Amid Covid Slump, Synagogues Finding it Pays to Innovate


In a sign of the times, the East End Temple in Gramercy Park is not sending congregants bills for dues this year. Instead, in a letter to its new members the Reform congregation is asking them to make a voluntary donation, continuing an experiment that began last year, “especially in light of the emotional pain and financial hardship that people are experiencing right now.”

Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative congregation in Closter, N.J., cut its dues by 25 percent this year “out of deep sensitivity to the realities of our world,” it said in a letter to members, adding that “if that relief does not suffice, we will work with you to ensure that Temple Emanu-El is a part of your family and your life during this time.”

And Bet Am Shalom Synagogue in White Plains is sending letters to families that owed the synagogue dues to say it is waiving all outstanding balances and asking for their support so the synagogue can continue to be there during the pandemic.

These congregations may be on the leading edge of change as synagogues rethink their financial picture and brace for what will likely be a profoundly different High Holiday season. Some of the changes in dues were already in the works, but the financial blow of the coronavirus pandemic upended old membership models.

And the change is not only due to affordability. Congregations are clearly worried about a possible loss of members who have not been able to enter their synagogues for four months.

During the last recession in 2008, non-Orthodox synagogues lost 20 percent of their members, according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, he said, one Chicago synagogue lost half its members.

“I’ve never known a recession where synagogue membership has not fallen off,” he said.

But Sarna said this year is different because he has “not seen people saying synagogues are superfluous, that they go only three times a year. Those who are members of synagogues are very positive about what their congregations are doing during the pandemic. I know people who think there will be a spiritual revival when things get back to normal because people are learning the value of community.”

In fact, Rabbi Joshua Stanton, spiritual leader of the East End Temple in Manhattan, said 75 families joined in the last year after the congregation experimented with voluntary donations. These families have told him “how lucky they feel to be part of a community during a year that has been so painful in other areas.”

Last year, the synagogue ran a successful pilot program of the voluntary dues plan, following the example of a small but growing number of synagogues who found that eliminating mandatory dues made the congregation seem more welcoming and eliminated fraught negotiations with families in financial distress. East End asks each new member to “consider” paying $1,730 per adult and explains why on its website. The plan was extended, says Rabbi Stanton, in light of the pandemic.

At Makom NY, an unaffiliated Long Island congregation that is liberal and embraces tradition, congregants are billed monthly, which makes paying dues more manageable during the pandemic, according to Rabbi Deborah Bravo.

“In this way congregants don’t feel they are paying $3,000 for just a Zoom service,” she said. “Because of our model, not many have said they can’t pay because they pay over time, including bar mitzvah and Hebrew school fees.”

When it comes to dues, the key words are “understanding and empathy,” said Rabbi Elie Weinstock of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan. “No request for funds or voluntary contribution is made without consideration of the fact that so many congregants have been impacted” financially, he said.

“We are not pushing people or in any way making it seem as if there will be a past due statement on people’s accounts,” Rabbi Weinstock added. “For those who are having difficulty we say, ‘That’s OK.’ There is a recognition that there will be less income and we have to adjust our spending.”

Tresa Grauer, Reconstructing Judaism’s vice president for Thriving Communities, said she is hearing that as her congregations prepare their budgets “they are considering the possibility that people may not be able to pay as they have in the past and are therefore budgeting less to account for the possibility of a reduction of dues.”

From Zoom to boom?

Beyond dues, empty synagogues are seeing their traditional roles upended — and sometimes enhanced — by the social distancing and isolation imposed by the pandemic.

Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, said rabbis have been doing classes on Zoom, “and some are reaching more people than they were before.”

Zoom programs have resulted in “more involvement from congregants than before, and allowed former congregants now living in Oregon and Florida to join the programs — and they are sending contributions as well,” said Rabbi Lester Bronstein of Bet Am Shalom Synagogue.

Grauer said the same thing is happening at other congregations, and there is even talk of creating a “virtual membership” for such far-flung congregants.

Amy Asin, vice president for strengthening congregations at the Union for Reform Judaism, said she has recently conducted a survey of a sample of the movement’s 850 Reform synagogues. She found that “people are more likely to feel more confident recommending their synagogue to others now than they were pre-pandemic. Congregations are not just doing adult education but also a tremendous amount of pastoral care. We have congregations in North America that have called every single congregant multiple times in the past four months. We have congregations taking care of their elderly and vulnerable congregants, doing grocery shopping for them and calling them weekly so they are not as lonely.”

When there are such efforts to “maintain a connection with congregants during the lockdown, congregants will make the effort to retain affiliation,” observed Barry Mael, senior director of synagogue affiliations and operations for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The Dix Hills (L.I.) Jewish Center leaned heavily into the “new normal” in a video emailed along with its dues statements. It showed the synagogue’s new front doors and the empty sanctuary with the Conservative congregation’s rabbi, Howard Buechler, standing in front of the Torahs in the open ark.

“If these scrolls could talk, they would remind us of how lonely the past few months have been during the pandemic,” he said. “We have not been defined by the darkness of the pandemic. We at the Dix Hills Jewish Center have Zoomed into your homes with the gifted blessings of life cycle events, daily prayers and Shabbat and holiday celebrations. … We have adapted and magically evolved, engaging everyone. We take care of our family and look out for the well-being of all.”

A similar message is coming from the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, L.I. Joel Levinson, its associate rabbi, said it began livestreaming Shabbat services two weeks ago even after starting in-person synagogue services after “recognizing that a lot of people cannot or should not come. We want to help people connect.”

The pandemic has also caused congregants to reflect on their own lives.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, N.J., observed that “so many people who may have viewed their spirituality, inner calm and prayer life as a luxury they did not have time for have now come to realize it is vital to their lives. … While it is certainly a challenge in the midst of the economic downturn to support any institutions, there is a strong desire to sustain institutions that are meaningful to them.”