Can't pay, won't pay: the next generation of synagogue-goers

So severe is the crisis in Greece that donations to the Jewish community and payments towards synagogue fees have reportedly fallen by a half. No one imagines that things could get quite so bad in Britain, no matter how bleak the economic weather. But, long-term, financial pressures, coupled with social and demographic changes, could begin to undermine some of our core institutions.

For centuries, the synagogue has been the community's primary incubator of Jewish identity. But it is a costly one to maintain. Families are often asked to pay annual subscriptions of between £500 to £1,000 - a kind of voluntary tax on Jewish belonging. But people in future may be less willing, or able, to pay it.

At a recent Board of Deputies debate on how to recruit more under-35s, one participant said that it was difficult because the Board is still largely synagogue-based and young people often do not join synagogues. Their absence partly reflects the reality of people marrying at a later age, but also of marrying out or not at all.

Meanwhile, itinerant groups like Wandering Jews, alternative centres like the Moishe House or events like Limmud provide a more tempting option for many of those in their 20s and 30s than strait-laced houses of prayer. Apart from the cultural shift, the next generation of graduates will also have to reckon with a higher level of debt - university tuition fees having soared to up to £9,000 a year - and far high housing costs than their parents. Even when established in careers, they may prefer to attend something like the Jewish Community Centre, due to open next year, especially if they are only likely to frequent a synagogue a couple of times a year.

Parents may prioritise school fees over shul bills

While the ever-expanding rolls at Jewish schools have been hailed as the salvation of British Jewry, for many parents, however, the school may take over from the shul as first claim on their pockets. If budgets are tight, they may prioritise termly contributions to their children's Jewish studies over synagogue bills, the more so if they are not regular shul-goers.

But it is not only the missing young that may present a headache for synagogue treasurers. The collapse in pension funds leaves many of those in their 50s facing a poorer retirement than anticipated - unless a decade of miracle growth were to begin after the next election. Since British Jewry has been an ageing population - excepting the Charedi sector, of course – the repercussions could be significant. It means that growing numbers of senior citizens are likely to be unable to afford synagogue fees at the present levels.

The result is that many synagogues could struggle to stay afloat. The situation is complicated by denominational differences which, for example, would prevent an unviable Orthodox synagogue and an unviable Progressive synagogue in the same locality coming together.

I doubt anyone would consider it desirable to revert to an unpaid rabbinate (in ancient times, it was thought a scandal to earn a living from the Torah). But congregations may have to rethink their budgets and the way they raise money.

In e-Jewish Philanthropy earlier this year, Dan Judson offered the following example from the USA, where a few years ago a Conservative synagogue in Boston scrapped shul fees altogether. Temple Israel was facing declining numbers and falling revenues, while some families chose to leave rather than go through the uncomfortable experience of seeking a reduction in their fees. The committee tasked with deciding whether people qualified for a lower rate also felt awkward about judging the financial circumstances of their fellow-congregants.

A proposal to replace a fixed amount with asking people to pay one to one-and-a-half per cent of their income was unpopular. Instead they opted for something more radical. Carver reported: "They went to an entirely voluntary system where families simply told the synagogue how much they were going to pay that year."

The synagogue did offer a suggested figure, representing what it thought it needed to sustain itself. But otherwise it had to tailor its budget to what its members were prepared to pay.

The experiment produced better cash flows and higher revenue: the synagogue was also surprised by the number of members who were ready to pay more than the suggested figure. After years of declining membership, in the first year of the system Temple Israel enjoyed another spin-off: a net increase of 20 new members.

Simon Rocker is Judaism editor of the JC

    Last updated: 7:23pm, May 10 2012