Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Synagogues are not Kmart

Let me check my calendar.

Last week was Tisha B’Av. That means that there are now seven weeks until Rosh Ha Shanah. For Jews, that means that we are starting to think about the High Holy Days, and religious school, and synagogues – and membership dues.

Uh-oh.

As if hearing the shofar blast that will soon be sounded in sanctuaries around the world, many Jews have woken up to (what should no longer be) the news: Jewish communal life is expensive. Synagogues, day schools, summer camps, JCCs, plus the expected contributions that will keep them all afloat – it adds up to a pile of shekels.

That was certainly Leslee Komaiko’s experience. She embarked on a quest to hire a bar mitzvah tutor for her son, and discovered that it was not going to be, well, a metzia (bargain). And then, there are High Holy Day tickets – also a rather hefty amount.

And why not simply join a synagogue? Again – too expensive, even though she admits that the synagogue that she used to attend gives financial consideration to those who cannot afford it (a common practice).

Rob Eshman, editor of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, responded by saying that: “If you want to participate meaningfully in Jewish communal life, there now are many low-cost, and in some cases no-cost, ways to do so.” He listed Birthright, free online Jewish newspapers, synagogues with different kinds of financial models, scholarships for summer camps, etc.

Rob reminds us:

Things we value — cars, sports camps — cost money. At some point, Jewish involvement does require a choice — you’ll need to pay something, which means foregoing something else. But in exchange, you get a sense of meaning, community, comfort, tradition, belonging, intellectual stimulation and good jokes.

Bingo.

I am simply a congregational rabbi. I do not have an MBA. But, even without an MBA, this is my take on the “synagogues are expensive” rant.

American Jewish life is undergoing significant challenges. Rarely before have we needed, as much as now, to make Judaism relevant, powerful, engaging, enticing, and gutsy.

That costs money. We deserve, we demand, the best – rabbis, educators, cantors, executive directors, teachers. We can no longer (if we ever could, though we did) settle for mediocrity. The need is simply that pressing.

And it’s not only the professionals. It’s the administrative assistants, the custodians, all the other people who make Jewish communal life work. Because a people that demands quality in its everyday life merits quality in its Jewish life. The mailings have to get done on time. They have to look attractive. The websites have to be scintillating. The bathrooms have to be clean.

You get it.

We are doing this for a new generation – many of them, like the child in the Haggadah who “does not know what to ask.” So we are giving them answers – often to questions that they do not even know that they have.

And many of the members of that new generation simply do not give. Many cannot (yet) afford to give significantly. Many of them have never learned to give significantly – to anything, and certainly not to Jewish causes.

An earlier generation gave. That generation is fading. And, let’s be honest – synagogues were never the favorite tzedakot of even our wealthiest givers. Federations, hospitals, museums (Jewish and non-Jewish): all were “sexier” causes than synagogues. Which meant that synagogues were always underfunded, and will continue to be.

A quality Jewish life means a quantity of Jewish dollars.

Maybe Israel can help.

Huh?

Yup. It was recently reported that Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry under Minister Naftali Bennett is about to spend 250 million shekels to “improve the Jewish identity and connection to Israel” of college students in America.

That’s 65.6 million dollars.

And who is slated to get the money?

Well, yes, Hillel. No issue there.

But, also – Chabad and other Orthodox outreach groups.

Yeah, I get it: “from out of Zion goes forth Torah.”

But, this is not the kind of Torah that I want to see in America. A Torah that denies Jewish pluralism? A Torah that denies the rights of women to pray as equals to men? A Torah that is, by the way, in some cases, anti-Zionist?

You think that an anti-pluralist, anti-egalitarian message is going to fly among Jewish college students? Sure, many Jewish college students love Chabad Shabbat dinners. They do a good job. But the ideology that underlies the outreach? I don’t think so.

Mr. Bennett: if you are going to be sending the hard earned money of overly taxed Israelis to the United States for Jewish education, here is an idea.

Send it to the places where it is most needed.

Send it to Reform and Conservative synagogues to use in their supplemental schools.

Do you realize how underpaid Jewish educators are? Do you realize that there is a shortage of good Jewish teachers in the United States?

Do you realize how this is precisely the kind of problem that you can throw money at?

Do the math.

There are about 900 Reform-affiliated synagogues in the United States; about 600 Conservative-affiliated synagogues; about 100 Reconstructionist-affiliated synagogues.

That’s about $33,000 per synagogue. Not too shabby.

I recall the bumper sticker: If you think that education is expensive, try ignorance.

Yes, synagogue life is expensive. All good things in life are.

But, ultimately, the fading of American Jewish institutions is going to be much more costly – to American Judaism itself.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

13 Comments

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  • The problem is written in the numbers:

    http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html

    Religion………………………… Adherents

    Christianity ……………………..2.1 billion

    Islam…………………………… 1.5 billion

    Irreligious/agnostic/atheism…… 1.1 billion

    Hinduism 900 million
    Chinese traditional religion 394 million
    Buddhism 376 million
    Animist religions 300 million
    African traditional/diasporic religions 100 million
    Sikhism 23 million
    Juche 19 million
    Spiritism 15 million

    Judaism…………………………………….. 14 million

    Baha’i 7 million
    Jainism 4.2 million
    Shinto 4 million
    Cao Dai 4 million
    Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
    Tenrikyo 2 million
    Neo-Paganism 1 million
    Unitarian Universalism 800,000
    Rastafari Movement 600,000

  • There are, as usual, parallels to the situation the Rabbi describes in American Judaism, and the American church, though they are inexact and limited. While sympathetic, I hate the notion that any genuine spiritual endeavor be largely brought down to the mundane level of economic cost, though that seems to be the general trend.

  • Did you miss the memo that the Reform and Conservative movements are not recognized by the State of Israel? They barely exist in the State and are virtually unknown to the populace there.

  • “There are about 900 Reform-affiliated synagogues in the United States; about 600 Conservative-affiliated synagogues; about 100 Reconstructionist-affiliated synagogues… That’s about $33,000 per synagogue. Not too shabby.” Why throw good money after the bad? What about Orthodox? You know, that part of Judaism that is growing (rapidly!), has a much higher retention rate, negligible intermarriage rate, and from which more Jews make aliyah, despite the extra expense of kosher food, day school tuition while having less earning ability because of Shabbat and Holiday observance? You know, that part of Judaism that actually works?

  • Since Conservative and Reform also “work” why not them? They are attracting young people who are paying off college loans and mortgages and having babies. This “modern” stuff appeals to them. Check it out.

  • Nothing wrong with our numbers. We just have to educate the people who want to be educated so they can participate most meaningfully. That takes money to pay talented teachers.

  • How do they work? They have more resources to inculcate a Jewish life and belief that is distinct from non-Jewish ways and thought, yet they abandon Torah, the sine qua non of Judaism, experience 70% intermarriage rates, corresponding rates of assimilation, they are shrinking in number of synagogues, schools, and revenue. As I rhetorically asked earlier, why throw money at “solutions” that aren’t working? The greatest successes in transmitting a self-sustaing model of Judaism to self-identified R and C Jews is by kiruv organizations like Chabad, Aish HaTorah, etc. that are… Orthodox. One doesn’t even need a synagogue building or formally incorporated congregation to live a completely Jewish communal life. One needs only a minyan and a Sefer Torah, proving that money is not the problem for R and C movements.

  • Some of the talented teachers reside in the Conservative branch of Judaism. Some of what they currently teach:

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob·a·bly
    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

    The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions — the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years — have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity — until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called ”Etz Hayim” (”Tree of Life” in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

    The notion that the Bible is not literally true ”is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis,” observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to ”Etz Hayim.” But some congregants, he said, ”may not like the stark airing of it.” Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that ”virtually every modern archaeologist” agrees ”that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all.” The rabbi offered what he called a ”LITANY OF DISILLUSION”’ about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have ”found no trace of the tribes of Israel — not one shard of pottery.”

  • No community wants to accept the literal truth about its past. For example, the societies of the Western Hemisphere came to occupy it through the genocide of 150,000,000 native people. That is our unforgivable sin. We do not, needless to say, teach that to our children. Instead, we teach that Columbus “discovered” America, and was greeted by its inhabitants who had already been there for at least 15,000 years. Quite the paradox!
    But that does not mean that Western civilization has no value. The Magna Charta, the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Hegel, Marx and many others have created a civilization of the mind quite independent of its factual historical roots. Galileo, Copernicus, Boyle, Avogadro, all the way to Einstein and Hubble have made life-changing and lifesaving advances that have benefited all of earth’s inhabitants.
    So. There is no evidence for the historical roots of Judaism.
    So What?
    Just like western civilization, Judaism has much to contribute, no matter its origins. Judaism’s value lies not in its past, but in its present and future.

  • Judaism as in today’s occupation of the non-historical lands of Palestine that gives rational to Islamic terrorists to continue their koranic-driven terror.
    And some other contributions of today’s Judaism:

    International Herald Tribune

    01-20-2005

    “Israeli banks holding assets from European Jews killed in the
    Holocaust failed to make a determined effort to return the holdings to their
    heirs, and when they were returned, they were not returned at their proper
    value, according to a report by an Israeli parliamentary committee. The
    government of Israel, as custodian for a large part of the assets, also failed
    to make a serious effort to maintain their value or to return them to survivors
    or heirs, the report said.”

    The assets of Israeli banks are posted at:

    http://duns100.dundb.co.il/ts.cgi?tsscript=/2009e/e30a4

    The top two banks in Israel have over $600 billion in assets.

    Might it be time to investigate Israel and her banks and their
    unique powers they hold in Israel to include possible lobbying interests in the
    USA?

    “American Muslims agree to leave the United States in a one-for-one exchange for Jews from Israel. Dismantle Israel. Problem solved!”

  • 150,000,000? No one really knows the populations of the American Indians before Columbus arrived. And the dramatic loss of life was due to disease and not wholesale slaughter by Spanish, Portuguese and English explorers. And many Indian tribes were making war on their neighbors to including scalping
    long before Columbus.

  • Yes, we do know it was 150,000,000, including north and South America. And yes, a lot of deaths were from diseases that Europeans brought over. So what?

  • Please give supporting references for your 150,000,000 population figures remembering that in those days there were no census bureaus in the Americas.

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