For awhile I’ve been interested in Reconstructionist Judaism. Of all the branches of modern Judaism, it seems like the one most amenable to where I’m at right now. So I was looking over the webpage of the Baltimore Recontructionist synagogue today, and getting pretty excited about what I was reading.
…and then I got to the part I always dread when looking into a new synagogue. The part about membership dues: how much it would cost to identify myself with the congregation. In my case, it would be over a thousand dollars a year.
Maybe it’s my religious upbringing, but the idea of charging admission to a religious community has always been deeply suspect to me. I’ve heard all the justifications. Yes, I know I can still attend services without becoming a member. But what if I decided I like it so much I want to officially identify as part of the congregation? Gotta pay up. Yes, I know that there are a lot of costs associated with running a religious institution. You know what? That’s a bullshit argument. Most if not all churches make do quite nicely based on donations alone. Some of them do it without even passing the plate around at services.
The idea that you have to pay to be a member of a community just grates on me. Religious communities shouldn’t be exclusive clubs; they should be gatherings of like-minded individuals. At their best, they are families. Nobody charges admission to a family. I don’t have a problem with jumping through hoops to become a member; it’s understandable to say that prospective members of a community must demonstrate that they are serious about it. But I don’t consider money to be an acceptable hoop. It just shouts CULT! to me. One of the big indicators of whether a group is a cult or not is whether they require a certain amount of financial commitment in order to attain a certain status in the group.
This has always been one of my biggest turn-offs to Judaism. Every branch of Judaism makes a big deal out of money: first, the membership dues; and then the constant badgering for even more money for this or that fund drive. And then every chair, every bit of art, every room in a synagogue is dedicated to someone or other who shelled out the big bucks in order to be recognized as a benefactor. And that’s not all- most congregations charge exorbitantly for a seat at High Holidays services. That’s right, you can’t even attend the most important service of the year unless you pay up. Sometimes it just feels like a big wealth club. And don’t tell me that every religious group is like that. Because they’re not.
I don’t have any problem with giving my support, financial and otherwise, to a religious congregation that meets my spiritual needs. But being required to pay a certain amount just to be recognized as a member – regardless of how much I might support the congregation in other, nonmonetary ways – rubs me wrong. It’s one of the chief reasons I turn back whenever I consider become a more active member of the Jewish community.