The problem isn’t that synagogues have too little money and declining memberships. The problem is that they spend more than they can afford. The staff and lay leadership talk too much about money when they should be talking about their mission.
When you sit down at the dinner table with your family, do you discuss every night what you cannot afford to buy or do? Do you complain to each other about your inability to afford nicer cars, exotic trips, bigger homes, prestigious colleges, fancier clothes? Or do you discuss what the children learned in school that day, what a wonderful (affordable) family weekend you have planned, what meaningful project you can do to help others.
Synagogues should do the same. Rather than spend so much time complaining about what they can’t afford to do, synagogues should spend that time engaging members in the things that the synagogue can and is created to do.
My new rabbi, Ron Shulman, shares that “we need a place in our lives that accepts us and values us for who we are and what we care about. We need a place in our lives where people know us and share with us in finding compelling ideas and significant ideals.”
Like many synagogues, my new congregation celebrates Judaism’s central ideals of Torah (learning), avodah (worship), and gemilut chasadim (acts of loving-kindness). Do any of these cost too much money?
I am not naive and have been a synagogue executive director long enough to understand synagogue economics and realize the financial pressures of hiring exceptional clergy and staff, maintaining a large facility, creating excellent schools, providing meaningful religious services and experiences. The conversations at Shabbat kiddush, in the hallways and in the board meetings should not always be about money but about Torah, avodah and gemilut chasadim.
Synagogue leaders and members should talk less about the money they don’t have to do something new and talk more about how they can engage and enhance the Jewish lives of one another with the funds they do have.
It does not take money to study, to worship, to visit the sick. Once we truly get to know and provide meaning in the lives of our congregants, the funding will follow.
Glenn S. Easton is the incoming executive director of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore and past president of the North American Association of Synagogue Executives. Previously, Easton was executive director of Adas Israel Congregation in the District.