain kavod by virtue of being rich. It goes against the socialist we-are-all-equal mentalities, but that concept does exist in Judaism.

      I should note that we have been talking about being given a donation card when we have an aliyah. I different model, which I do not like at all, is buying aliyot, where you have to bid to get an aliyah, such as bidding online or by email or in shul prior to services. It's usually just done on special occasions, but I find that incredibly distasteful. The only time I would tolerate it is simchat torah, but only b/c that's part of the fun.

  23. "The Rebbetzin's HusbandSeptember 11, 2012 10:41 PM

    Just one note here: It is true that women may not feel welcome at seudah shlishit, to use the current example, but I don't see it as a function of number of tables or their placement. After all, one could hardly expect a shul to set up extra tables in an already-crammed space for people who are not present. I think it's a deeper issue."

    I understand: There is no need apparently to accommodate women in the boys' club. Even though the obligation of women is equal to that of men for shaloshudes according to many opinions. And we couldn't even if we wanted to, because there is no room, and there would be extra expense.

    Alternatively, if it were important to the shul, they would accommodate women. They'd find the money, and they'd move shaloshudes into a bigger a room.

    What is lacking is the will of the men who make the rules for other men. Men feel if they announce women can come, that's good enough, and the women don't actually have to be made to feel welcome in any other way. Throw them some bones and that's enough, we've done our part.

    If the shul wanted to accomodate women, they could. They choose not to because it's not important.

    And there are other ways for women to feel welcome. A nicer menu. Speeches that speak to issues of importance to women. Or here's a radical idea: women speaking. These same men work with women daily, at the law firm, at the hospital, and schools, but suddenly they are in shul and can't tolerate the voice of a woman giving over torah.

    Imagine a shul where representatives of chessed organizations or schools or other mosdot in Israels occasionally are guests at the shul and speak at shalushudes and give over a short dvar torah and also inform the kehillah of their organization. That happens all the time. Now imagine a woman guest, who represents some chessed organization in Israel. When she is forbidden from speaking, that sends a message loud and clear to the women of the shul that shaloshudes is a men's club and while they are thrown some bones in the form of two tables to the side, you cannot expect women to come in significant numbers.

    Women don't want to have to make a ruckus to attend and feel welcome. Shul, in so many way, is a place for men where women are tolerated. And then the men turn around and say, "See, women don't want to come anyway!".

    I've seen with my own eyes a larger shaleshudes where more tables were set aside for women for a special guest speaker, and the men literally told the women to vacate the tables for the men. This may not be the shul, it may be the individual men, but the culture of the shul is set by numerous shul policies where that sort of behavior is tolerated and I'd argue even encouraged.

    My point is that when shuls look for creative fundraising ideas, that they should be aware that it's an uphill battle when they have already disenfranchised half the membership.

    1. Melech-
      I respect your right to rant, and you do it nicely, but I disagree.

      A. Saying that women should try coming to Seudah Shlishit does not mean that there is no need to accomodate them, and I'm pretty sure you know that. The world ceased to be black and white on Day 1 of Creation.

      B. Regarding specific adaptations you mention, in order to attract women:
      1. Larger room - Interesting idea. Has it been discussed and shot down? If so, why?

      2. A nicer menu - Wow, if that isn't denigrating to women, I'm not sure what is. According to you, women won't do the mitzvah if they have to eat the menu that satisfies the males.

      3. Speeches that "speak to issues of importance to women" - I have not been to seudah shlishit at shul since I started giving a shiur at that time over a year ago, but as I recall the speakers give fairly standard divrei torah, generally tied to the parshah. This is not "of importance to women"? I think you just topped your "nicer menu" denigration of women. [I'm also pretty sure that no one programs the content for seudah shlishit speakers; perhaps you could volunteer to speak, and set the tone by discussing a topic "of importance to women".]

      4. Women speakers - I defer to the Rabbi on this. I would note that your comparison to the workplace is a red herring, but I'm pretty sure you know that.

  24. B 2. Nobody serves the same thing at a kabbalat panim as at a chasson's tisch. The reality is what women care about and consider welcoming is not the same as what appeals to men. Is that sexist? It recognizes gender differences. That is my point: men and women are different. Am I sexist for suggesting women are not men? Maybe. But expecting women to be men and to feel equally welcomed as men when venues appeal only to men and are structured only with men in mind while not sexist contributes to the disenfranchisement of women.

    3. Listen to shiurim on YU torah 1. To men 2. To women 3. By men 4. By women.
    There are differences. The sorts of divrei torah that appeal to women is different than what appeals to men. Again, that is the reality of gender differences.

    That divrei torah that appeal to women differ from those to men does not mean I am suggesting that women arent interested in torah.

    Are most of the divrei torah parshah centric? Could be. But messages that appeal to men are simply not the same that are always meaningful to women.

    Nor by the way does it mean shiurim should be gender segregated. It means a range a shiurim and styles should be offerred that appeal to a wide range among the shul membership. But if a venue such as shaloshudes includes divrei torah of a particular style that have only men in mind, it once again is a cue to wmen, among others, that this is a boys' club event from which women are not actively excluded.

    1. Your earlier point was that it's a mitzvah for women, too, and so they should be welcomed on that basis. I agree wholeheartedly.

      But now you argue something different - that the mitzvah is insufficient to draw women, and they need something special - food, divrei torah that are "their speed". To this I cry 'Foul' - I believe that Jewish women are as committed as men to their mitzvos.

  25. And it is fine to create an environment at shaloshudes that is structured by men for men, from the physical layout to the menu to the types of divrei torah in terms of style and message to only men ever speaking. That is fine but then do not be surprised when women neither attend nor donate.
    And "women don't come anyway so why should we care" isn't going to increase donation rates either. Although maybe it will keep donations from men high who are happy women do not attend. I guess that is the cheshbon shul leaderships have to make.

    By the way, I think Federation has tried to get women to donate independent of their husbands as opposed to a single family account. It is an interesting idea but to migrate that model to a synagogue again the synagogue would need to make the wonen feel included and welcome.

    Now obvioulsy there are halachic constraints. But the vast majority of ways women are made to feel unwelcome have to do with the institutional culture of synagogues rather than halachah even if sometimes halachah is used as an excuse after the fact.

    1. Don't put quotation marks on that, Melech, unless you will explicitly note that the only person you are quoting is yourself... no one here has said that.

      Re: Federation - As someone who solicited on behalf of Federation for 8 years in the US, with that split system of men/women, I can tell you that many families resented it, viewing it as a transparent attempt to get two donations from one family.

  26. Just by the way, I do not think that they hand out donation cards at Partnership Minyanim to the men and women honored with aliyot. I wonder why that is.

    1. Don't know, but I suspect it has something to do with the ease of funding an Establishment-based revolution. ואכמ"ל.