As High Holy Days approach, synagogues under financial strain
NEW YORK - The calls come in nearly every day.
“Rabbi, I can’t make the donation I promised.’’ “I can’t afford my synagogue dues.’’ “I can’t even pay my mortgage.’’ The callers say they are humiliated at the prospect of becoming objects of pity in the congregation and try to quietly quit without telling the other families.
“I have had more of those conversations in the last year than I’ve had in my 31 years here,’’ said Rabbi Charles Klein of Merrick Jewish Centre on Long Island, where many members have been laid off from the financial industry.
The Jewish High Holy Days will begin Sept. 18 with people leaning heavily on synagogues for help. Rabbis are telling the worst-off members they can stop paying dues until their finances improve, even though the synagogues themselves are hurting. Congregations have stepped in to offer aid that ranges from counseling to money for medicine. Fund-raising appeals during the holidays will focus on keeping the service programs and the synagogues afloat.
The Merrick congregation created a fund that covers struggling members’ bills, and drafted volunteers who advise the jobless on resumes and interviewing. A social worker provides free counseling.
Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Mich., formed a job network and a support group for teens stressed by their parents’ financial plight. Many in the congregation of about 3,300 families worked for automakers or had jobs linked to the industry.
The increased need comes at a time when many synagogues have their own money woes.
Investment income and donations are down and Jewish philanthropies are making fewer grants. Some foundations were wrecked by the Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff, although the scandal has had little direct impact on synagogue life so far. Overall, US Jewish organizations are estimated to have lost 25 percent of their wealth in the downturn, according to Steven Bayme, a specialist in contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee in New York.
Still, the most significant losses for congregations come from members who are unable to pay dues, which can run into thousands of dollars per family. (Synagogues charge a fee that covers much of a congregation’s budget.)
Rabbi Brian Zimmerman of the Union for Reform Judaism, who works with synagogues in the South and Southwest, said clergy in the worst-off states report up to one-quarter of their congregants can’t pay full dues.
Dues are an especially sensitive issue around Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when congregants are often required to be paid up to get seats in packed sanctuaries. Nonmembers who wish to attend holiday services usually must buy tickets, which can range from $200 to $650 for the 10 days.
Rabbis say they are making concessions so no struggling member is turned away.
Those adjustments, along with the other drops in income, have left synagogues with painful spending decisions of their own. They have frozen or reduced salaries, put off repairs on their buildings, cut jobs, and eliminated programs.
The High Holy Days are usually a period when synagogues can make up for shortfalls. Many fund-raise on Yom Kippur, when Jews recite the Yizkor memorial prayer, in which they pledge charity in the name of the deceased.