The other day, I was out running errands and decided to try and get my daughter a new water bottle.
The choices were confounding. Plastic or stainless. Straw or no straw. A rainbow of colours or one branded with a cartoon character.
Then, there was the price. I saw bottles for $40 and bottles for $4. Sometimes it was clear why something was priced as it was, sometimes it wasn’t.
The sticker shock that can come with buying kids’ stuff always leaves me questioning the difference between something that’s a good price and something that has good value. How do you know whether the cost of something is worth it?
The same conversation takes place all over Ottawa among young families when it comes to the cost of being part of the Jewish community.
And the thing that usually gets it going is the cost of synagogue membership, a fee that I routinely hear from my contemporaries is just “too expensive.”
Given we’re into the High Holy Day season, it’s a conversation that’s happening a lot, though I don’t yet know how many young families in Ottawa belong to a shul. I expect we’ll know a lot more about this segment of our community after September 20 (this column was written in late-August) when the Jewish Federation of Ottawa publicly releases the data they obtained in a recent survey of young families.
But among the families I do know personally who don’t, it’s that, over the years, a synagogue membership has come to be seen as having value only to have somewhere to go for the High Holy Days.
I’m not sure how it became a thing for synagogues to require tickets to attend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
But that’s how it works in many congregations. So, the conversation about memberships turns into “Why am I paying what in some cases is upwards of $1,200 to go to shul three days a year?”
The easy rebuttal to that point of view: you could go pray every day, if you wanted, and thus a yearly membership fee of $1,200 actually works out to about three bucks a day.
Like those old fundraising ads – for only three dollars a day, you too can send a family to shul.
There are all sorts of pricing models out there to make a membership fee easier to stomach, beyond the age-old just having your parents buy you a High Holiday ticket.
Memberships tiered by age exist, though I’m not sure they entirely make sense. Do I get a pay raise at age 40 that suddenly makes it more affordable? No. Memberships tiered by income require disclosure of personal financial details that make some uncomfortable.
Some synagogues recently have tried to break the “pay to pray” mindset by providing a breakdown of the actual cost of running a congregation year-round, pointing out the membership doesn’t even always cover that expense.
It’s useful to know, and a good step forward in badly needed transparency about how the community and congregations manage their financial resources.
But, to convince someone to pay even a modest sum to keep the lights on, they have to care if the lights are on.
When my peers talk about the memberships being too expensive, it’s a conversation that always revolves around the cost, the dollar amount.
We never talk about the cost of not having synagogues at all.
I don’t mean to sound fatalistic, which isn’t much in the spirit of a New Year, I know.
But I’m only a couple of years away from no longer being considered part of the community’s emerging generation.
So, this New Year, I resolve to work harder to make sure when I reach that milestone, I’ll have institutions to emerge into that reflect what my family wants and needs.
I hope you’ll join me and we can together find ways to make building our community less about the fees, more about the memberships and together, have a happy and healthy Jewish New Year.