August 31, 2010
Synagogues seek ways to keep, draw members in time of recession
Since the recession began two years ago, cutting back has become a way of life. And with the cost of belonging to a synagogue seemingly higher than ever, many Jewish families believe they have to decide whether belonging to a temple is worth the price.
In response, synagogues have had to come up with creative ways to appeal to financially strapped families — or face dwindling membership.
The average price of synagogue membership in Los Angeles for a family with children hovers around $2,500. For those who want better seats during the High Holy Days, or childcare, the costs only go up.
Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has heard from rabbis throughout the community about the difficulties that rising fees have caused.
“Hundreds and hundreds of families across Los Angeles are leaving synagogues because of the economic crisis,” he said. “This is a very significant community problem.”
At Sinai Temple in Westwood, one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the Los Angeles area, annual membership dues are $2,570 for families with children ages 17 and under, a rate that includes tickets for unreserved seating at High Holy Days services.
In the 2009-10 fiscal year, membership at Sinai decreased for the first time in years, Rachel Feldman, the synagogue’s membership coordinator, said. After reaching 2,150 member families last year, the temple is now down to approximately 2,000.
“We had more resignations last year than [in] years before,” Feldman said, adding that resignations also exceeded new memberships for the first time in years.
All synagogues offer the possibility of reduced fees to members or prospective members in need. And, not surprisingly, the number of families receiving dues relief has increased since the recession began. Feldman estimates that in fiscal year 2009-10, aid was provided to approximately 60 families, up from 30 or 35 before the economic downturn.
At Temple Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, membership numbers have stayed the same, according to executive director Malcolm Katz, but, like Sinai, more families have sought financial assistance. With dues for a family at $2,670 per year, Katz estimated that 25 to 30 percent of families received help this past fiscal year, while the number had been closer to 20 percent in years before.
The temple’s goal, as it is with others, is to avoid losing members or turning away those who wish to join.
“Our objective is to keep our members if we possibly can,” Katz said. “We don’t want people to leave only because they say they can’t afford it.”
To keep a balanced budget and allow more families to receive aid who need it, many synagogues have cut back on spending. At VBS, that meant skipping annual salary increases and leaving dues the same, a change from years past.
“Typically, we will both raise dues and give salary increases in a given year,” Katz said. “But we got through last year OK.”
Many synagogues are also bolstering their efforts to draw in new members. Most have established programs for young couples and singles, for whom dues are drastically lower. And more events, social networking and word-of-mouth efforts are cropping up.
Sinai’s young professional group, called ATID, recently hosted a luncheon for prospective members.
“We did a ‘nosh and network’ event for potential new and returning members,” said Stacey Zackin, ATID director. “We told them about what ATID does and [featured] a couple of established Sinai Temple members.”
Sinai’s Rabbi David Wolpe also launched his own Facebook account this year and now has 1,656 followers.
For those who simply can’t, or don’t want to, pay dues to a synagogue, there’s always the option of attending one of Los Angeles’ various low-cost or free High Holy Day services. While they may not provide the year-round community of a temple membership, they do offer a connection to Judaism that many still want.
Bayit Shelanu — which in Hebrew means “our house” — is just such an organization. Housed annually in the Ackerman Grand Ballroom at UCLA, the all-volunteer group offers free Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services that are led by Rabbi Jan Goldstein and open to the public.
Goldstein estimates that the services draw 350 to 500 people each year, and he emphasizes that they are geared toward those with no place else to go.
“We are especially for the unaffiliated,” he said, “people who are searching for ways to get back [to being] involved” with the Jewish community. (For a list of other free services, visit jewishjournal.com/freehighholydays.)
As the reality of Jews seeking alternative places to worship — or simply forgoing a connection to the Jewish community altogether — sets in, Federation chief Sanderson expressed his concern that the trend would trickle into other parts of Jewish life.
“It deeply concerns me that we are going to start seeing this at every institution,” Sanderson said. “We need to create a community-wide effort to raise funds for synagogue membership, camp, day schools, Israel trips, so that those who can’t afford it are still able to participate.”
To that end, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is currently working to hire someone to collaborate with leaders in the Jewish community and figure out how to be more inclusive, and perhaps how to temper the growing cost of being Jewish.
But not everyone is as concerned. ATID’s Zackin believes that during times of stress, people are more willing to seek out spiritual guidance and religious community, and if temples can find a way to make themselves more financially accessible, people will be happy to join.
“People’s enthusiasm for community seems to continue to build,” she said. “When other areas of their lives are tentative, they seem to want more discussions about how they can keep their spirit thriving.”