Including Those With Financial Challenges

by Paul Golin

At any given time, the majority of US Jewish households are not affiliated with Jewish institutions like synagogues or JCCs. There are many reasons why, perhaps the most important being that the organized community hasn’t made a strong enough case for the meaning and value of being affiliated. There’s a subset of the unaffiliated, however, who already understand the meaning and value – or who, like most affiliated households, simply want or need the services provided – but do not affiliate because of their own personal financial situations. And the size of this subset has likely grown during the recent Great Recession. What can the Jewish community do to make sure that a financial challenge is not the reason keeping an individual from affiliating?

During the past decade, we at the Jewish Outreach Institute have conducted “environmental scans” of over 500 Jewish institutions in more than a dozen Jewish communities of all sizes, to determine how each looks to potential newcomers. On the issue of financial accessibility, models vary widely but the most common remains a set membership or fee, usually dependent upon household structure, often with accommodations made for age or current lifecycle (for example, most institutions have come to recognize that young adults in their 20s can’t join at the same financial level as their parents).

For others with financial challenges, there is almost universal agreement among Jewish communal professionals that their organizations will make accommodations. However, how that actually works is in no way uniform and in fact represents a serious barrier to participation. In most organizations, those accommodations are not advertised in any way – the impetus is on the financially-challenged to ask for assistance. It is safe to assume that for every individual who does ask, there are many more that don’t, either out of shame or simply because they were unaware it was even an option.

This challenge is currently being addressed by the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, an advocacy initiative coordinated by the Jewish Outreach Institute of over 450 organizations seeking a more inclusive community, in a campaign called, “There’s No Shame In Asking.”

We timed the campaign around Purim because we imagined what the hero of the story, Esther, must have experienced before approaching her husband the king to disclose a piece of her identity that she had previously kept private. She must have feared rejection or being made to feel ashamed. Thankfully for the countless generations of Jews since, she did come forward and she was met with sensitivity and understanding. If there are people today who want to be a part of our community, perhaps to educate their children Jewishly, but doesn’t come forward with their financial challenges because they fear rejection, who knows how many countless future Jews we might lose?

To provide a more uniformed message to those with financial challenges, member organizations in the Big Tent Judaism Coalition are being furnished with large-format cards [PDF version here] that they can distribute to potential new members. The cards provide two key pieces of information: encouragement, including a standard sentence to initiate the conversation, “I’d like to learn more about adjustments offered on your organization’s (membership/tuition/program) fees”; and the name and contact information of a specific individual at the organization that is distributing the cards. The contact person is essential because whoever is on the receiving end of that sentence needs to be able to reply with sensitivity and confidentiality, and to clearly articulate the organization’s policies.

We recognize the many challenges in such an advocacy campaign, and why so many organizations have been hesitant to make public their willingness to accommodate those with financial challenges. Many organizations are hurting financially as well, and this approach seems counterintuitive to their bottom line. Others fear that people might take advantage of an organization’s sensitivity by lying about their financial needs. To address these and other concerns, we’ve initiated a conversation among organizations to share best practices, and additional features of the campaign will include a webinar of what we’ve learned from the field.

But we initiated this campaign, especially during these difficult economic times, because we felt strongly that this was a barrier to participation in Jewish communal life that we could address for those who are currently financially challenged; and that by doing so we could showcase our values as a community. We want people inside our tent. We want to serve those who are struggling. Those of us who may have struggled in the past but are in a better place now and want to give back, want to bring more people with us, and doing so together as a community sends a powerful message that we are extending our hands from a position of moral strength rather than withdrawing due to a fear of economic uncertainty.

We invite all Jewish organizations to participate in this campaign by joining the Big Tent Judaism Coalition, which is free and only requires that the organization aspires to the “Ten Principles of Big Tent Judaism”; learn more and sign up here.

Paul Golin is associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which serves as the coordinating organization of the Big Tent Judaism Coalition.