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Rabbi Nebel's blog

It’s All In The Numbers

Which is more important, quality or quantity? If one focuses on quality, one may have the item for many years. On the other hand, if one focuses of quantity, one can afford to suffer a little loss. For example, some cars were known to last for many years, while others were known to break down at around 80,000 miles. The cars that were made to last were considerably more expensive. So the consumer had to decide quality over quantity. Choosing between a fast food establishment over a fancy restaurant presents a similar dilemma. Strangely enough, religion has the same conundrum.
If one is a youth director and/or rabbi of a synagogue, one of the main roles is to expand membership. The reason for this desired expansion is to share the financial responsibility. The dilemma faced by the rabbi/youth director is which type of investment should one make? If one goes for numbers, one is potentially sacrificing relationships that can help people grow religiously…the purpose that the rabbi/youth director signed on for. If one concentrates on quality then the officers aren’t as happy because it is felt that more people are needed to share the financial burden. Also the officers want to believe that their “product” is the best on the market and if more people would be exposed to their synagogue, more people would want to join and then the rabbi/youth director could engage these people in meaningful, qualitative experiences. It is a dilemma faced by all religious organizations.
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch decided to invest in quality over quantity and was somewhat successful in his endeavors as a community of his design still exists in Washington Heights, NY. Rabbi Kotler also followed a similar path and started his place in Lakewood, NJ. Originally dreaming of 100 families, now Lakewood stands at a few thousand. It would seem that tour Rabbis of old chose quality over quantity and it seemed to have worked, but on the other hand, the question then surfaces and asks, what did we sacrifice? In the Talmud it tells of a story in which Rabban Gamliel limited enrollment in the yeshiva only to the best students. When he was deposed, they had open enrollment and had to put down many more benches for those students who weren’t up to the former standards but now were able to be admitted.
So one has to ask, is the board or rabbi’s approach correct? Is there a compromise that can make everyone happy? If there are 1000 members, can each one be made to feel special/important or is there going to be a time when people feel lost and disenfranchised? Should there be a cap on membership, just as there is capped enrollment in schools? What do you think?

The Elephant In The Room

With all this PEW talk and the impression that Judaism is on the ropes, I would like to explore an issue that I believe is untouched, namely the reason for lack of affiliation. I would like to suggest that the reason for lack of affiliation is that most people feel that one should not have to pay for their personal relationship with Hashem. One may feel that they communicate in their own way with the Creator and do not need organized religion to aid their desires. And to that claim, I must say that I couldn’t agree more! When Hashem presented the Torah to us at Mt Sinai, He didn’t demand membership via money, rather He demanded actions. Just follow the rules and one is good with Hashem. If one wants to learn Torah, one need only purchase a book or go to a public library and one can learn as much as one wants. Furthermore, one who wants to pray, can either talk to Hashem in one’s own way or use a standard prayer book. One can pray at home or in the office, or wherever one desires. If one wants to pray with a minyan, one can call 9 other friends and make the necessary quorum, holding services in one’s home. The total cost of observance would be negligible. But when one wants to join a synagogue, suddenly the cost skyrockets. Why must this be? Why can’t people just put a dollar into the charity box and be done?
The basic reason is that we live in a service industry. If one’s car needs repair, one may either do it oneself and save a lot of money, but lose a lot of time, or one can outsource the repair, save valuable time and pay someone else. The same is true for religion. It states in Pirkei Avot- The Ethics of Our Fathers- “One should not make a spade out of the Torah” which means that one should not make the teaching of Torah into a profession.” If that is true, than how can rabbis and teachers of Judaica accept pay? The Rav of Bartunora explained that “while a person should not be paid for teaching Torah, one is paid for the preparation time. He adds that one must also be paid if the community deems this a necessary service and wants the person to do so on a full-time basis.” Just as in every business there are many expenses that must be paid, so also synagogual life. Even without clergy, just opening the doors cost money. Somebody has to pay for the heat, air conditioning, kiddush, books, etc.
People remember the “good old days” in Europe where they could just throw a coin into the charity box, knowing the government would pay the other expenses. But in America, where religion and state are separate, it causes us to see the real cost of religion. The question that one must decide for oneself is do I want the religious services around, so that when one needs it, it will be there, or does one want to go it alone? What do you say?