Money in Jewish Life

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk

Money - the Two Edged Sword 

Every year as Rosh Hashanah approaches we hear some of our fellow Jews complain that the “shul” or Beth HaTefillah is “just a business”.  The argument of these complainers is that synagogues require that those wishing to pray there on the High Holy Days buy a ticket in advance so as to gain entry to the services. The complainers say that it is disgusting to be asked to pay to pray and they tell the old joke about Cohen who came to the door of the Temple without a ticket. The door man refused him entry. Cohen protested that he came to get Dr. Goldstein who was needed at the hospital at once. The doorman called the synagogue president who told Cohen, “You can go in and get Dr. Goldstein, but don’t let me catch you praying.”  Of course, for 362 days a year, the complainers can come to any “shul” without paying one cent but do not come.

Jokes don’t pay the bills. The membership pays the bills. Evidently, the lights must be turned on. The heat and air conditioning must be paid. The parking lot must be paved. The snow must be removed. The hole in the roof must be fixed. The security alarm must be installed. The “necessary room” must be supplied and kept clean. Prayer books and Bibles must be supplied.  The rabbi, cantor, and executive director cannot work for nothing. Somehow the teachers must be paid. They too eat and pay their rent. Then there must be a maintenance man. Secretaries are needed and so is a librarian. All this costs a great deal because there are not enough volunteers to do all the work the paid staff has to do.  Of course, without the volunteers and without the paid staff there cannot be a “shul”.

Now Mr. and Mrs. Complainer want their child to become Bat/Bar Mitzvah. Someone needs to teach the child Hebrew, Customs and Ceremonies, History etc. Therefore, the Beth HaTefillah must be there when the occasional Jews (Jews who come only on special occasions) arrive. Many of our most uninterested Jews nevertheless want the use of a synagogue for their wedding, the use of a plot for their funeral and the services of a rabbi at all occasions. They also want the annual “revolving door” every September as they come in on Rosh Hashanah and leave on Yom Kippur until next year.  Is it rational to believe that these facilities will all be there when the “occasional Jew” arrives unless some very dedicated Jews keep up the congregation all year, year in and year out?  Surely no one expects a country club to exist unless the membership pays the bills every day. This must therefore also be true of our synagogues. According to the American Jewish Committee, average synagogue membership dues are now $1,200 per year across the United States. There are of course Jews who cannot pay one hundred dollars a month. Therefore, others pay much more. This must be done because we will not and may not refuse any Jew membership in a congregation because he cannot pay. Yet, we all know that there are those who claim that they cannot afford the cost of membership and demand reductions despite a good income. We all know of Jews who can afford expensive vacations, expensive club memberships, immense entertainments and tremendous weddings but who balk at paying $600 a year to a “shul”.

This, then, is one side of the “double edged sword”.

The other side are the unforeseen consequences of erecting beautiful synagogue buildings, sponsoring expensive luncheons and dinners, spending upward of $5,000 on a Bat Mitzvah, and building more and more and more and more.

One of these consequences is that in many synagogues we suffer from competition between big spenders who seek to outdo each other in furnishing more and more expensive Bat/Bar Mitzvahs and weddings. The old joke about Mr. Hotzenplots applies here. Mr. H. asks a public relations firm to arrange his son’s Bar Mitzvah. The P/R men want to fly the 2,000 guests to Florida on chartered jets and conduct the Bar Mitzvah as all the guests jump out of the ‘planes in parachutes and the rabbi conducts the ceremony in midair.  Then the guests land on the beach and feast on shark. Mr. H. turns down this idea because he knows that the Levi Bar Mitzvah already used this. So he accepts the idea that all guests are flown to India where a long line of white elephants carry the guests into the jungle so as to feast on tiger meat. The line moves into the jungle. Mr. H. sits on the last elephant. Mother sits on the one ahead of him and the rabbi and the boy are in the front. Suddenly the line stops. Mr. H., unable to see ahead because of the thick vegetation, calls out, “what’s holding up the line?” After a long wait, mother turns around and repeats what she just heard from the guest on the elephant in front of her. “There is another Bar Mitzvah ahead of you.” You have heard that joke before, haven’t you?

In the course of all that ostentation, those who cannot afford to compete or find all that spending obnoxious will drop out of the congregation. The poor and near poor will feel that they don’t belong because they cannot afford a big “kiddush”. They may be right. Yet, every Jew is precious and no one should feel unwanted because of his financial standing.

 Another consequence of big spending is that many a poor Jew will not even attempt to enter a “shul” or temple or synagogue. There are Jews who feel embarrassed to be seen among their fellow Jews because they are poor. Poor Jews, who cannot compete with those who promote lavish weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, are excluded from the Jewish community not because anyone deliberately excludes them but because the Jewish community is so structured as to prevent their participation. The poor have no transportation and cannot come to the suburbs to attend a synagogue. The poor cannot participate in the public effort to sell and buy Israel Bonds. The poor cannot afford synagogue dinners nor can they contribute to building funds and/or the UJA. For all these reasons the poor feel that they are driven away from the Jewish community.

Consider someone who wants to sponsor a “kiddush” but cannot afford more than $300. Fearing that he will become the target of insidious gossip and banal innuendo, he therefore sponsors nothing. Who is the loser in that situation?

The average American income last year was $25,000 for all who worked. The average Jewish income last year was $50,000. The attendant largesse associated with such incomes is reflected in our stained glass windows, in our outsized contributions to all kinds of “causes” other than Judaism, in sending our children to private schools and “Ivy League” colleges, in driving late model luxury cars and in endless after-school activities for our children. Evidently, a poor Jew cannot let his children be pained by seeing all that. Therefore the poor must stay away from all Jewish activities and seek the company of others. The longer this process continues, the fewer the poor among us, so that many American Jewish children have no idea that it is possible to survive without a French Riviera vacation.

Extreme wealth coupled with arrogance stemming from living among the rich and super rich undermines the message of Judaism. The Talmud declares that God says, “The poor are my people,” and Maimonides wrote, “It is to be feared that those who become great in riches …….fall into the vices of insolence,” and the prophet Isaiah declares, “What mean ye that ye crush my people and grind the face of the poor?”

We are then caught in a dilemma. We need to encourage those who can do so to contribute to our synagogues all the time. Yet, we need to protect the poor from demeaning comparisons and innuendo. What is the answer? More giving, less display. More charity, less noise. More kindness, less fawning. More contributions, less publicity. More work, less gratitude. More recognition for the poor and more effort to help those who need help to help themselves. 

We Jews contribute far more than our share to charities both public and Jewish. Therein lies our great strength. To become stronger yet, we need to tell our youngsters and ourselves that we have survived so long and against all obstacles because we Jews give so much. We have survived so long because we always knew how to support the poor, help the widows and children among us, establish homes for the aged, teach our children, establish schools, support Israel and above all remember the first law of the Torah “—v’ohavto l’rayacho komaucha,”  which can be found in Leviticus, Chapter 19 v. 18. Take a look and be surprised.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Stigma:  How We Treat Outsiders.

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