American Jewry has been moaning about declining synagogue membership for as long as I can remember. In fact, however, shul membership has not really dropped much in the past 50 years. In the late 1950s, an estimated 60 percent of American Jews belonged to a synagogue; according to the most recent stats — the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study — that number is now 47 percent. Not a huge difference, certainly when compared to the first half of the 20th century, when the number of synagogues exploded and membership rates tripled.
Nevertheless, Jews are worried. And lots of smart folks have come up with all kinds of notions about how to get more Jews in those pews — on a paying basis.
Few have suggested anything as radical as communications specialist Noam Neusner, who penned an op-ed in the July 13 issue of the Forward. He pointed out that while he’s a loyal member of his Conservative synagogue, he regularly attends two other shuls, yet only the synagogue he belongs to gets his dues.
“Doesn’t seem fair, does it?” he writes.
What if, he posits, he were able to divvy up his dues according to how often he uses the services of each synagogue? And what if this were a communal affair, managed by a central Jewish institution — a federation, for example — where one could deposit a yearly sum equivalent to a year’s worth of synagogue dues, and receive a certain number of chits one would hand over to a synagogue when walking in the door?
Neusner suggests calling the chits “zuzim,” like the “Chad Gadya” song in the Passover Hagaddah. Periodically, synagogues could redeem their zuzim for cash at federation offices.
“If my loyalties and attendance were divided, so, too, would be my synagogue membership dollars,” he writes. “This would end the problem of people like me freeloading.”
At first blush, it sounds pretty socialist — from each, to each, etc. But as Neusner teases out his argument, the capitalist roots of the system quickly become apparent. In the quest for more zuzim, synagogues would have to compete with each other not once a year, when dues are pledged, but constantly.
This would encourage entrepreneurship and creativity, he argues. Shuls could offer loyalty programs, like free trips to Israel if you pre-pledge all your zuzim. Perks could be thrown in — discounts for summer camp, the best b’nai mitzvah slots.
I thought it was a pretty cool idea. I was so hepped up that I emailed Neusner’s essay to Rabbi Marv Goodman, executive director of the Northern California Board of Rabbis and rabbi-in-residence at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.
He quashed my enthusiasm right away.
“I don’t think it will work,” he said, raising one eyebrow (he was on the phone, but I could feel his forehead wrinkling). First, he said, Neusner’s plan doesn’t provide incentive to join a synagogue, so how could shuls budget for the future? (Neusner also admitted this is a flaw in his system.) Second, it assumes that what people want from shuls are just religious services and programs — how do you quantify a hand on a shoulder at a time of need?
Worst of all, Goodman said, is the negative atmosphere this kind of competitiveness would create in the community. “I don’t think it would even get off the starting block,” he concluded.
That said, it’s clear that Neusner is tackling a real problem, one we address in this week’s cover story — how to sustain the infrastructure that permits us to engage in Jewish life. At least Neusner proffered an idea. “Maybe he put it out there to get people thinking,” Goodman suggested.
That’s what Jennifer Gorovitz thinks, too. Pointing out that the S.F.-based federation she heads “stands ready to help” with its Reducing Barriers and Increasing Access to Jewish Life initiative and its Innovation Fund, she wrote: “I applaud the notion of opening a dialogue about how to better ensure both synagogue sustainability and engagement in them. I applaud the notion of incentivizing innovation. While this may not be the ultimate answer to synagogues’ dwindling numbers and financial woes, we need bold solutions proposed and openly discussed.”
Working together, so none will fail — a great concept, with or without zuzim.
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.