If You Want Jewish Services, Pay Up or Shut Up

For Jewish non-profits to thrive and make a difference, the entire community must make them a priority.

My professional life has been devoted to working in various non-profit organizations, almost all of which are in the realm of Jewish education. I have done this because I have always believed in their missions - even the ones with whom I no longer have any ties.

Lately, however, I have been losing my faith — not in the holy work that these organizations are doing, but in their capacity to do it – because our current model of funding such programs is flawed.

It is no secret that many Jewish educational programs are very expensive. Day school tuition in the United States often surpasses $20,000, summer camps can top $8,000 and trips to Israel can be over $1,000 a week, not including airfare. And while these programs are expensive, most of the ones I have encountered operate at cost price or even over budget.

The services provided by many Jewish non-profit organizations are essential and life changing. But the fact that they are not cheap means many organizations must rely on outside funding - particularly by very generous donors – in order to operate and reach as many people as possible. Herein lies the biggest flaw of this world.

Too often, those who do not prioritize Judaism expect others will pay for their benefit.

Understandably, Jews like to see religious services as a right and privilege. Why, many ask, should one have to pay to say Kaddish on a loved one’s yahrtzeit, or attend Kol Nidre? The answer, of course, is that running a synagogue costs money. Somebody needs to pay the air conditioning or heating bills, somebody needs to pay the staff that set up and clean up the room, and yes, even the rabbi deserves to make a living.

Three years ago, my synagogue in Ramat Aviv, one of Israel’s wealthier neighborhoods, nearly had to close due to lack of funds. For years, we had survived on the donations of generous Americans who wanted to support the work we were doing in the fields of religious pluralism, Jewish education, and social action. Then a recession hit the United States and the donations slowed dramatically.

At the time, I appealed to my many American friends who had attended High Holiday services at the synagogue on a yearly basis during their stays in Israel. Year after year, I reminded them, they enjoyed familiar, egalitarian services without being asked to pay a shekel. Finally, I had to ask for them to pay.

I contacted dozens of people. Only one person made a contribution. Apparently the rest expected someone else to pay for what they received.

Judaism is not meant to be a pay-to-play system, where one pays for goods and services, receives them, and then moves on. On the other hand, Judaism has a job to inspire charity; not to be a charity. Of course, there is no question in my mind that scholarships should be provided to allow the less fortunate to participate equally with their more fortunate brothers and sisters in impactful Jewish programs. But there is no reason for the wealthy to subsidize Judaism for others that are also well-off but choose not to make Judaism a financial priority.

In the times of the Temple, every Jew was expected to make a yearly contribution to support its personnel. Many churches today have a principle of tithing - ensuring that everyone contributes what they can to make sure that the church is there for all.

Jews today have a choice. We can choose to engage in Jewish activity only when somebody wealthier than we are pays for it. We can choose to pay for our religious experiences when it is convenient for us or otherwise feel entitled to receive it for free. We can choose to walk away from Judaism altogether, prioritizing other aspects of our lives. Or we can choose to make a sacrifice to invest in our community. But for Jewish non-profits to thrive and make a difference, the entire community must make them a priority.

Arie Hasit is an educator at Ramah Programs in Israel and is beginning the Israeli bet midrash program at the Schechter institute. The views expressed in this article are the author's alone.