We must act now to combat cost of living crisis

As families struggle to pay the bills, here’s how shuls and community institutions can adapt

August 11, 2022 14:20

The synagogue resignations have started. With average energy bills set to rise to around £3,600 this winter, and steep price increases in food, transport and other essentials, savings have to be made somewhere.

At Maidenhead a typical email reads: “I am sorry, but I will not be renewing this year owing to spiralling everyday costs that I am having to face.”

Stories about pensioners spending the day on buses to keep warm may apply to a limited number of people, but they are symptomatic of the crisis. Jews are just as liable to feel the strain as anyone, especially those already struggling to cope with mortgages, school fees or credit-card debts.

With inflation hovering just below double digits and set to go higher, and with energy costs predicted to stay high until 2024, the Jewish community needs to react quickly to avert individual crises, as well as chronic effects on its institutions.

If synagogues lose members their finances will decline and that could mean having to make staff redundant and cut back what they can offer. Jewish charities may also suffer. There will be some noble spirits who will redouble their contributions to make up for the shortfall. But will they fill the gap?

Some of the fee-paying Jewish schools will also be hit as parents decide now is the time to withdraw children before the new term starts, while Jewish state schools are already finding privately funded Jewish courses under financial strain.

Kosher butchers may also feel the consequences. Prices are already high and those who have always bought kosher meet out of habit rather than principle may decide this is a relatively easy way of saving money. Others will limit their meat intake and reserve it for Shabbat or decide that now is the time to do what they had talked about and go vegetarian.

Another casualty may be trips to Israel, with rocketing flight prices meaning that personal visits and youth holidays may be curtailed or cancelled altogether.

But there are steps that we can take — especially synagogues, which are the main arteries of the Jewish body, reaching Jews throughout the country.

First, synagogues must give out the strong message that they are a safe place, in which those buffeted by the difficulties of the outside world can find a home where they matter and are wanted.

Everyone who comes to a service or a social event — be they solvent or otherwise — should feel valued equally. Your energy company may be chasing you but your synagogue will not.

Second, synagogues must remember their core purpose: they are community centres, not banks, and a place where people count, not pounds.

That means reducing subscriptions for all who need it, and in a way that says they are doing it willingly rather than as a concession. It many mean building funds and other projects go on hold but so be it.

Third, they should advertise that those facing heating problems should come to the shul for physical warmth, with the building open during the day and hot drinks available, ideally a warm meal too.

In addition, they could be given some help with food to take home, though not with items that will need cooking and more energy costs, but ones that can be eaten as they are, such as sardines or fruit. A cheap but helpful gift would be hot water bottles to fill up at home, which would enable people to concentrate heat around their body much more effectively.

Fourth, synagogues can set up sessions offering advice on financial management for those in debt or who fear facing it. Frankly, merely advertising such sessions is important, to show members they are not the only ones in that situation, nor need they feel ashamed to come forward.

Encouraging people to say, “I am in debt” and admitting the reality from which they have been trying to hide can be a liberating experience and is the first step to financial recovery.

In addition, there will be several pastoral issues that should be addressed — because money problems often lead to matrimonial problems as well as depression and even suicide.

Synagogues can help by offering counselling for those who need it via members with expertise. Communities that cannot do so can at least act as a signpost to the Jewish organisations that specialise in them.

As for Jewish institutions facing the pinch as subscribers and donors fall away, perhaps this is the time that those whose work has long overlapped should consider merging.

Many institutions should have done so in the past but attempts were stymied by personalities or pension plans.

Now is the time to move into the 21st century for the ones still nervously resisting it.

Others can surely add to the suggestions, but we must plan ahead pro-actively. The coming year will prove worrying for many Jewish households and offices – but there are Jewish solutions, too.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue

August 11, 2022 14:20

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