OCTOBER 4, 2018 – Once again, the Jewish High Holidays have come and gone. But statistically, fewer Jews feel the need to formally mark the holiday in synagogue. The numbers point to a changing Jewish population that has a different identity than previous generations. As barriers have fallen that prevented Jews from advancing in professional life, and towns and cities that previously restricted Jews have opened their gates, intermarriage – once frowned upon by Jews and gentiles – now touches nearly every non-observant Jewish family in America. A 2013 Pew study reported that since 2000, 72 percent on non-Orthodox Jews have married outside of their faith. The Pew report also found that less than one-third of American Jews formally affiliate with a synagogue.
Over the holidays, Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott joined area synagogues such as Marblehead’s Temple Emanu-El, Gloucester’s Temple Ahavat Achim, and Chabad of the North Shore in instituting a voluntary dues policy. They’re part of a group of 60 synagogues across the country that have scrapped a fixed dues model in favor of allowing congregants to decide how much to give, and when. According to area temple administrators and rabbis, the voluntary dues policy has boosted membership, not impacted the bottom line, and empowered congregants by allowing them to choose their own donation amount.
In recent decades, synagogues have closed or merged in Lynn, Swampscott, Marblehead, Salem, Beverly, Revere, Chelsea, Malden, Lawrence and several other communities across the state. As American Jews evolve and move away from Jewish institutions that formally attracted previous generations – 32 percent of Jewish millennials describe themselves as having no religion according to the Pew report – the voluntary dues system is an important step for synagogues to take as these institutions plan for the future. By dropping a fixed “pay to pray” model, one more barrier has fallen that may have prevented some Jews from affiliating. This kind of creative thinking is critical as synagogues navigate the evolving American Jewish Experience.