Synagogues offering dues relief for federal workers

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Union workers demonstrate against the government shutdown in Washington on Jan. 10. Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

As the chance of missing a second paycheck rises for furloughed federal employees, some synagogues in Northern Virginia have begun to offer dues and religious school tuition relief for members affected by the shutdown, now in its sixth week.

Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria last week invited families who might need assistance to be in touch. It already operates a pay-what-you-can dues model, by which families set their dues and put together a payment plan every year. For some, though, adjustments have been necessary, according to Rabbi David Spinrad.

“We have to balance everything with the reality that we’re not a direct service provider. But where we can help is that there are lots of folks who pay monthly or quarterly. So we just put it out there that, of course, we’ll suspend your dues if you need,” he said.

Beth El Hebrew Congregation doesn’t know how many of its congregants are federal workers, said Executive Director Adam Wallach. But a number of families have sought to adjust their payment plans due to the shutdown, he said.

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Several federal employees contacted by the Washington Jewish Week said they’ve had to defer certain payments associated with Jewish life. One member of Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity said she’s not yet late on her son’s Jewish summer camp bill, but is putting it off as long as she can. If the shutdown continues much longer, she may have to contact the camp and ask to defer payment.

“I don’t want to call places and cause unnecessary alarm, but I’d be hopeful that if we have to, people would understand that we’re good for it,” she said.

She hasn’t yet had to ask for any relief from Olam Tikvah, but the Conservative synagogue is also offering to make special accommodations for families affected by the shutdown. According to Bill Behrmann, Olam Tikvah’s treasurer, congregants facing hardship because of the shutdown can defer all dues payments until the government is reopened and paychecks go out again.

“While we have no firm number on congregants affected by the shutdown, we have heard from a few who are concerned about their ability to pay their dues,” Behrmann said in an email. “Olam Tikvah is here for them.”

Congress agreed early on in the shutdown, which began Dec. 21, to approve back pay for federal workers. And for workers like the Olam Tikvah member, the loss of income is only part of the frustration. She works in the EPA’s clean-up of toxic sites, and said knowing that the work stops when there’s a shutdown is just as dispiriting as not getting paid.

“There are critical services throughout our country that are not happening, and I don’t know what’s going to compel action. I’m so frustrated,” she said. “I keep hoping. Each day I watch the news, but I’m not seeing any progress.”

Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church is holding twice-weekly gatherings for members on furlough. In addition to providing beverages and snacks at the meeting, the congregation has made a financial contribution to the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Greater Washington, which is offering loans of up to $2,000 for federal workers affected by the shutdown.

And if families need further accommodations because of financial trouble, an email from synagogue leaders encouraged them to contact membership staff.

“Know that we are here for you, providing spiritual, emotional and even financial help during times of uncertainty and crisis,” the email reads. “May the shutdown end soon, and everyone get back to work!”

Another worker who agreed to speak anonymously said he made an agreement with his Northern Virginia synagogue to adjust his bimonthly dues payment.

With three kids, he said, the uncertainty is leading him and his wife, who is still working, to set priorities. Once the paychecks start going out again, including back pay, he’ll make up what he owes, he said, adding, “But I feel less optimistic about when that will be every day.”

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