Synagogues seek ways to keep, draw members in time of recession

Synagogues seek ways to keep, draw members in time of recession

LOS ANGELES — Since the recession began two years ago, cutting back has become a way of life for many families. And with the cost of belonging to a synagogue seemingly higher than ever, many Jewish families believe they have to decide whether belonging to a temple is worth the price.

In response, synagogues have had to find creative ways to appeal to financially strapped families or face dwindling membership.

The average price of synagogue membership in Los Angeles for a family with children hovers at about $2,500. For those who want better seats during the High Holidays or child care, the costs only rise.

Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, has heard from rabbis throughout the community about the difficulties that rising fees have caused. It’s a dilemma that has been reflected throughout the United States.

“Hundreds and hundreds of families across Los Angeles are leaving synagogues because of the economic crisis,” he said. “This is a very significant community problem.”

At Sinai Temple in Westwood, one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the Los Angeles area, the annual membership dues of $2,570 for families with children aged 17 and under includes tickets for unreserved seating at High Holidays services.

In the 2009-10 fiscal year, Sinai membership decreased for the first time in years, said Rachel Feldman, the synagogue’s membership coordinator, from 2,150 member families the previous year to 2,000.

“We had more resignations last year than [in] years before,” Feldman said, adding that resignations also exceeded new memberships for the first time in years.

Synagogues typically offer the possibility of reduced fees to members or prospective members in need. Not surprisingly, the number of families receiving dues relief has increased since the recession began.

Feldman estimates that in fiscal year 2009-10, aid was provided to approximately 60 families, up from 30 or 35 before the economic downturn.

At Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, membership numbers have stayed the same, according to executive director Malcolm Katz, but like Sinai, more families have sought financial assistance. With dues for a family at $2,670 per year, Katz estimated that 25 to 30 percent of families received help in the past fiscal year; the number had been closer to 20 percent in prior years.

The temple’s goal, as it is with others, is to avoid losing members or turning away those who wish to join.

“Our objective is to keep our members if we possibly can,” Katz said. “We don’t want people to leave only because they say they can’t afford it.”

To keep a balanced budget and allow more families to receive aid who need it, many synagogues have cut back on spending. At Valley Beth Shalom, that meant skipping annual salary increases and maintaining the same dues, a change from years past.

“Typically we will both raise dues and give salary increases in a given year,” Katz said. “But we got through last year OK.”

Many synagogues also are bolstering their efforts to draw in new members. Most have established programs for young couples and singles, for whom dues are drastically lower. And more events, social networking and word-of-mouth efforts are cropping up.

Sinai’s young professional group, called ATID, recently hosted a luncheon for prospective members.

“We did a ‘nosh and network’ event for potential new and returning members,” ATID director Stacey Zackin said. “We told them about what ATID does and [featured] a couple of established Sinai Temple members.”

Sinai’s Rabbi David Wolpe also launched his own Facebook account this year and now has 1,656 followers.

For those who simply can’t pay dues to a synagogue, or don’t want to, there’s always the option of attending one of Los Angeles’ low-cost or free High Holidays services. While they may not provide the year-round community of a temple membership, they do offer a connection to Judaism that many want.

Bayit Shelanu, Hebrew for “our house,” is such an organization. Housed annually in the Ackerman Grand Ballroom at UCLA, the all-volunteer group offers free Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services open to the public.

Rabbi Jan Goldstein, who leads the services, estimates that they draw 350 to 500 worshipers each year. He emphasizes that they are geared toward those with no other place to pray.

“We are especially for the unaffiliated,” he said, “people who are searching for ways to get back [to being] involved” with the Jewish community.

As the reality of Jews seeking alternative places to worship — or simply forgoing a connection to the Jewish community — sets in, the federation’s Sanderson expressed his concern that the trend would trickle into other parts of Jewish life.

“It deeply concerns me that we are going to start seeing this at every institution,” he said. “We need to create a communitywide effort to raise funds for synagogue membership, camp, day schools, Israel trips, so that those who can’t afford it are still able to participate.”

To that end, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is working to hire someone to collaborate with Jewish community leaders and figure out how to be more inclusive, and perhaps how to temper the growing cost of being Jewish.

But not everyone is as concerned. ATID’s Zackin believes that during times of stress, people are more willing to seek out spiritual guidance and religious community, and if temples can find a way to make themselves more financially accessible, people will be happy to join.

“People’s enthusiasm for community seems to continue to build,” she said. “When other areas of their lives are tentative, they seem to want more discussions about how they can keep their spirit thriving.”