Why is the Synagogue So Expensive?

Temple Israel, Memphis, TN

Why is synagogue membership so expensive?

• Many synagogues run on membership subscriptions because that allows for predictable cash flow and budgeting.  Every synagogue has its own formula for setting dues, and some don’t have “dues” at all.

• Costs vary by the cost of living in an area, by the size of the staff (salaries are usually the biggest single budget item) and by the services offered. A small synagogue that rents a room in a local strip mall one day a week and has no rabbi can operate very cheaply, and it will have low dues. It may be a wonderful Jewish community, but it will not be able to offer many things that people want from a synagogue.

Most synagogues offer “dues relief” when needed. If you want to join a synagogue with dues of $2000 a year, and you can’t afford it, say so! Please do not assume that you are not wanted, or that it is a synagogue only for “rich people.” Explain that you want to belong to the synagogue, but that there is no way you can afford the recommended amount. They will usually have a way to meet you at a level you can afford.

• Sometimes people ask why they should pay for services they don’t personally use. For instance, why should I pay the full membership rate when I don’t have children in religious school?  Educating the children of our community about Torah is a basic Jewish value, and it is the responsibility not just of the parents, but of the whole community. If you think the synagogue is spending your dues on something foolish or unfair, talk with a member of the board and learn about who uses that program and why it is a priority. If you still think it foolish, you can talk to more board members about examining those priorities.

• They call it a “membership” because you become a member. Once you join, at whatever dues level, you are not merely a consumer. Look for ways to keep expenses low by being a good member: cleaning up your messes, helping with set up and clean up, serving on committees, volunteering, and participating in events like congregational meetings and fundraising.

For more about how to be happy with the synagogue you join, I’ve written How to Succeed at Congregational Life: Ten Tips.

I have a bias on this subject: I don’t work for a synagogue at this time, but I’ve been a synagogue member twenty years. When there’s trouble, I call my rabbi; when I have good news, I share it with friends there. My beloved and I were married there. It is my Jewish family, my first and primary tie to the larger Jewish world.

Don’t let sticker shock drive you away! There are ways to make it work. Synagogue membership is one of the great bargains around.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

6 thoughts on “Why is the Synagogue So Expensive?”

  1. I couldn’t agree more! People often look at the price of membership and compare it to life’s luxuries – like dinners out or a weekend away. But a dinner out won’t bring dinners when you’re sick. They won’t pick up your kids from school when you find out the eye doctor won’t let you leave just yet. A weekend away won’t comfort you when your father dies or your sister gets cancer. No amount of money can get someone to sit by your hospital bed from 9am to 10pm EVERY SINGLE DAY for a year. Only people who are committed to a community will do that.

    I don’t always agree with all the things my fellow members want or pay for or do. Believe it or not, even my clergy are human and don’t satisfy my every desire. But I’ve gained a little wisdom – turns out that it is a good thing to have to adjust to others, to not always get my way, to pay for someone else’s needs, to be responsible for others.

    Turns out that the road to happiness is paved with small acts of giving to my community.

    1. “I don’t always agree with all the things my fellow members want or pay for or do.” – And in most urban areas, if the fit is really bad, one option is always to look for a different, perhaps smaller synagogue. Synagogues are not “one size fits all” any more than pantyhose are. This is where finding a “fit” comes in, provided, of course, that there are local choices available.

  2. The more you participate the more value you receive from your membership. It’s not really how much you spend, it’s the value you receive for what you spend that is important.

  3. Sorry, those high official “sticker prices” with (perhaps) a small-print aside to the effect that if you can’t pay what is asked–because you’re abnormally poor–you’re free to grovel for a “dues adjustment”? No thanks! Maybe it’s time for “the rest of us” to start our own “DIY” havurot or congregations, with cooperative services and even Hebrew classes–and a publicly-advertised pay-what-you-can policy. You know, the freewill-offering approach that works just fine in most Orthodox congregations and most churches. So why everywhere else and not in liberal Judaism?

  4. I enjoy learning about world religions and for the first time found out that females can be Rabbis too(something I really find good in all ways and progressive).May G-d bless you all!

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