I have to be honest about my bias on this topic. One of the fixed items in our household budget is synagogue membership. Our children are grown. We don’t need religious school. No one is studying for a bar mitzvah. But to borrow a phrase from Moses – excuse me, Charlton Heston! – I’ll let go of my synagogue membership when they take it out of my cold, dead hands.
Why is synagogue membership important to me? Let me count the pros:
1. I have a rabbi (actually, two rabbis) on call should we need them. I like knowing that if I have a big decision to make, there’s someone grounded in the tradition with whom I can talk it through. I like knowing that if something bad happens, all members of my family will be free to call on the rabbi for support and guidance. I don’t want to be looking for a rabbi at a crisis in my life.
2. I have a community. I don’t love everything about that community, or everyone in that community, but it is my community, people who know who I am and with whom I navigate life. If I am looking for a plumber, or a doctor, or a real estate agent, everyone has a recommendation. If I have something to celebrate, they will care. If something bad happens, they’ll care. I am not anonymous there.
3. I benefit from the Caring Community, or Committee, or whatever it is we’re calling it now. When my kids were still in school, and I fell and smashed my knee, someone picked up my kids from the bus, someone brought dinner, and someone was on the other end of the phone to help me figure out how I was going to deal with life while my leg was immobilized. As an aging woman with some disabilities, this is not a small thing.
4. I have somewhere to develop and use my talents as a volunteer. This goes for small stuff, like bringing food to potlucks, and to larger things as well. Currently I don’t work for a congregation, but I volunteer some of my professional skills for my congregation. If I had the time, I could sing in the choir (I wish I had the time.) I get appreciation for the things I do from time to time, and that’s nice too. I also learn about social justice action opportunities, and have a ready-made group of people with whom to pursue those.
5. I have a minyan with whom to pray. Jews engage in private prayer, but there are some kinds of prayer for which we need a minyan of at least ten Jewish adults.
6. I have people with whom to learn. There is no substitute for a community when doing Jewish learning: it just does not work alone. And even though I went to rabbinical school, I still have lots to learn: learning is a lifelong activity for a Jew.
7. When there is truly a crisis, I have a community and a rabbi. Much of my work is with unaffiliated Jews, and I have to tell you that that more than anything has convinced me of the benefits of belonging. I do my best for families who are grieving, but they’ve turned to me because someone gave them my name after disaster struck. I’m essentially a nice stranger with a set of skills they need. How much better it would be for them to have a rabbi they know, that they can call the minute trouble looms, and who already knows their story? That is what I want for myself and my family.
8. I know that by supporting this synagogue, I am contributing to the future of Judaism in my area. Even after my kids are grown, children will be learning about Judaism at that synagogue. Couples will get married. Funerals will be held. Celebrations will happen, holidays and fasts will be observed. By being a part of a synagogue, I keep Judaism going.
Now for the “cons” of synagogue membership:
1. Yes, it costs money. Having that rabbi on call, and a secretary and whatever else (a building, a janitor, teachers, etc) costs a lot of money. If money is tight, then you have two options: talk with the synagogue about reduced rates, or opt not to belong for now.
2. As I said above, not everyone at my congregation is my best friend. Sometimes there is conflict. There are some people who drive me a little nuts. I probably drive them a little nuts, too. Comes with the territory. As the old joke goes, sometimes it is easier to love Judaism than it is to love real live Jews.
3. Yes, they bug me to give and to do stuff. Linda and I get periodic appeals for financial and volunteer participation. I also feel free to say “no” when I really can’t or don’t want to do something.
4. I don’t agree with the way everything is done by the synagogue. Policy is up to the board, and they call those shots. I get to state my opinion, but I am not the boss. If it’s the only synagogue in town and the disagreement is about something serious, then maybe it isn’t worth it. For example, I am not sure I could be a happy member of a congregation that wanted me to be closeted, or that did not count women for a minyan.
5. Paying dues is just the beginning. To really get the benefits of synagogue membership, you have to invest time and heart.
Synagogue membership is not cheap. It costs money, time, and heart. Sometimes it is aggravating. But for me, it’s worth it.
13 thoughts on “Choosing Synagogue Membership”
so true! having been afloat/adrift ourselves for a number of years and now being (paying) part of a community we know it is ever so much better to belong, to share, to get know, to participate, to be known, to be welcomed. And we get to watch the children, ours and others’, grow up and make their way in the world as Jews.
Meredith, I am so glad that you found a home congregation that fits your family. You express that experience very well.
Everything you say – pro and con – is true. The pros so vastly outweigh the cons. I can’t imagine being without my community – warts and all.
Indeed, “warts and all.” I’m glad you found the community that works for you!
This post came up just in time for me. I actually clicked on it from the most recent one about the High Holy Days. I am an unaffiliated Jew who, when pre-planning my funeral and burial, realized that I have no connection with a rabbi or Jewish community.
Therefore, I have decided to start attending synagogue at least a few times over the next year. I briefly belonged to the gay synagogue in NYC but that was 20 years ago and have since moved away. I’m going to take a year, visit some synagogues in my area, and then decide whether I want to become a member or not. Money is a factor and I don’t have children (nor is my wife Jewish) but as someone who has felt different for a variety of reasons (being biracial and gay are two of them), a community tie is important to me. I’m not really that social (except on social media and in my work life) but want that connection to a community.
Debra, I wish you the best in this project! If I can be of any assistance, please say the word. This is such a wise thing to do, and I hope you can find a community that will serve you and your wife well.