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.

6 Comments on “Free

  1. Should the rabbi or cantor in your scenarios teach the folks seeking their personal services without becoming members about the ethical, spiritual and financial meaning of membership in a community? My concern about clergy not teaching in a timely fashion is that these folks may see themselves as clergy customers on a fee-for-service basis or (perhaps worse) as the beneficiaries of an institution’s largess. This could too easily devolve into an I/it relationship rather than an I/thou relationship with other people. These folks need to understand that they are choosing to have other local people subsidize their own choice not to join, regardless of their own financial ability to pay the membership costs. I agree with you enthusiastically that outreach to unaffiliated Jews is a critical mitzvah. But folks who make a longer-term commitment to non-membership even if they can afford to support a synagogue do need to hear — from either the clergy or lay leaders — why that personal choice may be ethically inappropriate.

    • Hey Bob,

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I really think this is a board/clergy conversation. Some congregations have no rules on this, so the rabbi or Cantor are able to perform such life cycle events on their own with no guidelines. And some congregations are pretty strict, that as I wrote in the blog, such lifecycle events are a benefit of membership.

      I think there is an opportunity here for engagement with clergy and the congregation. Want me to do a baby naming? Come to a Tot Shabbat. Have a discussion with the clergy if any payment goes to a discretionary fund or perhaps to a fund where any amount of a contribution entitles them to membership for one year, or the remainder of that year. My point is really about marketing, which I know you get, and engagement.

      As always, I greatly appreciate the fact that you always read my blog and feel free to comment with such thoughtful responses.



  2. The right thing to do is what your parents taught so many of us – even if we didn’t quite get it at the time. There is a benefit to the community when we all gather to support each other whenever there is a need, because the feeling that we are all alone dissipates. Not every one will reach out, like Herb did as you related in your post, so the community itself must be vigilant. By writing stories about others the way you do, you make the community self-aware of its role and importance – whether the community is defined as Jewish, as a synagogue, or just the folks that gather at the coffee shop once a week to tell stories and just be there for each other. A blessing to Rose and Lenny. Thanks, Dave.

    • Jeff,

      Thank you for writing and taking the time to read my blog. You are right, so many people are looking for community – from neighbors, from their kids’ school, the local coffee shop and synagogues. I enjoy bringing to life real stories of acts of kindness that happen in small sacred communities. Here is an example that other synagogue leaders and congregants should certainly follow.

      And thank you for the shout out about my parents and being there for us as role models and teachers at Camp Joseph/Naomi. I like to think that I also learned a thing or two from my counselors as well.

      Be well, Jeff!!



  3. So many interesting issues raised here. Honor system is good as long as we are willing to overlook the shnorers. However, word can get around encouraging others to take advantage. However, “doing the right thing” is taking the high ground of being exemplars to others.

    • Thanks so much for sharing. I always try and find the best in people and hope that they will do the right thing. But you never know!!

      Many thanks.



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