Synagogues feeling the pinch before holy days
As the Jewish High Holy Days near, the tough economy has congregants in New York City leaning on synagogues more than ever for help.
Some New Yorkers have simply left their synagogues because they couldn’t afford their dues.
Congregants customarily start or renew memberships and pay up outstanding dues before the upcoming holidays, which start on Sept. 18.
In the spring, 60 percent of local synagogues saw an increase in requests for help with dues payments according to a survey of metro area synagogues. While many synagogues are already suffering, they will not know their true membership, or requests for dues relief, until after the High Holy Days. But they are preparing for the worst.
“For small synagogues in demographically shifting areas where the congregation is in distress already, this can be kind of the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but there are very strong synagogues that are paying very close attention,” said Dru Greenwood, director of SYNERGY: UJA-Federation of New York and Synagogues Together, which conducted the survey. “They may have to cut back staff and programming.”
The amount of dues vary, but some can reach thousands of dollars per family.
Half of area congregations were readying austerity budgets in March and others were increasing fundraising and reconfiguring staff to save money, the survey said.
Some have seen members quietly leave, too proud to ask for help after unemployment squelched their ability to pay dues. One synagogue also had some members hit hard by Bernie Madoff’s scheme.
Rabbis have tried to reassure congregants — with a flurry of newsletters, e-mails and speeches —that they’re welcome despite not being able to keep up with their dues.
“If you don’t want to be here because of philosophy or ideology, that’s one thing, but we’d hate for it to be because of finances,” said Phillip Rothman, executive director of The Brotherhood Synagogue.
Along with offering dues relief, synagogues have also set up job networking events to help congregants. The Stephen Wise Free Synagogue has been creative with outreach, which included shows that not only raised funds but also economy-weary congregants’ spirits.
“It was a really positive expression of we’re really all going to get through this,” said executive director Sandra Divack Moss.