Jewish Journal

A Synagogue Isn’t a Market

by Susan Esther Barnes

July 11, 2012 | 7:00 am

Noam Neusner thinks he has come up with the ideal solution to synagogue dues in “The Marketplace for Synagogues” at The Jewish Daily Forward. He suggests that we buy tickets from a Jewish Federation, which we would then turn in when we attend synagogue services. The synagogues, in turn, would deliver the tickets to the Federation in return for money. Thus, for those who attend more than one synagogue, membership money would be distributed based on attendance.

There are so many flaws with this model, it’s hard for me to decide where to start. Setting aside the inefficiencies created in ticket-handling, budgeting instability, and speculation about how big a “cut” the Federation would get in all this, let’s turn to some of its more obvious consequences.

First of all, is Noam suggesting that every synagogue have someone stationed at the front door, collecting tickets? What if someone doesn’t have a ticket? Do we refuse them entrance? As it currently stands, our synagogue admits to services many people who aren’t members, including visitors from out of town, people considering conversion, local students, shul shoppers, etc.

Our synagogue gives full membership even to those who can’t afford dues. Noam suggests the Federation could sell discounted tickets to seniors or families, but what about those who can’t afford to pay at all? And what is to stop unscrupulous entrepreneurs from buying discounted tickets and then reselling them for a profit?

Another big flaw in Noam’s “solution” is that it pretends worship services are the only thing a synagogue provides. Although worship space and regular services are important elements, they are just one small piece of the myriad benefits of synagogue membership.

When my husband was in the emergency room, I didn’t want to attend services. What I wanted was the rabbi who showed up to comfort us. When my father died, what I needed was a minyan to say Kaddish with me at his grave. When I got married, what I wanted was a rabbi to perform the ceremony.

This is where the “fee for service” model starts to fall apart. Services are great, but during our times of greatest need – in sickness, mourning, and other life cycle events – we want our clergy and our community to be there for us. This is the most important thing a synagogue provides in addition to worship: Both clergy and a community that is there to help make the high points as high and long as possible, and to help keep the low points from being too low or too lengthy. And these not the times when anyone should be expected to start forking over tickets.

Where Noam’s model completely falls apart is in his buying into the notion that synagogue is a market and that members are, or should be, considered to be consumers at all. Rather, a synagogue is a place for transformative experiences.

As Rabbi Noa Kushner so eloquently put it in “Consuming the Consumers” at Sh’ma, synagogues and other Jewish institutions are successful when they transform “would-be consumers into generators, instigators, and producers of Jewish life.” Our job is not to perpetuate the notion of Jews as consumers, but to empower Jews to find what will engage them and catapult them down the road on their individual Jewish journey. “Our goal,” says Rabbi Kushner, “is to have people come in as consumers only to find that they are, like us, consumed.”

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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