QUESTION: In a recent Newsletter article, My Graveside Religion , your missionary Guillermo Katz said that his family did not belong to the synagogue because it was too expensive. Coming from a Protestant background, I don’t understand that. I always assumed that synagogue was just the Jewish counterpart of church. As church members we show up on the proper day and worship with the others. We take up an offering, but no one gets kicked out if they don’t contribute. How could a synagogue be too expensive?
ANSWER: Synagogues are like churches in that both are houses of worship and religious study, and both incur the expenses of upkeep and paid clergy. Nevertheless, the financial support systems are different from one another.
The synagogue counterparts to church services are Friday evening and/or Saturday morning. Offerings could not be taken during these Sabbath worship times because among observant Jews it is considered a sin to handle money or write checks on the Sabbath. (Certain holidays are also designated as a kind of Sabbath in Scripture.
Also, while most serious church members attend church at least once a week, and usually more often, many Jewish people attend synagogue only on special occasions and major holidays like Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Because of this, a weekly collection might not yield sufficient funds to pay for the rabbi’s salary and general upkeep of the synagogue and its staff.
Instead of offerings to meet their expenses, synagogues use two other means. They schedule congregational pledge times at least once a year (usually on the Jewish High Holidays), and charge annual membership fees. Paid memberships insure reserved seats for holidays when the sanctuaries are usually very crowded, as well as open seating for weekly worship and special events during the remainder of the year. For an additional fee, weekly Sunday School instruction for the children is also available. The Sunday School fee can cost as much as the basic membership fee. When Guillermo Katz wrote that his family could not afford the local synagogue, he probably was referring to the annual fees for membership and Sunday School instruction.
In all fairness, most U.S. synagogues do not exclude anyone from worship. As long as there are empty seats and worshipers are properly attired (skullcaps for the men), anyone usually can walk into a synagogue and participate in worship on a Friday night or Saturday morning. In addition, synagogues usually set aside a few unreserved seats at varied prices for High Holiday rental by those who do not maintain full synagogue membership nor send their children to Sunday School. There might even be a few free holiday seats for those who declared absolute poverty, but most Jewish people feel such a strong need to be self-sufficient that they would consider such charity too demeaning to accept.