Friday, August 17, 2012

The True Meaning of the Month of Elul

For Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Elul, here’s a tweet from the Old World:

Schver zu sein ein yid – It’s hard to be a Jew.

While this bit of wry, world-weary wisdom might sound dated to 21st Century ears, it rang true for virtually every generation of Jew in virtually every country in this world until the second half of the Twentieth Century.

Today, a truer tagline might be: It’s expensive to be a Jew.

Of course, the high price tag of North American Jewish life is linked to our success as a community with all the edifices and accoutrements of a high-functioning social group. Among our proudest achievements: magnificent houses of worship that we must keep functional, filled and fabulous.

But filled pews may be a misleading indication of a successful kehilla, if one is to believe a recent Forward article. This piece posits that only half of those who claim to belong to Reform and Conservative synagogues in the greater New York area are actually dues-paying members.

Based on the recent NYC Community Study commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York, the Forward recently reported that:

Roughly twice as many people consider themselves members of synagogues as the number of people that actually pay dues to those congregations.
That’s one intriguing interpretation of a discrepancy that surfaced within the data collected in UJA-Federation of New York’s recent survey of Jews in the New York area.

Clearly, I cannot speak on behalf of my Reform brethren. And while I do not deny that some people of means indeed frequent synagogues without ever paying membership dues, alleging that half of those claiming to belong to a Conservative synagogue are actually full-time visitors is not only inaccurate but irresponsible as well.

I know this from visiting our kehillot and I know this from speaking with Conservative rabbis. The Forward article does a great disservice to our community by portraying a large number of the Jews in our pews either as greatly impoverished or opportunistic freeloaders.

More to the point of a constructive conversation is the comments thread spawned by the article, which focuses primarily on the high cost of being Jewish in North America. So let me turn this conversation on its head and address the individuals or families in our kehillot who would like to pay their dues…but are truly financially strapped.

First, the good news: I do not know of any synagogue belonging to USCJ that would turn away a member or family for lack of funds, especially during this time of national financial hardship. In times of crisis, including financial crisis, a synagogue should be the first place to turn.

Indeed, most synagogues will provide a sliding scale for membership. Members who are truly unable to pay their complete dues – or even a portion thereof – always have recourse by arranging a meeting with a kehilla representative (depending on the synagogue, it could be the rabbi, cantor, executive director, president, a member of the board…or all the above) to discuss options.

If I may offer my own suggestion for individuals or families struggling with cash flow, it would be to barter: offer services in exchange for payment, until the crisis abates. A kehilla is only as strong as its members. Volunteer to give a class in adult education, teach b’nai mitzvah or become part of the annual dinner committee. Lend your professional expertise in ways that would benefit the synagogue. The creative, dedicated involvement of members not only builds a tightly-knit kehilla, but can provide synagogues with help that can generate revenue.

Instead of the crushing hardship, prejudice and persecution that went along with being a Jew, we now have the high expense of being Jewish. Yes, we had the blessing of the flush years yet now, during leaner times, we still have the freedom and security to lead wholly Jewish lives in most places on earth.

The current economic downturn has wreaked havoc widely. And times are tough for Jews mostly because of the high price tag of being Jewish. Let us remember that times are tough but not because of persecution.  As North American Jews, we had only the blessing for so many decades; it is as if we lived the fruition of God’s promise to the Jewish people in this week’s parasha, Re’eh. Though times are difficult, we are still abundantly blessed. We have built a remarkable, strong and multi-layered Jewish community. We will overcome this difficult moment.

I believe that part of the solution lies in re-envisioning our synagogues as the sacred centers of our communities and not as clubs that require sold memberships.  To begin this transformation, we have to imbue the prospect of belonging to a kehilla as part of our sacred mission as Jews. Visit my blog in the coming months for more writing on this critical matter.

Rosh Hodesh Elul is the perfect moment to start this transformative process. Now is the time to turn to your local kehilla to seek the support of a caring community, to be inspired by your rabbi, to provide succor and assistance to others less fortunate, to take a mind-expanding adult education course, to meet new people, to get involved, to barter your skills and services, to help make it a mikdash – a sacred sanctuary.

If you are financially blessed, perhaps consider sponsoring the memberships of others who cannot afford to pay the full amount. If you are a well-networked person, be a connector and help others find work.

In the spirit of Elul, let us live by the acronymic meaning the rabbis assigned to the month: Ani l’Dodi v’Dodi li.

I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me.

These words are meant to inspire us to draw closer to God during this month, leading up to the Jewish High Holidays. These words also are the words often engraved on Jewish wedding bands and ketubot.

Let us adapt this phrase within our kehillot during the month of Elul and beyond. Let us inspire the members of our kehillot to fully live the blessing of being Jewish in the contemporary world.

1 comment:

  1. Rabbi Wernick: I disagree with you regarding your thoughts about the Forward's article. The article states the newspaper asked the USCJ for the paid membership numbers of NYC area Conservative synagogues just like it had received from the URJ. Unfortunately the USCJ for reasons we don't know did not share that information. In my humble opinion the USCJ has no one to blame but itself for this article that does not show the Conservative movement in the NYC area in the best light. Sincerely, Jonathan Loring Pittsburgh PA