By Zelda R. Stern
My many years of being single and deeply involved in Jewish organizations and institutions showed me the inequities in the dues structure and other monetary policies for singles and marrieds.
In 2001, at the age of 52, I married for the first time; before this, when I was single, I was a member of a number of shuls in Manhattan and in Long Beach, Long Island. I noticed that a few of these shuls set annual dues for membership for a single person at a price that was more than half the dues charged to a couple. For example, a couple paid $1,000 for a yearly membership while a single person paid $600.
In addition, when I received invitations for charitable fundraising diners, I noticed that the price of the dinner for singles was usually, once again, more than half the price for a couple. A dinner might cost $500 for a couple and $360 for a single person, for instance.
Both the disproportionate shul dues structure and the inequitable dinner charges seemed discriminatory, illogical, and in the end, not helpful to the organization’s bottom line: Its budget. Some prospective members or attendees, feeling disenfranchised and therefore disinclined to join a shul or attend a fundraising event after noticing these disparities would thus be turned off to participation in Jewish communal life.
After I joined the shuls and realized that their dues structures were disproportionate, I met with various shul personnel to discuss the inequities. I suggested that they consider changing the single’s dues to equal one-half of the dues of a couple. One shul changed its policy; the others did not. When I questioned why these shuls wished to maintain their present policies, the responses were: “This is the way we have always done things.” “Changing the dues would involve meeting with too many layers of personnel, including the rabbinical and administrative staff, the executive committee and board members.” “Singles have more disposable income than marrieds.” “Do you want us to raise the cost for a couple?” “We’ll meet with any single person who can’t afford the dues and try to work things out.”
I did not rejoin the shuls that maintained this unequal dues structure. I explained to the senior rabbis and executive directors why I was not rejoining, and told them that if and when they made their policies more equitable, I would consider rejoining.
When I received invitations to organizational fundraising dinners in which the price for singles totaled more than half the price for a couple, and I wanted to attend the dinner, I sent a check for exactly one-half of a couple’s cost. I included a note saying that the disproportionate fee structure discouraged singles from attending the dinner, and I asked that someone contact me to discuss this matter further.
No one ever returned my check or told me not to attend the dinner. On the other hand, only one person out of more than a dozen organizations ever called me to have a conversation about my concerns. In this case, after a meaningful discussion, the organization changed its policy to be more equitable toward singles. And even when lay and professional staff did not contact me, I noticed in future invitations that about two-thirds of the organizations had changed their policy, eliminating the inequity in costs.
The notion that singles have more disposable income is inaccurate. The single population includes the divorced and the widowed, many of whom are raising children without a partner and who have less money than couples and families with two partners. And a never-married single person does not necessarily have fewer expenses and more expendable income than a couple.
The corollary to this fallacious thinking is the practice, not so many years ago, of an employer telling a single employee that she would be paid a lower salary than a married person because she needed less money. In the same vein, I recently heard of a woman’s kollel in Israel where the stipend for a single student was a great deal less than that for a married student.
The response that the shul or organization would “try to work things out” with any single person who could not afford the dues or dinner costs, though sounding charitable in theory, is, in actuality, often humiliating for the would-be attendee, who has to ask for a lower fee and explain why she cannot pay.
Maintaining these policies because this is how it has always been done, or because changing them would involve too much work and time, are weak arguments that result in the disenfranchisement of a significant portion of the population and do not serve the shuls and organizations well in the end, as they lose potential sources of income.
Maintaining the status quo does a disservice to both institutions and singles.
Creating more equitable price-structuring will, in all likelihood, prove to be a win-win situation: The singles will be treated more fairly, feel more respected, and thus be more inclined to pay, and the institutions will secure greater funding.
Jewish communal life can surely be strengthened by redressing the present imbalance.
Zelda R. Stern, a donor-activist, is a founding member of the JOFA board, on the JOFA Journal editorial board, and a member of the board of Yeshivat Maharat. She speaks and writes about using philanthropy to effect change and mentors women in Orthodox leadership roles.
This essay first appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of JOFA Journal and is reprinted with permission.