Synagogue Perks Entice Unaffiliated

What does $1,000 buy you these days in Jewish life?

Maybe, if you’re lucky, a full-year family synagogue membership. But what exactly does that mean? Two tickets to High Holiday services? Free parking? Entree to Kiddushes?

At a time when families have limited time and money and so much competing for it, synagogue leaders are realizing the need to offer more to potential and existing congregant.

The Journal surveyed a number of synagogues in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley to find out what membership brings these days. Remember: Membership has its privileges.

No. 1: The "Come Join Our Synagogue So You Can Enroll in Our Day School" Model

A family membership at Temple Beth Am ( costs $1,925. The price might seem a bit steep, but not only does the membership come with two High Holiday tickets, but it also gives members the privilege of sending their children to Pressman Academy, the synagogue’s affiliate day school. Pressman Academy is named after Rabbi Jacob Pressman, Beth Am’s rabbi emeritus, and, according to its Web site, it teaches students "to be serious and committed Jews and responsible American citizens." The only way you get to send your kids to Pressman is if you are a Beth Am member.

If those are not enticements enough, then Beth Am also has a social coordinator who helps members meet each other by organizing havurahs, or social groups. The havurahs are grouped together according to age, and they that meet various times throughout the year for different activities, like going out to dinner and to the park.

No. 2: The "Join Our Synagogue So You Can Get a Discount on Our Other Institutions" Model:

With 2,500 members, Wilshire Boulevard Temple ( is one of the largest synagogues in Los Angeles, and it requires you to be a member of the synagogue (cost of family membership: $1,728, includes High Holiday tickets) before you can enroll your children in its religious school. But if you are wanting more religious education for your children than what a secular school can offer, you can enroll them in the temple’s nursery or elementary school. Both are open to members and nonmembers, but members get a substantial discount and get bumped up the waiting list.

"It makes financial sense to be a member in order to get in," Wilshire Boulevard Executive Director Stephen Breuer said. "Our schools are subsidized by the congregation, and the day school tuition for a member is substantially cheaper than for a nonmember. Our schools are part of the total synagogue experience — they are not stand-alone businesses that we operate."

Breuer said that in addition to the schools, the synagogue offers everything from children’s services on Shabbat to grief counseling.

No. 3: The "Come Join Our Synagogue So You Can Send Your Kids To Our Religious or Nursery School" Model.

Most synagogues are not fortunate enough to have a day school attached to them, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t care about Jewish education. A good number of synagogues offer an afternoon or Sunday religious school program for children attending non-Jewish schools. Many also have nursery schools attached to them.

At most of these synagogues you need to join before you can enroll your children in its religious school.

Temple Aliyah ( in West Hills charges $1,950 for a family membership, which includes High Holiday tickets for parents and children younger than 18 and the right to send children to its religious school. Temple Aliyah also offers a children’s program during High Holiday services.

No. 4: The "Join Our Synagogue Because We Make Religious Life Easy For You" Model

Beth Jacob ( in Pico-Robertson is the largest Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles, and while it can’t offer its members anything in the way of affiliate schools, it does offer a full range of religious services that are designed to fit into any schedule. Membership at Beth Jacob is $1,000 for a family, which includes two High Holiday tickets, but throughout the year that membership entitles you to your choice of three Shacharit minyanim every morning, as well as a large range of Torah classes throughout the week.

No. 5: The "Our Shul Needs You" Model

Unlike other congregations, Aish HaTorah Los Angeles ( says its primary mission is not building a congregation, but outreach to unaffiliated Jews.

"We are looking for people who want to be part of that commitment," said William Gross, chair of the Aish Hatorah Los Angeles Community. "Our membership is not just for the synagogue — we are packing it together with the outreach organization as well. If we sell $1,000 worth of tickets to the High Holidays we have failed, but if we get 10 people to help us achieve our mission [we have succeeded]."

Therefore, a family membership at Aish is $1,800, but built into that membership is not only two High Holiday tickets, but also two tickets to Aish HaTorah’s annual banquet, which supports its outreach activities.

There are other membership models, too. Shuls like Beth Shir Sholom (BSS) in Santa Monica which want 2 percent of your gross income as membership, with a suggested minimum of $1,500, which excludes anyone earning less than $75,000 a year (in fairness, a spokesperson for BSS said that people needing to pay less than $1,500 "could work it out with the executive director.")

There is a shul in Pico-Robertson, which offers a $600 family membership that includes High Holiday for all family members, but they don’t want to publicize it because "we don’t want people who are just going to come for the High Holidays and not come the rest of the year."

Despite the secrecy, that shul has managed to boost its membership from 100 families to 210 families within one year.

But the good news for those seeking synagogue memberships is most of the synagogues that The Journal spoke to, in many different parts of Los Angeles, said that they would not turn away any Jew because of financial problems. In other words, getting Jews to be religiously affiliated is more important than money in the bank.

The Light of God

Recently I had an opportunity to lead some adults through a group-dynamic exercise. They sat in clusters of five or six, and each person identified a strength of each of the other participants. There were some in the group who knew each other very well, others who were less familiar with one another. The result was actually quite remarkable. After initial discomfort at being asked to look someone in the eyes and articulate one of their strengths, the participants positively glowed from the opportunity to share their remarks. Their faces beamed with delight. Of course, those hearing their strengths enumerated (after their initial discomfort of being the focus of attention) appreciated the process. What was revealing for me was the joy that the speakers experienced.

This encounter was analogous to a stunning, powerful and beautiful moment we read about in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Moses pleads with God, "Oh, let me behold Your glory!" God responds, "I will make all My goodness pass before you … as My presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen."

Imagine what it might have felt like for Moses, standing inside a cold, confining, pitch-black cavern, not knowing when light would reappear. Fear? Uncertainty? A sense of loneliness, perhaps? Then God removes His hand. In a flash, Moses is able to peer outside into the light and see God’s back as He passes by the rock. Moses is greeted by an overpowering brightness, an awesome awareness of God’s presence, a transformational, inspirational moment of sight and insight.

Moses is only allowed to see God’s back, yet this limited view gives him a glimpse of God’s goodness. Moses has encountered God and has seen goodness. When we experience goodness in the world, we encounter God.

We cannot see nor can we completely comprehend or apprehend God. We can, however, recognize the places and moments that God’s presence has been in the world. We can, like Moses, see God’s goodness. One way we can have a glimpse of God is when we experience acts of chesed (kindness).

The goodness of others reflects God’s image. These acts bring God’s light into the world. Yet, there is more to this process: when you bring goodness into the world, it is as if you are shining God’s light directly onto another person and then it shines back on you.

We can stay within ourselves, closed up in isolated, dark, inward- focused places, as if shut up in a cleft in rock. Or we can move past our insulation and apprehension and welcome the light. We can look into the faces of others and be critical and closed to them, or we can see the image and light of God reflected in their essence. We can do good, and we can acknowledge it in others: a simple "hello" and "thanks for your help" at the supermarket, an expression of gratitude to a coworker going an extra step, a remark of appreciation to someone even if we are frustrated with them. When we do this, we brighten their lives. These acts of kindness not only bring light to the receiver, but they reflect joy back on to us.

When we recognize the strengths, the potential, the gifts that others give to the world and us, we can see a glimpse of God in them. When the adults in the small groups were given the opportunity to articulate the goodness of others, they were joyous. That joy is the spark of light of God’s presence. Let it glow.