We need to pay to make our communities sustainable

Haaretz 9/12/13

For the past ten years, Jewish communities the world over have been providing committees, events and avenues of involvement for me. Reading the communal and demographic tealeaves it was clear that a huge drop off point was during and after university for this generation of Jews.

The focus on the ‘young professional’ has not been without its controversies. The communal pie is only so big and the amount of free or hugely discounted events for me created a tab for others to pay.

One of the side effects of this level of communal welfarism has been an expectation of services without fees. This is all well and good when one has no income, but it seems that many in my generation have not realized that someone needs to pick up the check.

Now, my wife and I are members of one of the new pop up prayer communities in New York. Prospect Heights Shul is a small, liberal, modern orthodox community with a couple of dozen members who pay membership. We rent whatever space we can in Brooklyn and have moved from a thrift shop to a Christian school classroom.

Starting off as a wondering minyan, the community has developed with new families coming in from the Upper West Side in search of more space and affordable homes. One of the factors holding back many young religious families was the lack of sense of a modern orthodox community in Park Slope. Having now created it our community is growing.

Though our communities’ story is similar to that of many other communities’ origin stories, we are a community made up of people who have, for many years, been coddled by a generous overarching Jewish community. Though we seem to have managed to grow in numbers, our membership is stuck.

Prospect Heights Shul is not unique within the prayer space, or any other Jewish communal space for that matter. From advocacy to welfare charities, everyone is struggling to get young Jews to start making the cash commitments needed to ensure sustainability. It is clear that the federated model is far less enchanting to this generation of Jews than for those of yesteryear. We are not looking for a Jewish tax, but equally we cannot be expecting Jewish handouts either.

While of course it is necessary to try and provide a Jewish experience to those who have no affiliations, we as a community need to jettison the concept of ‘free at the point of delivery’ for all those except the most needy. In order to create the next generation of givers, we need to institute, from the earliest age, a ‘give what you can’ model with a suggested donation.

If there is a subsidized fee, the actual fee should be displayed with a message of encouragement to those who can afford, to pay full price for their experience. Transparency about where the money goes will be essential as well. With payment comes accountability.

The extensive Jewish outreach that has occurred over the past ten years has been expansive and incredible. We have created a Jewish experience for every sort of Jew one would want to define themselves as such.  In order to achieve the sustainability of such a diverse and rich melding pot, we have to ask our users to pay and create that expectation from day one. We will all be better off as a result.

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