Jewish High Holy Days create a fee dilemma

As some balk at paying to join synagogues, leaders worry about the decline in the American Jewish population.

Published October 1, 2006

TAMPA - The Jewish High Holy Days routinely mark a time of great contemplation for Carlye and David Fabrikant. Often, the South Tampa couple's thoughts turn not to contrition and renewal, but to money.

Both in their 30s, the Fabrikants are not members of a local synagogue. As unaffiliated Jews, they have to pay for tickets to attend High Holy Days services, including Yom Kippur, which starts tonight at sundown. Tickets are as much as $250. Or the couple could join a synagogue, a proposition that can cost 10 times as much but includes automatic admission to special services.

Balancing a mortgage with saving for a family, the Fabrikants are at an impasse with their frugality and their faith.

"It's a tossup," said Carlye Fabrikant, an associate professor at the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida. "It's not that we don't want to give. I just don't understand why it's so high, especially for people who are just starting out like my husband and myself."

The Fabrikants' struggle reverberates throughout the Jewish community, particularly during the High Holy Days when Jews of all commitment levels traditionally flood synagogues for services. The debate among the unaffiliated about whether to pay up or stay at home worries some Jewish leaders who express concern about declines in the American Jewish population amid increasing levels of unaffiliation, growing intermarriage rates and rising secularism.

Many leaders see the High Holy Days - which typically draw large crowds equivalent to Christian churches at Christmas and Easter - as an opportune time to reclaim unaffiliated Jews. Bringing in more members will increase Jewish identity and, though rarely discussed openly, affect temples' bottom lines, local leaders say.

"If a family doesn't have a kid that they have to bar mitzvah, or they don't have a funeral that they have to anticipate, or they don't have a wedding, they think they don't have any use for a synagogue," said Rabbi Arthur Baseman, who leads Temple B'nai Israel in Clearwater. "In Judaism, it's a difficult situation."

In the bay area, Jewish leaders estimate that as much as 60 percent of the area's 65,000 Jews have no connection to a synagogue or religious organization. In Tampa, the Tampa Jewish Community Center/Federation recently launched a campaign offering free membership in its organization in exchange for paying dues at a synagogue. Six local synagogues matched the effort, giving free membership to the community center with the payment of temple dues. The JCC/Federation's leaders say the program is one of the first of its kind in the nation.

Despite the discounts, many unaffiliated Jews - particularly young people or empty nesters - say fees and membership dues remain a deterrent to full participation in Jewish life.

Some religious leaders say those concerns are overrated during the holidays and throughout the year.

"Let me make it perfectly clear, finances need not be an obstacle," said Rabbi Jacob Luski, head of the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis and leader of Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg. "Everyone is welcome, they just need to call."

Tampa rabbis echoed that sentiment.

"Really, no one is turned away," said Rabbi Shoshanah Conover, president of the Tampa Rabbinic Association and assistant rabbi at Congregation Schaarai Zedek. "It's not Jewish."

Unlike Christian churches that collect tithes - 10 percent of income - or freewill offerings, Jewish law prohibits money collection on the Sabbath and holy days. Assessing annual dues helps bridge the gap and keep synagogues running.

Dues collection differs greatly among congregations. Some governing boards institute a sliding scale that offers lower prices for singles, the young, seniors or the financially destitute. Other temples base rates on the amount of income earned. At Congregation B'nai Emmunah in Tarpon Springs, for example, people earning $39,000 to $50,000 a year pay annual dues that range from $600 to $850, Rabbi Stephen F. Moch said. Earners of more than $150,000 are asked to give at least $2,500.

In an effort to remove all deterrents from would-be members, the Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg charges no dues at all. But the congregation does have a $50 reservation fee for the High Holy Days.

Local religious leaders said synagogues offer so much throughout the year that no one should scoff at being asked to pay to reserve a seat or make a donation during the holy days.

"There are many Jews who are only interested in coming for high holidays or when they're dying and need some rabbi for a life-cycle event," said Moch of B'nai Emmunah. "They don't care about any of the other aspects of religious life, and so they take advantage. The congregations can't live on that. The fact that they open their high holiday services to nonmembers at all is generous."

Despite his tough stance, Moch and his members have a soft spot for the unaffiliated. They rent a special hall for holy day services, but don't charge admittance fees. It's their way of reaching out to people who might otherwise spend the holidays alone. That tactic has led to some criticism from the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis, Moch said. Some of the group's members argue that waiving holiday fees siphons potential attendees from temples that do charge, Moch said.

Recognizing the divide, several bay area synagogues have adopted a national program that seeks to provide free High Holy Days tickets to youths from the Conservative branch of Judaism who cannot afford to purchase them. The program, dubbed Project Reconnect, follows a now-defunct model from Tampa's Congregation Rodeph Shalom, which offered Jews in their 20s and 30s free admission to services.

Thanks to the program, the Fabrikants got free tickets to High Holy Days services at Rodeph Shalom.

The gift gives the young couple some time to delay paying membership dues.

"It's just hard to part with that money when you're trying to start a family," Fabrikant said. "We knew that once we had children, we would definitely join because it would become a priority. I just wasn't sure about now."

Sherri Day can be reached at sday@sptimes.com or 813 226-3405.