I remember a conversation I once had with my dad many years ago. He was paying bills one Sunday evening and I noticed that he was writing a check to the synagogue. This led to a discussion about religion and my asking him the question “Why do we have to pay to pray to God?”
Of course we really could pray anywhere. Synagogues are more than just places to pray – they are about community, learning, social justice. If you are taking the time to read my blog you know all of this. The fact is that to operate a synagogue – with staff, a building, and a programming agenda – it does cost money.
There are, however, many free aspects to synagogue life.
Attending Shabbat Worship services at 99.9% of the synagogues in the world – there is no charge for that.
Last year, one blog I wrote was about Free Worship offerings on the High Holy Days. Recently, a colleague told me about Central Reform Congregation in the heart of St. Louis that rents out a hotel ballroom for its High Holy Day worship with the expressed purpose to be there for anyone who wants to attend.
What happens when someone who is not a paying member wants something beyond the free “basics”?
A Millennial couple, Abby and Mike, just had a baby and call your Cantor to inquire about a baby naming. The Cantor is their peer, and she has young children. Abby and Mike really want to have a baby naming – maybe to please their parents, or maybe to connect with their own traditions. They are not really thinking about synagogue membership. But having a baby naming is important to them.
Should the cantor do the baby naming?
Of course she should. Abby and Mike might not be interested in becoming members now, but the Cantor leading a baby naming should leave a lasting positive impression. Maybe when the Cantor emails or texts them to come to a play group for young families, or to bring the baby to a Tot Shabbat to meet other young parents Abby and Mike will be willing to participate.
Mark and Linda, a couple of baby boomers used to be members of your temple. Once their youngest child had his Bar Mitzvah, they were no longer interested in being members. But they still live in the community. Linda’s mom just died. She needs a cemetery plot and help with all that goes into planning a funeral, and would of course benefit from the pastoral care of the rabbi who Mark and Linda still bump into around town on occasion and exchange warm greetings. They still think of the rabbi as “their rabbi”, despite no longer being members.
What should the rabbi do?
Some synagogues have hard and fast rules about this: Mark and Linda are no longer members and the funeral and pastoral services are a benefit of membership. “We are sorry for your loss-here is the number of the funeral home”. To me, derech eretz (the right thing to do) is to be helpful to Mark and Linda in what is truly a difficult time. Maybe it goes against the reasons why there are benefits just for members. Maybe Mark and Linda will become members again. Or make a donation to the synagogue. Or both.
Doing the right thing is something that my parents have ingrained in me.
A rabbi friend recently shared with me this story: She is the part time rabbi – one Shabbat a month – for a 60 family congregation. Herb is a fellow who lives in the community, but has never been a synagogue member. He became ill and was hospitalized. He called the synagogue and asked if there was someone who could come and visit with him and sit with him at the hospital. So for several days, congregants organized themselves to be sure that there was someone to visit and to sit with Herb during the hospital’s visiting hours.
Herb left the hospital and went home. A few months later he passed away. While I don’t know what happened in terms of Herb’s funeral arrangements, I do know that Herb left the synagogue 50% of his estate that amounted to about $185,000.
We should do this community engagement because it is the right thing to do. To help people at a challenging time, and help them grow Jewishly. If it leads to new members, or even a bequest, that is great, too.