Explaining Synagogue Dues to Those Who Are New

Synagogue dues can be difficult to understand if you weren’t raised in a family that maintained a synagogue membership. Without knowledge of the variety of mechanisms that all religious institutions use to sustain themselves financially, some charge that synagogues require you to “pay to pray.” What follows is one way that you might explain synagogue dues to those who raise this objection.

All religious organizations need to raise money to operate. Synagogues and churches that have their own building need to pay operating costs, including electricity, heat, air conditioning, cleaning, building maintenance and repairs. Most have some payroll expenses, which include clergy, custodial staff, administrative staff, educators and more, dependent on the size of the congregation. And religious schools also have financial needs. Many schools pay their teachers and provide up-to-date educational materials and clean rooms that are furnished and well–lit. All these elements enrich your congregation, and they all cost money.

Someone who has not grown up with an understanding of why synagogues ask for dues may find it off-putting and compare it to the perceived welcome of Chabad or churches where there are no membership dues. But the comparisons don’t hold. Unlike churches, which “pass the plate” during services, synagogues are not able to ask for donations on Shabbat and holidays, which is when they are most able to reach their congregants.

There are several other mechanisms that churches use to obtain financial support:

  • Many churches will send each congregational family an envelope, pre-printed with the congregant’s name. These envelopes are placed in the collection basked each week.
  • Tithing is another vehicle churches use for financial support. The pastor and a congregational leader visit each household, discuss where the church and congregation are, and ask for a financial pledge payable over their fiscal year. (A tithe is a biblical measurement equivalent to ten percent of one’s income.)
  • Just as synagogues have special appeals, so do churches and other houses of worship. Holiday collections centered on Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter are commonplace.
  • Like a church, Chabad does not have membership dues. There is an understanding that once you are engaged with that Chabad chapter, you will provide financial support.

There is no such thing as “pay to pray.”  Our synagogues and most churches are open to all for worship.  But the reality is that even our basic expectations—of a well-kept, “comfortable temperature” building with clergy who are there for us and a school that will educate our children—cost money. Membership dues are just another way of collecting contributions and enabling all houses of worship to keep their doors open and the lights on.

One final thought: Without bread, there is no Torah.  Without Torah there is no bread. We provide the financial sustenance for our congregational home, and in return we receive spiritual sustenance from our congregation, through worship, study and community.

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Vicky Farhi

About Vicky Farhi

Vicky Farhi is the co-director of the URJ’s Expanding Our Reach Community of Practice.

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