Must we pay to pray?

  • pray (2)
In the build-up to the Yamim Noraim over the years, some members of the community have felt embarrassed, annoyed, or quite despairing, when encountering the often high cost of synagogue membership or reserved seats for the festivals.
by SUZANNE BELLING | Sep 14, 2017

“We are not paying to go to the opera,” I have heard people moan. With some shuls boasting outstanding choirs, this may not be that far off the mark.

However, to pay to pray goes against the grain, especially in this tough economic climate. All synagogues approached by the Jewish Report this week, have gone out of their way to accommodate everyone. Some do not charge membership fees or for tickets for High Holy Day seating at all.

“According to Jewish tradition, on the Jewish New Year, the doors of heaven are open. G-d accepts prayers from everyone. The least we can do is open our doors as well, to the entire community…”  says Rabbi Ari Kievman of the Sandton Central Shul at Chabad’s Goodness and Kindness Centre.

“During the High Holy Days, accessibility can translate into different factors for different people, such as a non-judgemental atmosphere, affordability of the services, or the ability for a beginner to follow along.

“Our goal is to lower the barriers of entry and encourage each and every Jew to actively participate in these most holy and introspective days.”

Rabbi Kievman says that he has encountered some Johannesburg Jews who still have no plans to attend High Holy Days services. “Some of them aren’t affiliated with a community, others will be travelling on business, and a sizeable percentage simply don't feel comfortable in a synagogue setting.

“Another alarming issue, particularly in light of today's flailing economy, is that many cannot afford the cost of membership, which these days can cost thousands for a family. Whatever the case, many of these would-be worshippers are feeling the pangs associated with being left out of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar.”

He says his services are "user-friendly", making it enjoyable and meaningful for both the beginner and the advanced. Song, commentary and the use of English-Hebrew prayer books, enable those of all levels to become active participants in the services.

“Accessibility can translate into different factors for different people, such as a non-judgemental atmosphere, affordability of the services, or the ability for a beginner to follow along. Our goal is to lower the barriers of entry, and encourage each and every Jew to actively participate in these most holy and introspective days.”

Rabbi Yossy Goldman, senior rabbi of the Sydenham-Highlands North Hebrew Congregation, felt so strongly about the topic, he covered it in a sermon.

“Why must we pay to pray?” he said some would demand. “They will decry the shameless commercialism of organised religion. “And, yes, a shul should have a heart. And our houses of prayer should not be allowed to become materialistic and mercenary, lest we lose the young, the poor and the idealistic.

“At the same time, individuals need to be sympathetic to the hard facts of congregational life. We cannot take for granted or take advantage of our established - and costly to maintain - infrastructures. The tension is sometimes tangible as we struggle to balance these two seemingly exclusive imperatives of Jewish life.      

“In some communities, not more than 30 per cent of Jews are officially affiliated. In others, the figure is much higher. The community must be sensitive, welcoming and embracing of every individual who seeks to belong. Still, individuals must be fair too. If everyone demanded a free ride how would a congregation support itself?”

The shul had a multi-million budget, which had to be funded, “but no Jew is turned away for lack of money. This shul is very liberal when it comes to collecting fees.”

According to Sydenham’s chairman Stanley Seeff, membership levels begin at R3 600 to R7 000 per annum (individuals and families) for the shul and the shtiebel. “But we are user-friendly and are willing to go out of our way to accommodate people who cannot afford seats.” All requests would be treated in the strictest confidence, he said.

Rabbi Greg Alexander, of the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation, said the temples did not sell or reserve seats, as was done in former years, when people could not gain entrée without tickets.

The policy had changed. “It is not a private club, or a laager. We are not Virgin Active, which requires membership fees. I would rather be welcoming than a ‘bouncer’.”

If congregants could not afford material contributions, there were other ways in which they could compensate, like standing guard outside the shul or assisting with a brocha. For those who could bear the cost of membership of the congregation, Eric Beswick, executive director, said it would cost a family R7 200 per year, R4 900 per couple or R3 700; but there were no reserved seats. He underscored the rabbi’s statement: “We don’t turn anyone away.”

Chabad of Savoy charges no shul membership whatsoever, according to its spiritual leader Rabbi Eitan Ash. There were also no reserved seats for the High Holy Days. “If the shul gets full, we merely bring in more chairs, of which we have plenty.”

Rabbi Ash said the shul raises funds through golf days and other programmes. “We do battle, we are not wealthy,” he said.

Ohr Somayach Sandton operates on annual membership fees – R9 420 per annum for a family, or R600 per seat for the festivals. However, the spiritual leader, Rabbi Ze’ev Kraines, says people who cannot afford it do not have to pay.

“We are an outreach congregation and try to make things as easy as possible. We keep seats for those who cannot afford membership.

“We don’t believe religion is about money. We believe in education and that religion is not predicated on financial concerns.”

Reb Shlomo Wainer, of Chabad of the North Coast, also does not charge fees, but welcomes contributions – especially if people want to reserve seats. They do not specify the amount, but will keep seats for anything from R25 to R500 or R1 000.

“We rely on people’s generosity at that time of the year and money donated for aliyot and from other sources. But, being in the resort of Umhlanga with many tourists and holidaymakers, we do need some form of identity document for the CSO as they are not familiar with all the congregants.”

Rabbi Osher Feldman, of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, reiterated the statement of the other rabbis. “We don’t turn anyone away. We don’t make it about money.”

But, he said, the shul relied heavily on the Kol Nidre appeal and other ways of funding his historic Gardens Shul, which seats 1 400 people.

For those who can afford membership, it costs R5 649 a year for a family. Seating for the Yamim Noraim can be obtained from R209 (women) or from R415 (men).

Yet again, Rabbi Dovid Hazdan, of the Great Park Synagogue. was insistent that no person would be turned away because of lack of funds and could be accommodated within the main shul or the overflow service.

Payment of membership was to enable the services to be conducted in a professional and dignified way.

“But we don’t charge to be part of a spiritual home.” Full paying membership of his shul is R3 450 per seat.

Overall, it can be deduced that the shuls take the difficult economy into account and, unlike in bygone years, nobody – especially if he or she can’t afford it – is expected to pay to pray.



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