Hard times dampen Jewish High Holidays

The time has arrived again when Jews around the world greet one another with l’Shana Tovah, the traditional wish for a good new year, or Rosh Hashanah, which begins tonight.

But with job losses and the troubled economy taking their toll on synagogue membership, many congregational and denominational leaders worry that 5770, like 5769, will not be a banner year.

The High Holidays, which continue tomorrow and Sunday with the two days of Rosh Hashanah and close with Yom Kippur on Sept. 28, are occasion for synagogues to attract new members. Now, special efforts are being made to hold on to those they have.

With dues running between $1,000 and $2,500 a year, “membership in a synagogue can be perceived as a luxury item,” said Rabbi Jay Stein, senior rabbi at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley and acting head of the Philadelphia-area Board of Rabbis. “I think we’re seeing a lot of people dropping out without letting their congregations know why.”

On Tuesday night, the staff of Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood “called every single member we hadn’t heard from, letting them know we want to be sensitive if finances are a problem,” said Melissa J. Greenwald, membership coordinator.

Ticket sales at High Holiday services are unpredictable this year, congregational leaders say. At prices ranging from about $100 to $250 per adult, seats are a major revenue stream for some synagogues.

“We’ve had more people come to us with financial problems this year than anything I’ve ever seen,” said Phil Weinberg, head of the finance committee at Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington.

Rabbi Hannah Greenstein, director of a membership-outreach campaign for the 51,000-member Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, said “scores and scores” of families had asked lately for dues abatements.

Far more problematic, she said, are those who just fade away, too embarrassed to admit they need help with their membership dues.

“Typically people won’t say, ‘Gee, I can’t afford to be a member this year,’ ” said Harvey Friedrich, executive director of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park. “They drop us a note saying they’re ‘taking a leave.’ That’s when we get in touch and say, ‘Look, if you’re having a financial problem, let’s work something out.’ ”

Gone are the days, local synagogue leaders say, when congregations demanded to see members’ tax statements and bank accounts before accommodating their straitened finances.

“Our policy is to never turn anyone away over money,” said Rabbi Lawrence Sernovitz at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington. “We will work with every family to secure their place in the membership list.

“Of course,” he added, “there is a mutual expectation that our congregants are being honest and truthful with us.”

In the National Jewish Population Study of 2001, 47 percent of American Jewish adults said they belonged to a religious congregation. However, Diane Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, said yesterday that number may have been inflated.

“It is our experience that synagogue membership responses are often overreported,” she said.

In the population study, 86 percent of Orthodox adults, 61 percent of Conservatives, and 47 percent of Reform Jews said they belonged to a synagogue.

Holding on to members in difficult economic times is important because once families sever ties, they rarely return, said Greenstein, of the Reconstructionist Federation.

Many couples pay gladly when their children are in Hebrew school or approaching their bar or bat mitzvahs, she said. “But if after that they [the parents] don’t feel they’re getting much” in the way of community, “that’s when they say, ‘My resources are limited.’ ”

Money woes can exacerbate the already fragile relationship that more and more Jews have with their synagogues, Greenstein said.

“I think that in today’s world there are so many ways to be a part of a community,” she said. With most schools, workplaces, clubs, and neighborhoods now open to them, they “just don’t feel a duty to buy into a Jewish community the way they once did.”