Nothing in Life Comes for Free - Perhaps Religion Should

Synagogues give a bounty of gifts to their congregation. But how can we reach out to Jews put off by the cost of attending?

Pinni Flesher

Imagine for a moment you desperately want to lose weight. You have had a life-long battle with your body, you've tried every bad diet. The gym you tried nearly 10 years ago was a disaster – you felt like a fish out of water. After months of paying, and only attending a handful of times, you gave up and went back to your bad habits. One day, you receive two postcards; another from the gym down the street offering a monthly package at a very high price, the other in your neighborhood with the promise of a one-week free trial. Which would you choose?

When Yom Kippur ended last week, I, like millions of Jews around the world, hurried to the dining room table for a bagel and lox. However, with equal haste I grabbed the New York Times to read this article,“Selling High Holiday tickets is a dilemma for synagogues.”

As a rabbi and “shul” going Jew I am a big proponent of the value of institutional Judaism. I worked as an assistant rabbi for four years at a Conservative synagogue outside of Los Angeles with 750 families. I found the work inspiring, challenging and meaningful. I lived the power of the synagogue; the value it can have embracing people during their lives, literally from cradle to grave. In my personal life, I am a "shul" Jew. My family and I are dues-paying member of a synagogue, and we find tremendous value in the money we spend (which is no small sum) on belonging to an institution. Synagogues and institutional Judaism give a bounty of gifts: from stable communities, to support in times of need, to rabbinic presence.

In the NYT article, Amichai Lau Lavie says “I pay for yoga, I pay for therapy, I pay for the movies, I pay for things that feed my soul and nourish my body.” The truth is even fees for service religion offerings and for service programming still require money to run. The rabbis famously said "if there is no flour there is no Torah." In other words, even Torah needs money to function, grow and thrive. However, his analogy does not work because he fails to recognize the baggage people bring to organized religion.

The question of membership dues versus fee for service in religious life is nothing new. Each year around this time, as we approach the very busy High Holy Day season, folks wonder about the current model of Jewish religious life. The challenge is not a Jewish one alone, but rather one confronting all organized religion.

Most people today see no value in joining a religious community. In fact the statistics are staggering: only about 35% of Jews affiliate in an organized fashion. In truth, however, we are not a gym trying to draw a profit. We are drawing people into a tradition and spiritual practice that has either turned them off completely, or become so foreign to them that paying feels like returning to that frightening gym experience a decade ago.

We want people to grab hold of the legacy of our tradition, to have an anchor during challenging times and during times of joy. The trend has not been good on this front; religion no longer makes such a guarantee. People do not at the outset believe that religions have value for their life. To get people to pay, we have to prove our value. People walk through the gym door for a free trial. If their experience is positive, challenging and worthwhile, only then do they join.

We have failed to make organized religious communities just that – compelling, positive and meaningful particularly to young people. Dues, payment and other forms of membership don't work because people in the pews don’t see the point. What are we giving them? The old model may have its place for some but for the vast majority of people we have to find a different way.

We live in a new world, which demands a radical change in the model of community building. Our job is first and foremost to create services, classes and programming that are accessible, dynamic, engaging, modern and deeply rooted in a rich challenging Judaism. For that we need to at times to offer things for free, so the access is straightforward, and we can once again prove the worth of our rich tradition.

As a rabbi who is trying hard to reach out from a deeply rooted tradition in new and creative ways, I do not believe charging people for High Holy Day tickets (or so many other services, programs and parts of the Jewish community) does anything but turn people away. We can, and should, offer all types of engagement which comes at little or no cost so as to draw people close to Judaism. When someone gets that free trial postcard in the mail for the gym, it opens a door for them to a different life, a new hope and possibility and that is our charge in the Jewish community too. Once through the door, our job is to make the message so compelling they want to be a “boneh Israel ," a builder of Israel.

Rabbi Elianna Yolkut works throughout N.Y.C. and beyond teaching, speaking and writing Torah. You can find her at www.rabbielianna.com