Dennis and Cathy have been coming to Beth Israel for years. They don’t come every Shabbos, but certainly wouldn’t miss the High Holy days. He’ll show up during the week if he has yortzeit and on the occasional Shabbos we’ll see them too. They send their kids to all our youth programs: from the tiny tots to NCSY and they’ll attend our major events including Chanukah on Ice, Purim at Hogwarts and Sushi in the Sukkah.
Pretty active members, wouldn’t you say? Just one slight problem – they’re not members.
One of the most oft-discussed and rehashed topics that our synagogue board deals with is the question of non-members who take advantage of our programs. While this happens generally, the phenomenon is particularly prevalent in our youth department. Many unaffiliated parents have no qualms dropping off their kids, week in week out, for Pizza ‘n’ Parsha, never bothering to wonder who funds the program.
Should we charge these families for our services? Should we only serve our dues-paying members?
The Mishnah states: If the townsfolk sold the town square, they may use the funds to purchase a synagogue. If they sold the synagogue, they may use the funds to purchase an Ark. If they sold the Ark, they may use the funds to purchase Torah covers. If they sold the Torah covers, they may purchase holy books of Scripture. If they sold the holy books, they may purchase a Torah scroll.
If, however, they sold a Torah, they may not use the funds to purchase holy books; holy books, they may not purchase Torah covers; Torah covers, they may not purchase an Ark; Ark, they may not purchase a synagogue; and synagogue, they may not purchase a square. And same is true of the leftover funds.
Rashi explains: We ascend in holiness and do not descend. Therefore the proceeds of the sale of a holy item must be used to purchase a holier item.
Rabbi Samuel bar Nachmani quotes Rabbi Jonathan: When is it permissible to sell a synagogue and use the funds to purchase an Ark? It is only when we are dealing with a synagogue in a village. Concerning a city synagogue, however, since people come from far and wide to pray there, it may not be sold because it belongs to the public.
Who owns the city synagogue? Not the board, not the members. It is a public institution and should be open and available to all!
Rabbi Herbert Goldstein, founder of the Institutional Synagogue in 1917 in Harlem understood this well. By the end of the first year, he had over a thousand members. What was his secret? Rabbi Goldstein felt that the synagogue should not cater to a select wealthy elite. The synagogue is for everybody. And so he sent the youth out going door to door asking people to join the I.S., some paying as little as a dollar a year!
So why pay full dues at the synagogue if it’s anyway open to all? Purchasing a membership is like buying spiritual shares in the synagogue. You become a part owner and reap all the rewards of the success of the institution! Becoming a member means buying into the mission of the synagogue which is to serve the entire community and even those who come from far and wide! By becoming a member, you have purchased a share in the merit of the organization!
Shuls are for everyone! Open your doors and your hearts! Why should some kids miss out on a good Jewish education because their parents won’t pay up? You can be their spiritual parents! Why should G-d miss out on the prayers of people who won’t buy seats? You can maximize His blessing!