Low-Cost L.I. Start-ups Fueling Anger

Are new congregations ‘undermining community’ or meeting families’ needs? Suffolk Y caught in crossfire.

08/21/13
Staff Writer
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Since opening its doors two years ago, Temple Shalom of Woodbury, L.I., has held Hebrew school classes in its part-time rabbi’s law offices in Plainview. Membership dues are a bargain basement $360; there is no building fund.

Meanwhile, another relatively new congregation, West Hills Torah Center in Huntington, L.I., has held Hebrew school and services in the garage of a converted private home for the past four years and has neither membership dues nor a building fund.

And Miyad, a Chabad synagogue and school in Syosset offers a once-a-week Hebrew school for $770 a year and free High Holy Day tickets.

In response to the onslaught of low-cost alternatives, established congregations are scrambling to compete, trimming tuition, dues and building funds.

Welcome to the synagogue wars of central Long Island.

Synagogue membership in much of Long Island — and throughout the United States — is on the decline, spurring many congregations to close or merge. In this climate, competition for the souls – and dollars – of Jews can be intense, with established institutions viewing startups as highly threatening.

“They [low-cost synagogues] are undermining the rest of the Jewish community,” asserted Rabbi Jonathan Hecht, spiritual leader of Temple Chaverim, a Reform congregation in Plainview that has not cut its fees despite the pressure.

Unlike Temple Chaverim, the Manetto Hill Jewish Center, an established Conservative congregation in Plainview, has cut fees: offering free two-day-a-week Hebrew school beginning next month for all those who pay the regular $1,925 membership dues and eliminating its building fund fees.

Meanwhile, another established Conservative congregation, the nearby Jericho Jewish Center, has cut its religious school from two days to one day a week beginning next month, made it free and is also eliminating membership dues and building-fund fees for all new members.

And the synagogue wars have gradually spread east into Suffolk County, where Commack’s Suffolk Y JCC is now ground zero in one increasingly bitter battle.

That conflict pits the Suffolk Y against its next-door neighbor, Temple Beth David, a Reform congregation that has long been allowed, free of charge, to use the Y’s parking lot for overflow parking on the High Holy Days.

But next month, the Suffolk Y has agreed to rent its 600-seat auditorium to Temple Shalom, which decided to move from Woodbury in Nassau County to Commack in Suffolk because it needed more space for High Holy Day services.

Long Island is hardly the only place where synagogue dues and fees are in flux. As a report published earlier this year by UJA-Federation of New York’s congregational arm notes, both the recession and shifting generational attitudes toward institutional membership and affiliation are causing synagogues to struggle with established funding and membership models.

While synagogues serve an important role in society, “the current American zeitgeist seems to hold an antipathy toward membership, especially when a financial cost is attached,” the “Connected Congregations Report” of the federation’s SYNERGY program observes.

That report emphasizes that synagogues cannot solve their membership attrition solely by altering dues or fees: “Membership, dues and engagement work together; a dues change cannot succeed without working on the engagement of congregants in Jewish life.”

 

In Suffolk, startup Temple Shalom’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Alan Stein, explained that his congregation is growing — from 175 families last year to an anticipated 200 — and that the Syosset country club it rented last year is too small.

But rabbis and leaders of established synagogues are outraged that their Y is helping a low-cost competitor. Some congregants have already announced they will withhold their donations to UJA-Federation of New York, which helps fund the Y.

Rabbis and communal leaders met late last month to discuss what one rabbi said was the first time a Jewish communal organization was “aiding and abetting” these low-cost operations.

“We met to express our dismay that the Y opened its doors to them,” said Rabbi Beth Klafter, Temple Beth David’s new rabbi. 

Temple Shalom, which throughout the rest of the year rents the 100-seat Historical Chapel in nearby Woodbury for its weekly Friday night service, bills itself as “Reform but traditional in nature.” Unlike Temple Beth David, it is not a member of the Union for Reform Judaism, the umbrella organization of Reform synagogues in North America.

A big part of what makes Temple Shalom attractive is what Rabbi Stein calls his “pay-as-you-go platform.”

“It’s the Chabad model that we are applying to Reform Judaism,” he said. “For a $360 membership our clergy are at your disposal. High Holy Day tickets are $118 per adult; children under 13 are free. Bar and bat mitzvah lessons are $1,000 for six months, Hebrew school costs $925.”

Rabbi Klafter said it is “clear that [Rabbi Stein’s] methods are to get our members to leave, and that’s not ethical. Their approach on their website and in their printed ads is clearly aimed at stealing members from established congregations, and the rest of the rabbinic family is not happy with them.”

Rabbi Steven Moss, president of the Suffolk Board of Rabbis, said that about 25 years ago there had been an unwritten agreement between the Suffolk Y and area congregations that the Y “would remain as a cultural education center but not involve itself in a religious or spiritual way because to do so could affect the stability of synagogues in the area.”

He said he spoke with the Suffolk Y’s new executive director, Adam Bendeson, and was told that the Y is not sponsoring Temple Shalom, only renting its auditorium to it.

A spokeswoman for the Y had no immediate comment.

 

“Regardless what happens in the immediate situation, I would like to sit down with the board of the Y and develop rules to follow in regard to these kind of rentals,” Rabbi Moss said.

A lot of the consternation being expressed by established synagogues, he added, “reflects the difficult times congregations on Long Island are going through. All of us are concerned about [the rate of] affiliation and what the future will bring.”

Robin Givre of Melville, L.I., is a mother of three whose family had belonged to two established synagogues for a total of 17 years before switching to a low-cost synagogue three years ago. She said they started in a Conservative synagogue and switched to a Reform congregation because the Conservative synagogue failed to move her younger daughter, Erika, to a different preschool class after a problem arose.

But she said she and her husband, who were raised in Conservative synagogues, felt uncomfortable in the Reform congregation.

“There were a lot of mixed marriages, my daughters were learning by rote and were miserable,” Givre said. “Alyson did not want a bat mitzvah and dropped out. I called the principal and never got a call back.”

“I found out about West Hills Torah Center when I passed by it one day,” she continued. “We joined. Erika was resistant at first but I said go one day. She did and loved the rabbi. She said she felt accepted and warm, and it was so personal.”

Givre said she told the Reform synagogue she was leaving and “they didn’t care — I don’t think they even knew we were gone. We’re in our third year [at West Hills] now. My son loves it and is learning how to read Hebrew and things he would have never learned there. … Alyson has gone to services there, and we have been to dinner at the rabbi’s house.”

She noted that West Hills’ rabbi, Yitschak Hassine, worked individually with Erika “and got her up to par to be bat mitzvah and to read Hebrew — which was not happening at the other temples. I’m happy there and people are flocking to him because he has a good reputation. My son’s entire preschool [from the Reform congregation] all moved there.”

Givre added that Hebrew school tuition is $900, there are fewer than 20 students per class, and that there is no building fund, no membership fee and no charge for High Holy Day tickets. She said she gives the congregation a yearly donation.

“For me it’s not about the money,” she stressed. “I just want my kids to know about Judaism.” 

Rabbi Hecht said that in response to the bargain-rate synagogues, some established congregations that are “dropping religious school fees are doing so as an act of desperation before they close their doors; nothing is free.”

He said the startup synagogues are “desperate for members” and that their actions are “siphoning off members” from synagogues that have not joined the synagogue wars.

“We simply cannot offer a quality Jewish education for free,” Rabbi Hecht added. “We have teachers and building resources — it all costs money. … They are hurting the organized Jewish community.

“The pressure is on for us to cut costs by cutting the amount of hours that our children are in the religious school to meet the same level that the bar mitzvah tutors are giving kids. But that would be a descent into nothingness.”

Asked about the charge that he is “undermining” established synagogues, Rabbi Stein replied: “We are meeting the needs of the modern Jewish family. It is our expectation that after the youngest child has become bar or bat mitzvah that most of our families will remain members because of the modest pricing of our synagogue. For a price of $360, plus the cost of High Holy Day tickets, I believe we are going to accomplish our goal.”

He acknowledged that “local congregations were not pleased” when he opened two years ago.

But he said he attracted many unaffiliated Jews and some who were members of “more expensive synagogues and were unable to afford the cost.”

“The recent trend has been that families can’t afford membership and the building fund and Hebrew school, and they say they are just going to get their child tutored,” Rabbi Stein said. “We are an alternative to that because we are half the price of a traditional congregation.”

He pointed out that “many families would rather take the $3,000 it costs to be a member of a typical Reform congregation in the area and spend it on a cruise after their children are bar and bat mitzvah. I’m seeking to make sure that congregants stay affiliated with a synagogue on a long-term basis and that it should be affordable.”

Rabbi Stein said his congregation did not affiliate with the Union for Reform Judaism because “the primary support the Union affords a congregation is clergy — and we have clergy; the clergy formed the congregation.”

Rabbi’s Stein’s father, Stephen Stein, serves as the congregation’s cantor. He formerly served as the cantor of the Huntington Jewish Center and Temple Beth Torah in Melville.

This series is made possible by a grant from The Jewish Week Investigative Journalism Fund.
 

Last Update:

08/27/2013 - 17:28

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Visiting the Facebook page of "Temple Shalom of Woodbury" raises some real ethical concerns. They have 3,142 "Likes" - about twice the amount of the largest New York area synagogues. A closer look reveals that most of these "likes" come from western Africa, Indonesia and other international locales - they are obviously not from real, engaged members of the community. Checking today, there are only 4 people "talking about this" - meaning actually commenting on or liking their Facebook posts. Allowing these phony "likes" to make them look larger and more popular than they are says a lot about the leadership of this group.

I don't live in LI but I am a member of the ex board of my conservative temple. We see the problems of shrinking membership also but no one is talking about the real causes for concern. Jews of today don't take their Judaism seriously until they need a Rabbi for some reason. Most young Jews today, if they are not embedded in Judaism at an early age, choose other activities instead of studying Hebrew and parents (most of whom are unaffiliated themselves until Bar/Bat mitzvah time) encourage everything and anything that is not religious. This is one of the best examples of what's killing the movement. Our temple has a huge parking lot that is only filled on the high holidays or if there is a simcha or (unfortunately) a funeral. We offer Shimchat Shabbat services during the school year and maybe get 40 persons showing up even though we offer a free Kiddush luncheon. Our Rabbi is available on her cell most of the time but only is physically in temple during the week for about 8 hours (not including Shabbat). She uses social media to keep in touch through a blog and gets most of her Dvar Torah speeches from the internet. The ones she gives from the heart are much more appealing.
Another thing is what the Rabbi's Union(s) say we must pay our Rabbi(s) without taking into consideration the size of the congregation or the economy of the area. Luckily our Rabbi has agreed to work with us to keep her job, but then she also now has over 2 months total vacation time per year. That's a really nice benefit. I wish I knew enough Hebrew to apply for the job. If parents don't show the children that they themselves are proud to be a Jew then how do they expect the kids to get the message? I applaud the movement of low cost Hebrew schools and start up synagogues I only hope they keep their goals straight.
Thanks for reading this.

Of course, independent minyanim will eventually crush all synagogues because they don't charge membership fees or have to pay rabbi's salaries :-)

Come on, give me a break folks.

The enemy of the Jewish community is not our fellow Jews, our religious leaders, or our congregations, but APATHY. APATHY is what kills community. Apathy is why people don't even think about affiliating, let alone switching where they affiliate.

And as a side note, the reason people switch synagogues has little, if anything, to do with money. It usually has to do more with their involvement in the community and a feeling of being "let down" for one reason or another. The people who switch shuls because the Hebrew school is cheaper are just looking for a degree-mill style space where they can get their kid bnai mitzvah and then drop out entirely...they're not worth fighting over congregationally because they don't provide anything in the long term.

Thought #1: We live in a country where capitalism is a major principle. Products are offered at various prices, and if they are of similar quality, folks go with the products that are at lower prices. Then the higher priced products must either raise their quality or lower their prices. This is very basic. So it sounds like the established congregations are either too costly or not meaningful enough. They should do better at one or the other or both.

Thought #2: This whole conversation is premised on the idea that individuals should choose one synagogue as their all-encompassing Jewish home. Why? Why do we create membership structures and communities where participation in one Jewish organization is viewed as damaging the other Jewish organizations? Honestly, in today's world, it is possible to have a meaningful Jewish life for a cheaper price than ever before. The arguments for synagogue membership are dwindling, if the costs are going to be so high and the product generally pretty mediocre.

My husband and I are members of Temple Shalom. We were not poached. We formerly belonged to another local Temple where we were active and happy. However, as our family needs changed we were not as involved and we tired of paying the high dues. We actively looked for an alternative and were pleased to find one. If we had not, we probably would not be affiliated at all. Temple Shalom is meeting a need.

What the reporter fails to identify is that "Temple Shalom" was formed, not by a community looking for a worship or school alternative, rather by a father/son clergy team following a failed contract renegotiation with a traditional affiliated congregation. To suggest that this follows the Chabbad model is an insult to Chabbad and to give press to this "Temple" is at the least, counterproductive.

It's good to see some competition among synagogues and some new approaches. For too long, the current model of bar mitzvah-mill congregations with overpaid rabbis and scheming, politicized boards has been drifting toward dissolution. Increasingly, people don't want that any more, and they are voting with their feet. What builds congregations are dynamic rabbis. The solution is not necessarily in the amount of money being charged. It is in the need for charismatic leaders who can speak from the heart, teach, guide,and nurture. When people value something, they wil pay for it. I doubt that the people who say they can't afford membership dues are doing without cable TV, the internet, or cell phones. For these things, they find the money.

I live in Manhattan. My wife and I belong to a Conservative synagogue nearby and we send our young son to religious school there. The dues and tuition are atrocious (as was his nursery school tuition there). We pay them because we want to be part of the organized Jewish community and we have friends at the synagogue. However, living in Manhattan is expensive and the costs of the synagogue are a tremendous burden. I understand why so many Jewish families, especially young ones, don't belong to traditional synagogues. Maybe competition from these "start-up" synagogues will be a catalyst for established synagogues to get their operations in order and offer a better and more affordable option.

full-time rabbi spends most of his time on "shul affairs" which are circularly self-creating and self-perpetuating.

Fewer congregants spending less time in shul still doesn't result in smaller staff.

I, my husband and our two sons received our b'nai mitzvot under Cantor Stein. When we learned he was leaving the reform synagogue to which we had belonged for twenty years we followed him out of love and loyalty. Temple Shalom is a joyful labor of family love. Cantor Stephen Stein (who is also a rabbi and holds a doctorate in music education) and his son, Rabbi Alan Stein (also both a cantor and a successful attorney,) are joined by their families in making this congregation happen. It is far from a business venture. Linda Stein, Cantor's wife, is lovable, and the soul of sisterhood. "Mitchie," Rabbi's brother-in-law, is temple president. Alana, Rabbi's sister, is chief administrator. Dr. Julie Izen, Rabbi's adorable wife, is the omnipresent spirit of the congregation, his two beautiful daughters often sing on Friday nights, and his little son, equally adorable, is someone whom everyone looks forward to seeing.
Temple Shalom represents the hope and joy of organized Judaism, and a new way for the modern reform Jew to become affiliated.

I am so lucky to be a member of Manetto Hill Jewish Center. For over 23 years, I have witnessed MHJC do amazing things for the community at large - from spearheading a community drive to purchase an ambulance for Israel, organizing a rally for Gilad Shalit, to refurbishing a Holocaust Torah and with it, teaching about and memorializing a forgotten community. While I am proud of those accomplishments and many others, I am equally proud of our commitment to the Plainview community. MHJC's recent elimination of Hebrew school tuition and building fund is one such example. This initiative was borne out of a realization that the standard of living is so high on Long Island, so as to render synagogue dues and Hebrew school tuition unaffordable for many people. So important is the need to educate our children, that MHJC has taken the necessary steps to make such an education available to those who seek it. Manetto Hill Jewish Center has been growing for quite some time and, thus, while the elimination of tuition may certainly bring in more members, I believe it is our outreach, innovative programming and welcoming nature that are the reasons so many people are attracted to MHJC. To now be able to be the leader in responding to the financial needs of our community, is just one more feather in a well-feathered cap.

I COMMEND Manetto Hill Jewish Center on their response to the needs of the community! In Conservative Judaism, they are on the forefront of change. Life is hard on Long Island and to make choices between camp, extra curricular activities and Temple Membership is a difficult choice. Temple Shalom provides an alternative to the conventional Reform congregation and makes it the most affordable Reform congregation in the area. As an aside, I am certain that 100 years ago Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan ruffled a few feathers along the way. Look at what Kaplan started! Kudos to Manetto Hill for being responsive! -

Rabbi Stein’s thinking that the public would believe that his temple’s location in a heavily Synagogue- saturated area was to save unaffiliated families is the epitome of hypocrisy and denial. Temple Shalom’s presence was a major contributor to the failing of Temple Beth Elohim and the decisions of several temples to lower costs by cutting time in their religious schools in order to compete. If Rabbi Stein was as altruistic as he believes, then he would have moved to a place where there is no Synagogue. He is no hero and certainly not an example of how a Rabbi should behave.

As a former unhappy Temple Beth Elohim member and current very happy Temple Shalom member, I can say that TBE has no one to blame but themselves for their loss of membership. A long tradition of temple exodus and unaffiliation after the end of Hebrew school was the norm, not the exception. It was not unusual to hear stories of families bouncing from one temple to another in Plainview and even into Syosset. Temple Chaverim and others all welcomed each other's castoffs. I highly recommend Rabbi and Cantor Stein and Temple Shalom for anyone looking for clergy that are "mensches" and a Hebrew education and service that will make your child's bar/bat mitzvah experience fabulous. They do a great job with the High Holidays also and it's no surprise many are choosing to attend.

By the way, no one complains that the Mid Island Y hosts the Manetto Hill JC High Holidays. Luckily their parking lot isn't by the Plainview JCC!

I think it is awful for local established synagogues to be anything other than supportive of these new Jewish temples.

I really don't think the Commack neighborhood should feel that Temple Shalom is taking there members from Beth David. Temple Shalom is only renting out the facility to there own members. Especially since there Hebrew school and temple are in Syosset. They are not taking members away from Beth David. Surprising that they should feel threatened about that.

If I remember correctly, Temple Chaverim which has a beautiful facility in Plainview, started off the same way. They rented space at the Mid-Island Y JCC. The start-ups seem attractive at first but eventually their needs will grow beyond someone's basement or garage. My family and I are proud members of the Dix Hills Jewish Center. My children love to go there because the synagogue makes it a point of being engaging to families with children. For many families, they will find the money for what's important to them: summer camp, nice cars and clothing, family vacations. The Reform and Conservative movements need to do a better job making synagogue life a priority or eventually everyone will lose.

I am not a practicing member of any religion and I don't pretend to know how the financial world of religious congregations operates on the local level.

But like...I was kinda shocked to learn that a membership to a synagogue is considered CHEAP at $360, with average fees to belong in the thousands. Interesting on several levels: firstly, it illustrates the priority communal religious life holds for practicing Jews; secondly, the focus on day schools and Jewish education falls very much in line with the "survival strategy" that Judaism (the belief system) has adopted to propagate and sustain itself throughout time (contrast with the Christian insistence on "evangelism"). And sure, people may be struggling now because they live in a posh area like LI, but at one point or another they were probably quite comfortable there... So how are Jews who make like 30k and less able to afford synagogue memberships and stuff? Do they just get shut out?

Also, how is there not some large centralized non-profit whose sole mission is to funnel money from rich, religiously-motivated individuals towards community synagogues? Is there just too much hostility and ideological division between the left/right-leaning movements?

Regarding your first point, every congregation that I know of offers reduced dues and fees for those unable to pay the full amount. I've never heard of a case where a family was turned away from synagogue membership because of finances.

This truth of the matter is that the solution for saving American Jewry will not be found in synagogue or synagogue membership. It will be found in the Jewish education provided in day schools. The rest is commentary.

Are we really just talking about a rabbi's salary and benefit package?

The Manetto Hill Jewish Center even has a letter board sign by the road advertising that they're the most inexpensive temple in town.

Yesterday I set aside a synagogue dues statement for $2625 but will eventually pay it. My shul no longer has Bnai Mitzvot to speak of, the building debt has been paid off and Yomim Noraim access is included in the fee as is a cemetery plot. The Hebrew School is on its last legs. As a consumer I am not sure what the product is. We have a rabbi who is accessible and works hard but so does the $360 congregation. We maintain our building which is essentially vacant other than a few hours a week. There are very few days in which there are more than 100 occupants inside the building at any one time. And for younger families at the beginning of their careers, that sum can be burdensome and viewed later as a form of extortion to get the bar mitzvah they were seeking. While pay as you go has its form of problems, the need for the traditional congregations to rethink what they actually do to advance their membership may be of considerable value.

I like the fact that there are synagogues emerging that are conscious of today's economic issues. Even here on Long Island, people are struggling to make ends meet, people with good paying jobs, because the cost of living is so high. It's hard to choose between the desire to religiously educate your kids and keep them involved in other activities because of the cost factor involved. The fact that congregations are becoming aware of this may help to retain people where they would have otherwise walked away either after the bar/bat mitzvah years, or chosen the tutor route instead of the educational route. if traditional congregations are afraid of this issue, perhaps it's because they've gotten themselves to a point where they should be afraid because they have lost sight of the important things. For example, why must a building undergo a renovation that includes lighting which burns so bright it rivals Yankee Stadium? Isn't that an example of wasteful spending of congregants overpriced dues? These congregations need to rethink the aesthetic aspect vs. the financial aspect. I'm sure this building would look just as nice, if not nicer with some low level down lighting.

Could the reform and conservative congregations be losing membership because they their "Judaism lite" has little to offer spiritually? To pay a couple of thousand dollars for 3 days in a temple may be too much for religiously ambivalent families. The huge buildings from the 1960's and 1970's cost a lot to maintain and the children of these reform and conservative temples are not joining or contributing since many have intermarried and assimilated.

This painfully simplistic and shallow analysis is no more than inter-denominational ad hominem snottiness. Nothing is said here of the history of American Judaism other than a passing mention of the history of American Synagogue architecture. A great deal has changed in America overall. Reform and Conservative synagogues now offer far more spiritual sustenance than they did in period before 1980 not less. They are weaker in their holistic observance of ritual which may be what the correspondent refers to as "Judaism lite." What the correspondent who hides behind a pseudonym fails to take into account is the crushing pressure on the middle class that has continue almost unabated for the past 33 years. Jews would rather not have to make choices about their observance on monetary grounds, but for many this is no longer a choice. There are many issues at play here. Why exactly are so many families "religiously ambivalent," as the secret author of this note correctly hints? The challenges to the American Jewish community at his time are large. Some are self-inflicted and some not. Clearly what is needed is kiruv efforts across the spectrum of Jewish denominations that seek to bring Jews an experience of Judaism that is helpful and spiritually nourishing to them without side efforts at harming the other Jewish denominations and institutions. This bonanza of low-cost synagogues and independent minyanim so far seems to be something other than that.

I'm a member of a Reform congregation which is not shrinking, and it has a lot to offer spiritually. It sounds more like the older, more established synagogues in the article are losing members not because of the cost, but because they are not being responsive to the needs of their members (not calling them back, not willing to switch the kid's class, not caring when they leave). If there were attentive to their members' needs like we are at the synagogue where I am a member, they might not have a membership problem.

the competition of synagogues is obviously ruinous. A GIVEN AREA LIKE Suffolk County should have one authority towhich all synagguers are subject. Alll rabbi should be paid a standard salary and allocations for educatinal made to each synagogue on the basis of the number of children involved. The standardization will stabalize the situation. Congregants are still free to make direct donations to synagogue or rabb i but the basic membersbup fee should be paid only to the central organization. It will, pay the rabbi's salary, allocate funds for maintenanance (cleaning, electricity, et.) There will be no competition and the atmosphere of the entire Jewish communitynwill be greatlyn improved. Youngsters will immediately feel theimprovement.

Thank you for this interesting article. It's nice to see news about L.I.

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