Free membership — a healthy debate

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As a story in this week's Bulletin points out, Congregation Emanu-El's offer to open its doors to new members for one year without charge has not met with unbridled enthusiasm.

While the San Francisco Reform synagogue has received dozens of calls of inquiry about the new offer, more than a few rabbis have expressed concern that the practice could draw members away from their synagogues.

We do not believe that was Emanu-El's intent when it formulated the policy; rather, the synagogue is attempting to reach out to the hordes of unaffiliated Jews in the Bay Area. Finding new and creative ways to encourage those Jews to come through the door can only be viewed as positive.

Since some people shy away from joining synagogues because of high membership costs, eliminating that obstacle may indeed bring in an influx of previously unaffiliated Jews.

That said, the rabbis' concern about losing members is also valid. Should Emanu-El's one-year-free policy lead to a hemorrhage in other congregations, the Reform synagogue may have to rethink its offer. We trust it will.

There's no denying that Emanu-El is a synagogue of means that can afford to take more risks than most other congregations. A bequest from a family fund is allowing the synagogue to make the free-membership offer.

But regardless of circumstances, Emanu-El's move to offer free memberships may well motivate other, less affluent congregations to rethink their dues structures.

Though most congregations already assist those who cannot afford to join their synagogues, potential members may be too embarrassed to ask for such assistance. Perhaps more synogogues can find a way to publicize that aid in the community.

Perhaps those who disperse grants in the community will decide to set up a special fund aimed at enabling unaffiliated Jews to try out the synagogue of their choice for one year free.

Those are options we as a community need to explore.

Ultimately, we think the debate unleashed by the Emanu-El offer is a healthy one. It focuses attention on the important issue of how to attract the unaffiliated and highlights attempts being made to address the issue.