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Jewish Journal

Economic Peril: Making the High Holiday Synagogue Nut

by Pini Herman

September 10, 2012 | 12:12 pm


All Others Please Pay in Cash

Now in its 24th year, the modest lay-lead, no-employees, Movable Minyan has to make the lion’s share of its yearly budget from its modest membership dues timed to be paid around the High Holidays. 

This seems to be the rule for almost all U.S. synagogues. Unless a synagogue owns a high volume cemetery, a working oil well or some other such cash-spewing asset, data driven research by Sacha Litman of Measuring Success indicates that it's the High Holidays, the memberships and tickets generated, keeping most synagogues he’s looked at afloat.  

The research funded by UJA Federation of New York found, in the synagogues examined, that early childhood education, adult education, religious school, Hebrew day school and even bar/bat mitzvahs were generally fiscal loss-leaders for the synagogues. 

It's the High Holiday attendance. 71 percent of Los Angeles Jews attended Jewish religious services at least once a year, fifteen years ago in 1996 when the last LA Jewish Population Survey was fielded.  At that time, one-third (34 percent), were actually dues paying members of a synagogue.  

This leaves a gap of about half the Jewish community who chooses to attend services and perhaps not paying anything.  My local friendly neighborhood schul, the Orthodox Ohev Shalom, near Fairfax and Sixth Street has given up on enforcing seat tickets for the High Holidays and only an estimated fifth of the people attending actually buy tickets or memberships in the approximately 200 seat sanctuary.

The synagogue economic model for the U.S. is broken, and it’s not news that synagogues are consolidating, merging or closing. Even the Chabad entrepreneurial model, built somewhat similarly on the low income Salvation Army or Catholic cleric staff model, is not viable in the long term in the U.S. where, while maintaining a laudable separation from religion, state funding for religious services is limited.

As Litman writes of his initial findings:

A clear trend emerged: respondents at nearly all income levels did not have an issue with the price of synagogue membership in itself; the problem was with the lack of perceived value they felt they got for their membership dollars. Let’s try to understand “value for the dollar” using an example with which we are all familiar: dining in restaurants. Most of us would be happy to pay $40 a person for a dinner in a fine restaurant because it delivers a great experience on multiple levels. But charge $40 or even $20 a person for mediocre food with a cafeteria-style atmosphere, and few if any would choose to eat there. Applied to synagogues, if a member regularly attends Shabbat services, takes advantage of adult education classes, uses pastoral services, and has a close circle of friends at the synagogue, $2,000 seems like a great price. But if a synagogue member attends only on High Holidays, $2,000 seems exorbitant, and even 1,000 seems unjustified....

….Interestingly, our data showed that the strongest driver of value for the dollar is the degree to which respondents feel the synagogue is transparent with how it manages its budget. For example, in most synagogues, a portion of empty nesters’ membership fees go to subsidize religious school for younger families. If subsidizing religious school is a core value of the synagogue, then that must be regularly taught and communicated. Younger families should appreciate that they are being subsidized, and recognize that if they leave the synagogue after b’nai mitzvah, the financial model does not work. And if empty nesters understand that they are subsidizing religious school families, just as the prior generation did for them, then they can feel good about their contribution. Pooling money is critical to building a community. But if we treat the synagogue budget as a black box, then the congregants will not understand the values of the synagogue or see value for their membership dollars, and they will disconnect.

Now, that the basic economics of Jewish synagogue life are transparent, it’s ever more important to pay for those memberships and High Holiday seats. Essentially, the American synagogue business model mimics the two week Passover matza season.  If half or more of Jews don’t pay for High Holiday or Passover goods, mainly during those small windows of the Jewish calendar, then the next year’s offerings are likely to be much thinner.

Pini Herman, PhD. has served as Asst. Research Professor at the University of Southern California Dept. of Geography,  Adjunct Lecturer at the USC School of Social Work,  Research Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles following Bruce Phillips, PhD. in that position (and author of the “most recent” 15 year old study of the LA Jewish population which was the third most downloaded study from Berman Jewish Policy Archives in 2011) and is a past President of the Movable Minyan a lay-lead independent congregation in the 3rd Street area. Currently he is a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. To email Pini: pini00003@gmail.com To follow Pini on Twitter:

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Bruce Phillips is Professor of Sociology and Jewish Communal Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. He has conducted Jewish population...

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