How should we pay for our synagogues? This ongoing challenge is getting renewed interest as many traditional congregations struggle with debt and an aging membership.
In this context, it’s helpful to know that American synagogue financing has changed a great deal over the past three centuries. Rabbi Daniel Judson, the dean of the rabbinical school at Hebrew College, in Boston, has written a detailed history of the surprisingly pragmatic approaches that congregations have taken to covering their expenses, “Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money” (Brandeis University Press, 2018).
Judson, who spoke at Providence’s Temple Emanu-El last year, elevates what might have been a dry academic history into one with remarkable relevance today.
From 1728 to 1805, only a few Jewish congregations existed, and these depended on the irregular patronage of wealthy merchants.
After 1805, with a strong economy and greater confidence in their place in society, Jews built more and bigger synagogues. But these projects required a broader and more dependable base of support. So they copied their Christian neighbors – specifically, the Protestants – and sold seats, with those nearest the bimah costing the most. These were essentially seat licenses, where the buyer paid an upfront amount and then an annual assessment.
This system worked fairly well until a wave of patriotic, democratic feeling spread across the country after World War I. The class-based seating system now seemed intolerably elitist.
The system also became impractical as wealthier congregations built large synagogues that hosted a variety of activities besides worship (“the shul with a pool”). With such broad offerings, congregations sought more members than they had seats. So they switched to the familiar dues system of today, either a set amount for all families, or different levels depending on family income and situation.
In this second shift, Jews differed from Protestants, who found themselves unable to require a set level of giving. With society becoming increasingly secular, their churches moved toward voluntary giving based on religious ideas of stewardship.
Synagogue boards, by contrast, were so confident that people would affiliate that they went ahead with the mandatory assessments.
The ties of community and identity were strong, and the system worked fairly well for decades.
A similar dynamic happened with rabbinic salaries, as congregations increasingly wanted their clergy to be highly educated professionals in the upper-middle class. Churches, meanwhile, sought ministers who followed a calling and accepted lower salaries.
The current difficulties, Judson suggests, are the result of ever more affluent congregations seeking ever more elaborate programming and amenities, which raises the dues beyond what many younger or less-affluent families and individuals can afford. The result is a cost squeeze where fewer people must shoulder more of the expenses.
Many of these unaffiliated Jews attend services in non-traditional settings, where earlier practices are followed. These services tend to be in simpler buildings, often rented, without professional clergy, and charge little, if anything. Chabad, for example, makes the economics work by relying on a group of wealthy funders as well as highly motivated rabbis willing to live on modest incomes.
To address the cost squeeze, Judson concludes, future congregations will likely meet in smaller buildings, or at least use their space more efficiently. Average rabbinic pay is likely to fall as well, even as many wealthy congregations continue their current practices.
To this analysis, I would add one more recent development, only hinted at in the book. Congregations in earlier centuries could be confident that many Jews would join, if only
for social reasons. But now that much of the past discrimination has fallen away and Jews are free to assimilate into secular society, congregations may end up imitating Christian approaches again. Affiliation, as well as funding mechanisms, may be driven less by pragmatism and more by religious interest.
Judson concludes by citing rising interest in voluntary dues, which the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, in New York City, pioneered in 1907, but later abandoned. Sixty congregations have now adopted this approach. Despite initial fears of falling dues, he says these congregations “have almost uniformly reported modest success in raising revenue and finding new members.”
One of these is Temple Emanu-El, whose “Gift of the Heart” program has congregants setting their own dues after learning about the synagogue’s expenses. Since 2014, the program has boosted giving by 5 percent, while nicely stabilizing the membership.
Judson’s thoughtful history suggests we are in another once-in-a-century transitional period in synagogue funding. But given the increasingly differentiated Jewish landscape, we’re likely to end up with a variety of approaches to financing, rather than a single dominant policy.
JOHN LANDRY is a historian in Providence, where he serves on Temple Emanu-El’s adult education committee.