Holiday tickets taking a hit along with synagogues, families

The calls come in nearly every day: “Rabbi, I can’t make the donation I promised.” Or, “I can’t afford my synagogue dues. I can’t even pay my mortgage.”

The callers say they are humiliated at the prospect of becoming objects of pity in the congregation and try to quietly quit without telling the other families.

“I can’t emphasize enough that people’s individual needs have obviously increased,” said Rabbi Elon Sunshine of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek. “Forget dues. People come to me personally and say ‘I can’t pay my electric bill.’ Rabbis always get those, but there are far more of those cases now. This is the real thing: It’s about rent or electricity about to be turned off.”

As the High Holy Days begin Sept. 18, people are leaning heavily on synagogues for help. Rabbis are telling the worst-off members they can stop paying dues until their finances improve, even though the synagogues themselves are hurting. Fundraising appeals during the holidays will focus on keeping the service programs and the synagogues afloat. And congregations have stepped in to offer aid that ranges from counseling to money for medicine.

For instance, Temple Isaiah in Lafayette has reinstituted its EARN program (first launched in the 1990-91 recession), a network for members seeking work. Struggling families will not be kept from attending High Holy Day services.

“The congregation made a decisions when the economic debacle started that we would not let members fall in the cracks because they’re undergoing financial difficulties,” said Temple Isaiah Rabbi Roberto Graetz. “We [currently] have a much larger percentage that pays fewer dues or nothing, and we’ll carry them for a while until they come out of it. If you were a member you’re still a member, and you’re certainly entitled to tickets.”

Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, formed a job network and support group for teens stressed by their parents’ financial plight. Many in the congregation of about 3,300 families worked for automakers or had jobs linked to the industry.

At Beth El Congregation, located in a well-to-do suburb of Baltimore, some retirees on fixed incomes have brought baggies for leftovers to the community reception held after Shabbat services.

“I know the food they’re taking home is probably going to be their main meal for that afternoon and the next day,” said Gil Kleiner, Beth El’s executive director. “That’s OK. If they come to services and they eat, that’s fine. That’s part of what Judaism is all about.”

At Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham, “We used to have a form [for members] if you needed dues relief, but it hurt people’s pride,” said Rabbi Mark Bloom. “It’s not a compassionate thing to do. If someone tells you they can’t pay college tuition or lost their job … we always say yes. The problem is people who are too proud or embarrassed, and just stop coming.”

The increased need comes at a time when many synagogues have their own money woes.

Investment income and donations are down and Jewish philanthropies are making fewer grants.

Overall, American Jewish organizations are estimated to have lost 25 percent of their wealth in the downturn, according to Steven Bayme, an expert in contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee in New York.

Still, the most significant losses for congregations come from members who are unable to pay dues, which can run into thousands of dollars per family.

Rabbi Brian Zimmerman of the Union for Reform Judaism, who works with synagogues in the South and Southwest, said clergy in the worst-off states report that as many as one-fourth of their congregants can’t pay full dues.

Dues are an especially sensitive issue around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when congregants are often required to be paid up to get seats in packed sanctuaries. Non-members who wish to attend holiday services usually must buy tickets, which can range from $200 to $650 for the 10-day period.

Rabbis say they are making concessions so that no struggling member is turned away. Most synagogues do everything possible to make sure Jews have access at this important time of year, no matter how hard they, or the synagogue, may be struggling.

J. staff writer Dan Pine contributed to this report.