As a community rabbi, I meet folks who are not officially on the membership rolls of Jewish organizations. Invariably, the questions arise: Why are synagogue dues so expensive? Why is your fee so high? (It’s not really all that high, and the men charge more than I do.) Why do Jewish organizations ask for so much money when churches are free?
In the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, citizens are guaranteed the freedom of religion (meaning that the government will not impose a national or state religion). That doesn’t mean that religion is free.
I don’t see that anything out there is really free. What look like free services are subsidized by someone through charitable giving, fundraisers, and campaigns. For example, trips to Israel like Birthright and Renaissance, are funded by generous donors.
I see a parallel with the current mindset of the country in regard to taxes. “Tax the top 1% of Americans who hold wealth.” Voters seem to think that this will solve all of the financial woes in our country. While we do need to tax the wealthy, that is only part of the solution. Nearly 50% of Americans pay no taxes at all. I think it’s important for all of us to pay our fair share.
This is true in Judaism, as well. It’s unfortunate that we don’t see more significant donations to Jewish institutions from wealthy Jewish philanthropists like Eli Broad and Mark Zuckerberg, who have the ability to donate millions of dollars to the Jewish community so that membership and education could be ‘free’ for everyone else. Mind you, I’m not holding my breath. We can’t only rely on those who are the most wealthy to pay for everything. Even if we have very little to give, we are still obligated to give a portion of what we have to support the community and help those who are less fortunate than we are.
Membership dues and charitable giving are two ways that Jews support our community institutions. It costs money to maintain buildings, keep the lights burning, pay for the maintenance staff to keep the places clean. It costs money to have clergy available 24/7 to run programs, comfort people in grief and illness, and celebrate weddings, new babies, and coming of age ceremonies. It costs money to hire teachers to create and operate programs to educate our children. And yes, it costs money to provide snacks and lunches at meetings and programs. Training professionals at universities and seminaries costs money, too. These professionals should be able to earn a living in the same way that doctors, lawyers, engineers, and actors do.
There is no free lunch. It is upon all of us to contribute the resources from our pockets as well as from our hearts to have a viable, warm, and visionary Jewish community. If not us, who? If not now, when?
Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at www.rabbiwendy.com/