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In Hard Times, Communities Turn to Synagogues for Support

Local synagogues say some congregants are giving more, and some asking for more.

In hushed conversations with clergy and peers, confidential breaks on membership dues, and humbled pleas for food and medication, many people suffering in the tough economy are turning to their synagogues for help spiritually and physically.

"There are people who, because of their need or embarrassment, can turn only to us, and we try whenever possible to take care of it on our own," Rabbi Shmaya Shmotkin, director of The Schul Center in Bayside, said.

Although many people are asking for more help and able to pay less to their communities of faith, they are balanced in many congregations by those who are willing to give more.

"I think everyone's concerned and uncertain about what to expect, but we have, as a community, attempted to meet the needs of those who are struggling, and fortunately have had members who are able to step forward," Linda Holifield, executive director of in Fox Point, said.

Fitting Religion in the Family Budget

For most congregations, membership dues provide a central budget stream for synagogue operations. As individuals and families struggle with piling bills and shrinking discretionary income, membership dues have become more of a struggle, and congregations have responded with leniency.

"We have membership dues, but it's very much self directed and it's not a prerequisite for people's involvement so it allows for people to maintain their dignity," Shmotkin said.

Holifield said she doesn't like to use the term 'membership dues,' instead referring to the annual payment system as 'fair share,' a sliding scale based on someone's income. 

"When people were experiencing losses in their income, that meant reduced income for our congregation," Holifield said. "This has occurred for us going back to 2008."

At Congregation Emanu-El B'ne Jeshurun in River Hills, Executive Director Laurie Kestelman said occasionally members say they feel they need to resign from the synagogue because they can't pay their dues.

"We assure them that should not be the case, that finances should never be the reason," Ketelman said. "We don't let people go easily for people like that."

At the same time, many congregants have come to their synagogues in desperate need of aid.

Congregation Shalom has an emergency fund that they use for members that need immediate help. It can't be used on an ongoing basis, but it can provide emergency food, medication, housing or other basic needs.

Shmotkin said the Schul also helps its members in emergencies, and donates to J-Help, which gives emergency aid to Jews in the Milwaukee area.

"It's been challenging but we feel it's something we need to do, when a person's basic needs are at stake," Shmotkin said. "Unfortunately we've been giving out more with each year because of the need."

Kestelman, who has been working at synagogues for 20 years, said she has received "calls for relief" over the past two years unlike any she has ever heard before.

"People are stretched as far as they can go," Kestelman said. "People are nervous, too. If you see numbers going down, and especially if you're close to retirement age and you know your years of putting money into retirement are closing in, it makes you more cautious."

Congregation Emanuel also offers a sliding scale for membership dues, and she said the congregation has been exercising budgetary caution that matches how their members are managing their own money.

"In the past, it was normal to see recommendations to increase budgets by a couple percentage points, and then it went to 'hold the line,' and now there's an effort to spend less than what's budgeted," Kestelman said.

Making it Work as a Community

Holifield said Congregation Shalom has been able to avoid cutting services due to increasing donations from some individuals, and getting creative about fundraising.

"We are going to be developing a number of opportunities to assist us in offsetting some of the reduction we've seen," Holifield said. "We're exploring many different approaches."

At the Schul, Shmotkin said losses in membership dues and donations have been balanced by others giving more.

"We've found that people are very forthcoming and very generous and understanding of what the needs are," Shmotkin said. "I think people have to recognize the tremendous impact that average people are able to have in helping others, just through their empathy and compassion, and concern for one another, not necessarily relying on institutions and organization to fill those needs."

Shmotkin said he often sees members of the congregation reaching out to help each other mentally and spiritually, unrequested.

"When their world is shaken, there are those that when under duress will sort of bunker up and not necessarily seek that comradery and spirituality that would be a good benefit to them," Shmotkin said. "We try to be very attune to people's emotional and spiritual needs and we have a tremendous corps of people who don't rely on the clergy to do it but really do all of these things on their own."

Holifield said members of Congregation Shalom have also been making an extra effort to help their community.

"We've been attempting to reach out and make our membership aware that we are here to help," she said. "That's what we feel our mission is and that's what we're here for."

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