by Dr. Gerhard Falk
Money - the Two Edged
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.
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”.
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”.
then, is one side of the “double edged sword”.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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
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?”
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.
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
Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications,
including Stigma: How We Treat Outsiders.