The signs are back. They are popping up on street corners, public and private property — unauthorized, most definitely not legal, but catchy and appealing. Last year they merely advertised “Free High Holiday Tickets.” This year they have gone one step further, and take a swipe at the concept upon which the American Jewish community has built a strong infrastructure and developed connections to our heritage and our fellow Jews. Now the word membership is crossed out, and there is an x over it. It’s as if to imply, why bother being a member of a congregation when you can just come to a High Holiday service for free.
The irony — that these well-placed illegal signs are put up by a branch that proclaims to be the legitimate expression of Judaism, which does not recognize non-Orthodox denominations precisely because they contend that they are too lenient in their practice — is striking. One of the differences they cite in their dismissal of other branches is that the liberal streams of Judaism do not have any requirements, or place demands on their congregants.
Granted, members of this group do many wonderful things for Jews around the world, and have brought many back to Judaism. They emphasize the importance of doing mitzvot and their love of Jews is manifested in many ways. Yet their advertisements minimize the important work they and synagogues and the Jewish community do to encourage greater commitment.
Why do they feel it necessary to promote what they have to offer by putting down membership in established synagogues? Whether they realize it or not, whether it is conscious or not, their message is negative and pejorative towards other congregations.
Synagogues want people to do more than just come to a couple of services on the holidays. They want people to join so they can be a part of all that they have to offer, so they can support the educational programs, as well as the Israel advocacy, social action projects and all the other ways members are offered support during happy and difficult times. This is why I always tell members of my congregation that even if they only come once a year, by being members they support the work I as a rabbi do, as well as members of our staff and our volunteers. Being a member facilitates what we do to provide for the needs of others and to serve both the affiliated and the nonaffiliated.
For many Jews synagogue membership is the primary, if not the sum total of the charitable dollars they spend on supporting the work of the Jewish community. Does it really make any sense to denigrate and challenge this connection? Does this strengthen the Jewish community?
If it is a matter of finances, just about every synagogue that I know of does not turn people away if they cannot afford to pay dues.
As my colleague Rabbi Adam Raskin recently wrote, there is benefit to knowing one’s “way around a sanctuary, to have a relationship with a rabbi and a cantor, and to be attached to the hub of Jewish life in a congregation, its youth program and religious culture.”
I was tempted to create a sign to place next to theirs that would read, “Why just get tickets for the High Holidays, when you can be a member?”
Stuart G. Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.