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Losing their appeal?

NJ synagogues conflicted about asking for funds on Yom Kippur

Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.

My wife and I have developed our own tradition. On our walk home from services on the night of Yom Kippur, she breaks into a passionate and completely unsolicited 10-minute diatribe against the practice of Kol Nidrei appeals. My job is to listen silently and keep my eye rolls to a minimum.

Asking for money at such an auspicious time is, she says completely inappropriate.

Some practice the custom of eating kreplach at the pre-fast meal; my wife and I hold an appeal to end all appeals. Literally.

But even though I don’t share her vitriol, I don’t necessarily disagree either. After all, Kol Nidrei is perhaps the most intense prayer of the year, so taking time immediately after we chant its stirring words to consider how much we can spare from our checking accounts doesn’t sit well. Nor does it jibe with the notion that business should not be conducted on Shabbat or holidays, especially so, one might think, on Yom Kippur. And in a synagogue, like the one we attend, that is filled with paying members sitting in seats many occupy for three days out of the year, it seems particularly distasteful.

“People often question the appropriateness of raising money for the synagogue on this day,” said Rabbi Dan Judson, director of professional development and placement at Hebrew College in Massachusetts and an expert on fund-raising in the Jewish world. “People are meant to be thinking about other concerns — about their own welfare and that of their loved ones and about improving the world, and not about that the synagogue needs a new roof.”

The practice, however, is well entrenched in Jewish lore, and Judson said there is evidence of High Holy Day solicitations dating back to colonial times. In the 1790s, the president of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia declared that anyone who did not donate money would be cut off from the congregation.

“I would say that would be the first High Holy Day appeal,” Judson said.

For some, Kol Nidre appeals are little more than a necessary evil.

“The idea of having a fund-raiser on Yom Kippur — how can you do that?” said Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer of Temple Israel Community Center, an egalitarian Conservative synagogue in Cliffside Park. But the sad reality, he added, is that a shul has to pay its bills — electricity, heating, air conditioning, security, office and maintenance staff, the cantor, the rabbi, and much more. “Where does [the money] come from? This is the only time in the entire year you should have, pardon the expression, a captive audience,” said Engelmayer.

For the High Holy Days, TICC opens up the back of the synagogue to accommodate 200 additional worshipers who, according to the rabbi, won’t be back for another 12 months. “We have to impress on them that if they want to see us next year, you have to make sure that we’re still here this year.”

Surely the fund-raising tradition on the High Holy Days, including paying for seats, is a turnoff for many young people – often due to a combination of limited funds and a culture where they are used to getting everything from the news to a trip to Israel for free.

Many years ago, Engelmayer said, he persuaded the congregation’s leaders to try a silent appeal and to call constituents before Rosh Hashana to ask for donations. The response was “modest.”

Others have found success in eliminating the appeals. Four or five years ago Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell switched from High Holy Days appeals to an annual fund-raising campaign built around the cash flow of constituents, not the date Yom Kippur falls out on the calendar.

That practice came about for practical reasons. In fact, CAI’s Rabbi Alan Silverstein noted, the central prayer of the High Holy Days, Unetane Tokef, instructs the Jewish people to do three things to subvert the evil decree: teshuva, tefila, tzedaka — repentance, prayer, and charity, and for most, giving is easier than finding the time to pray or the wherewithal to transform oneself.

“Some people, philanthropically, are in the best condition to give their support in the fall, some on Dec. 31, some people when they get their bonuses in February, and some people, because [they don’t have to pay] college tuition, in the spring,” said Silverstein. “It’s not a cookie-cutter approach that’s tied to the High Holy Days.”

The strategy has proved effective, and Silverstein estimates that since the change, Agudath Israel’s annual contributions have increased by 20 percent.

Though hesitant to criticize others, Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair said that his congregation does not hold High Holy Day appeals, despite the possibility that it would bring in needed funds.

“I would say that a lot more Reconstructionist congregations are careful about how they talk about money and about alienating people in the way they ask for support,” he said. Having these appeals, as well as selling seats and urging attendees to become members, runs counter to the interest of engaging individuals and families whose connections to the synagogue may be tentative.

“Some Reconstructionist congregations, to their credit, have tried to grapple with alternative ways of being Jewish, and that has sometimes been a reaction to a country-clubization of Jewish life,” said Tepperman. He noted that Bnai Keshet holds an annual fund-raising campaign between Sukkot and Hanukka.

“When we are focused on fund-raising…we’re not honoring everybody equally, regardless of ability to give,” he said.

Rabbi Nasanayl Braun of Congregation Brothers of Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Long Branch, said that although his shul does conduct a Kol Nidrei appeal, it’s a “soft sell” using donation cards with foldable tabs, each with a suggested dollar amount. He estimates that the proceeds are under 5 percent of the shul’s annual operating budget, perhaps because most of the synagogue’s members are regular attendees.

“In Orthodoxy people are generally committed to coming to shul” throughout the year, he said. And it follows that “if you come all the time, that you’ll support the shul all year.”

Engelmayer echoed Braun’s comments:

“As obnoxious as it sounds, the onus isn’t on the shul, it’s on the congregants and worshipers who show up once or twice a year,” he said. If they attended more frequently, “we wouldn’t even have to solicit donations; they would just know they have to give.”

“Come to shul more often and we can do this in a different way,” he said. “Kol hakavod (loosely translated, “more power to them”), we’ll give it up.”

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