Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Convert Questions: What's Up with Synagogue Membership Fees??

The existence of synagogue membership fees always seems to be a major shock to the new conversion candidate. Coming from mainstream American society, voluntary donations during a religious service are the expected way for the average person to donate money to a religious organization (whether the candidate was involved in Christianity or not). Now, as a person considering conversion to Judaism in any movement, they hear that synagogue "dues" range from $200-1,000 for a single person! Without paying dues, the person may pay more for synagogue events/tickets and also doesn't get a vote on synagogue policies. Normally, this person gets pretty indignant: "What a ridiculous idea! How could anyone afford that??" In the beginning, the inability to carry money on Shabbat helps placate the candidate a little.

But in short: that's the way things are, and you get used to it. In fact, over time, I've decided this is a much better system.

What are synagogue membership fees? They are a set fee paid to the synagogue for the privilege of being a "member" of the synagogue. They vary widely from synagogue to synagogue and city to city.

What if you can't afford them? Ask for a lower rate. The membership application should even say who should be asked. Yes, this will hurt your ego, but you will be neither the first nor the last person to ask. Every synagogue allows reduced rates for those with low incomes. Still, you will probably be asked to pay more than you really want to. In that case, do the math and see how much you will pay each month or week, and it will probably be a very small number. Considering the amount of money we spend on silly things without thinking, this number will probably be much less.

Worst case scenario: what if you can't pay anything towards membership? They're not going to make you leave. You will still have access to all services and any "regular" classes that don't have a separate fee. You should also have access to any other services that don't require a separate fee. For anything that requires a separate fee, you can most likely use/attend it with only paying the separate fee. For example, you should be able to pay the class or mikvah fee without having to pay a membership fee for the synagogue itself. This also comes into play when traveling, especially for mikvah use. And perhaps most importantly, you can still talk to the rabbi, get rulings, etc. Try not to abuse his time and kindness since membership dues are a significant source for paying his salary.

So what do these membership dues do? In short, they pay the synagogue's bills. The beauty of membership fees for the synagogues is that they are better able to budget their expenses without relying on an uncertain amount of cash in a plate each week.

What do membership dues do for you? First and foremost, you get voting rights within the synagogue community. (Of course, this is the source of shul politics, which is a nasty thing.) You should also get benefits, such as reduced prices for classes, events, mikvah, school for the kids, etc. Each shul will be different. The dues may or may not pay for "High Holyday tickets," which are a similar shock. Basically, the demand for synagogue seats on the High Holydays can be incredibly high because of "Once a Year Jews." Tickets allow the synagogue to guarantee seats to the people who wish to attend, as well as being sure that the number of attendees is below the occupancy limit set by the fire marshall.

Now the $1 million question: Can conversion candidates be synagogue members? It depends on the synagogue. My hunch is that most, if not a significant majority, don't allow it. It's just easier to have a blanket, easy-to-apply policy instead of considering each person on a case-by-case basis. But see the worst case scenario section above; you can still have access to the classes and rabbi, etc. Remember that a synagogue with a policy not allowing pre-converts to be members will not allow a convert whose conversion they don't recognize to join. You will be grouped with pre-converts/non-Jews. For reform converts, most conservative synagogues allow at least some reform converts to be considered Jews for the purposes of the conservative movement. However, even though the national Conservative organization "ruled" in favor of this, every conservative synagogue is able to decide which teshuvot to follow between minority and majority opinions.

All that said, some shuls allow it. Some shuls even allow Christians and other obviously-not-Jewish people to become members! You never know. So ask.

After my conservative conversion, the first thing I did was pay membership dues, and I have never felt so much pride and ownership in turning over a check. I think this is a very tangible way for converts to immediately feel some ownership of the community as a new Jew.


  1. Maybe I can shed a little light on how *some* synagogues will view membership and potential members. At an earlier time in our history, communities kept a 'register' or 'pinkas ha-ir'. The register contained information about the Jews in the community. Births, deaths, marriages, divorces. If a person was listed in the community register, it helped to establish their identity as a Jew. This would be referred to when determining if they were eligible to marry, for instance.

    A contemporary orthodox synagogue may view membership in a similar, though not identical, manner. They will want to be sure that the people they accept as members are indeed Jews according to halacha, because that membership may be seen as some as a larger statement about the individual member. Once someone is known as a member of Congregation X, they will be seen as a Jew by the larger community. Because of that responsibility, they may be cautious about members and require personal information when someone comes to join.

  2. Totally in agreement with Rabbi Scher.

    Membership dues are hard to afford in this economy, but these go to the upkeep of the shul where we daven, the Rabbi's salary, etc - How can you attend a place of worship so often, a place of such deep spiritual sustenance, without feeling a bit of ownership? Shuls are not there to make profits, and they need funding.

    Great Post!

  3. At my Shul they told me that I could be a member when my conversion if finalize. But until them I am paying a donation the size of the fee to help support my shul.

  4. Good for you, Joseph. It isn't "all about money", but then, maintaining a community has it's expenses and upkeep costs. We are family, and it isn't too much for us to expect ourselves to chip in to keep our home solvent.--the Curmudgeonly Israeli Giyoret.

  5. I'm in a slightly weird situation, in that I had to move out of my (Conservative) community (and out of the country!) very shortly after my conversion was complete due to my work. I had actually intended to pay the membership dues and be a member in my "home" community even though I wouldn't be there, because this was the community and synagogue that supported me during my conversion and has supported me from afar now that I'm in a foreign country. So the least I could do, it seemed to me, was help them out in terms of some membership dues. But when I mentioned it to my rabbi, he told me that while he appreciated it, I shouldn't pay my dues there, but at whatever shul I ended up attending during my time overseas (honestly, I probably would have ended up paying both). So instead, I gave a check to the rabbi's discretionary fund.

    I will say that at no point during the entire conversion did anyone raise the issue of either dues, membership or money to me until I actually went to the mikvah and had to pay for that. I know that's not always the experience of people who convert, so I was pleasantly surprised in that regard.

    Synagogue dues used to bother me a little, but now I don't really mind the idea. First of all, you shouldn't be handling money on Shabbos, so giving during services really doesn't make sense unless your synagogue's weekday minyans are consistently huge. Secondly, aside from community and spiritual support in general, I was attending services and programs at my synagogue easily four or five different days a week. Plus there's things like Hebrew school, daycare, basic upkeep... all of that stuff is critical to community viability, IMHO, so while I may not use, say, the Hebrew school (yet, anyway), I think it's certainly beneficial to my synagogue to have highly Jewishly educated children who love being Jewish, have a solid religious foundation and don't feel like their Jewish education is a random afterthought on the part of the synagogue membership. In that context, I think synagogue dues are a worthy thing to spend your money on, for one, and really, really important to your shul and the larger Jewish community.

    Also, figure dues run about a thousand bucks a year. That comes out to less than a hundred dollars a month, which is cheaper than most gym memberships and only slightly more expensive than cable in most areas. If you'll spend, say, fifty bucks a month on Netflix, it's probably not that terrible to shell out a hundred to support your religious community, assuming that's something important to you (which it probably is, if you're going to the trouble to convert).

  6. http://scoopsandiego.com/faith_values/synagogue-blazes-trail-in-new-financing-model/article_fc1b7960-f187-11e3-a68b-001a4bcf6878.html

  7. I wish dues were only $500 - $1,000! Try $2,800 per year plus a mandatory $500 building fee, for anyone over 35. Yikes! That $3,300 does not include Hebrew school, bar/bat mitzvah, adult classes, or high holiday tickets.

    I'm very glad that rabbis do not live in the same penury that pastors and priests live in, and I have been the happy recipient of much rabbinical time. I'm just feeling the sticker shock big-time!

    If synagogues are bleeding members, especially younger members, I'd think the price is a big part of it. I'll pay, but I can imagine a lot of people would rather just not be a member, instead of feeling like a mooch or a charity case by asking for lower dues. It would make more sense to have lower dues and a lot more members.

    1. I agree 100%. I am currently a member of a synagogue in my neighborhood and pay the kind of fees that you're talking about ($3500.00 per year). But as soon as my last child is Bat Mitzvahed next year, I will be leaving and looking for a cheaper alternative, even if I have to drive a longer distance.

      In my opinion, these synagogues are hurting themselves with such high fees.

  8. I just finished my conversion and am going to apply to join my shul. The fees are fair and I do think that's a better system than asking for donations because it is more predictable in terms of cash flow. I am a single widow and I know that the shul is mostly family oriented, but it has helped me enormously in dealing with my grief, so I want to give back.

  9. Just came across this. The problem really is that the big synagogues (i.e. their boards) don't do what needs to be done and just rely on rich members to sustain the congregation. For example, when a synagogue is half empty or worse, you need to ask if you have the right rabbi for the job, even if he's been there for over a decade and gives the synagogue a certain level of prominence. You further need to ask whether you really need all the extra space, the classrooms (if any) etc. Can the building be downsized and extra land sold? Can there be a way to involve Jews of different observance in a side minyan or events rather than every synagogue fighting over the same longtime members?

    There really should be a limit on donations per person because outsized donations only allow problems to persist. It's like doubling-down on a losing investment. The few wealthy people are happy because they feel they are contributing to a cause, but it's just a mirage that doesn't solve the problems. Problems need to be addressed and fixed immediately if there is to be any hope for a turnaround.