August 26, 2004
Synagogue Perks Entice Unaffiliated
What does $1,000 buy you these days in Jewish life?
Maybe, if you're lucky, a full-year family synagogue membership. But what exactly does that mean? Two tickets to High Holiday services? Free parking? Entree to Kiddushes?
At a time when families have limited time and money and so much competing for it, synagogue leaders are realizing the need to offer more to potential and existing congregant.
The Journal surveyed a number of synagogues in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley to find out what membership brings these days. Remember: Membership has its privileges.
No. 1: The "Come Join Our Synagogue So You Can Enroll in Our Day School" Model
A family membership at Temple Beth Am (www.tbala.org) costs $1,925. The price might seem a bit steep, but not only does the membership come with two High Holiday tickets, but it also gives members the privilege of sending their children to Pressman Academy, the synagogue's affiliate day school. Pressman Academy is named after Rabbi Jacob Pressman, Beth Am's rabbi emeritus, and, according to its Web site, it teaches students "to be serious and committed Jews and responsible American citizens." The only way you get to send your kids to Pressman is if you are a Beth Am member.
If those are not enticements enough, then Beth Am also has a social coordinator who helps members meet each other by organizing havurahs, or social groups. The havurahs are grouped together according to age, and they that meet various times throughout the year for different activities, like going out to dinner and to the park.
No. 2: The "Join Our Synagogue So You Can Get a Discount on Our Other Institutions" Model:
With 2,500 members, Wilshire Boulevard Temple (www.wilshireboulevardtemple.org) is one of the largest synagogues in Los Angeles, and it requires you to be a member of the synagogue (cost of family membership: $1,728, includes High Holiday tickets) before you can enroll your children in its religious school. But if you are wanting more religious education for your children than what a secular school can offer, you can enroll them in the temple's nursery or elementary school. Both are open to members and nonmembers, but members get a substantial discount and get bumped up the waiting list.
"It makes financial sense to be a member in order to get in," Wilshire Boulevard Executive Director Stephen Breuer said. "Our schools are subsidized by the congregation, and the day school tuition for a member is substantially cheaper than for a nonmember. Our schools are part of the total synagogue experience -- they are not stand-alone businesses that we operate."
Breuer said that in addition to the schools, the synagogue offers everything from children's services on Shabbat to grief counseling.
No. 3: The "Come Join Our Synagogue So You Can Send Your Kids To Our Religious or Nursery School" Model.
Most synagogues are not fortunate enough to have a day school attached to them, but that doesn't mean that they don't care about Jewish education. A good number of synagogues offer an afternoon or Sunday religious school program for children attending non-Jewish schools. Many also have nursery schools attached to them.
At most of these synagogues you need to join before you can enroll your children in its religious school.
Temple Aliyah (www.templealiyah.org) in West Hills charges $1,950 for a family membership, which includes High Holiday tickets for parents and children younger than 18 and the right to send children to its religious school. Temple Aliyah also offers a children's program during High Holiday services.
No. 4: The "Join Our Synagogue Because We Make Religious Life Easy For You" Model
Beth Jacob (www.bethjacob.org) in Pico-Robertson is the largest Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles, and while it can't offer its members anything in the way of affiliate schools, it does offer a full range of religious services that are designed to fit into any schedule. Membership at Beth Jacob is $1,000 for a family, which includes two High Holiday tickets, but throughout the year that membership entitles you to your choice of three Shacharit minyanim every morning, as well as a large range of Torah classes throughout the week.
No. 5: The "Our Shul Needs You" Model
Unlike other congregations, Aish HaTorah Los Angeles (www.aishla.com) says its primary mission is not building a congregation, but outreach to unaffiliated Jews.
"We are looking for people who want to be part of that commitment," said William Gross, chair of the Aish Hatorah Los Angeles Community. "Our membership is not just for the synagogue -- we are packing it together with the outreach organization as well. If we sell $1,000 worth of tickets to the High Holidays we have failed, but if we get 10 people to help us achieve our mission [we have succeeded]."
Therefore, a family membership at Aish is $1,800, but built into that membership is not only two High Holiday tickets, but also two tickets to Aish HaTorah's annual banquet, which supports its outreach activities.
There are other membership models, too. Shuls like Beth Shir Sholom (BSS) in Santa Monica which want 2 percent of your gross income as membership, with a suggested minimum of $1,500, which excludes anyone earning less than $75,000 a year (in fairness, a spokesperson for BSS said that people needing to pay less than $1,500 "could work it out with the executive director.")
There is a shul in Pico-Robertson, which offers a $600 family membership that includes High Holiday for all family members, but they don't want to publicize it because "we don't want people who are just going to come for the High Holidays and not come the rest of the year."
Despite the secrecy, that shul has managed to boost its membership from 100 families to 210 families within one year.
But the good news for those seeking synagogue memberships is most of the synagogues that The Journal spoke to, in many different parts of Los Angeles, said that they would not turn away any Jew because of financial problems. In other words, getting Jews to be religiously affiliated is more important than money in the bank.