Dan Judson Part II: Judaism Unbound Episode 148 - Pennies for Heaven…and Building Upkeep


We continue our conversation with Dan Judson, Dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College, in the second part of a two-episode series, turning our focus to more recent history and to the future outlook for synagogues in the face of the demographic and religious changes American Judaism has been going through. Judson is the author of the recent book Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money. [1]

Image Credit: The Moth: True Stories Told Live

Image Credit: The Moth: True Stories Told Live

(0:01 - 15:21) To begin Part II of this conversation, Dan Judson hones in on a phenomenon known as “mushroom synagogues” [2] — prayer services (largely for the High Holidays) taking place in bars or theatres, available for cheaper prices than the established synagogues’ services were. Their popularity infuriated synagogues to the point that synagogues eventually succeeded in lobbying to make for-profit services illegal in New York City. Moving forward to the mid-20th century, Judson highlights the synagogue building-boom of the post World War II era. Simultaneously, he argues that this boom actually created an unsustainable situation, such that many congregations should be looking to merge with one another today. [3]

(15:22 - 29:39): Judson dives into the present-day. In particular, he looks at the most common structure of synagogue fundraising — synagogue dues — and calls for a shift away from that model. He critiques the ways in which institutions take membership dues for granted and create a culture whereby those who can’t afford the full cost of dues feel less-than. Furthermore, he says that such models are out-of-step with our contemporary society, much as selling seats became out-of-step with the early 20th century zeitgeist of democracy (discussed in Part I). Anticipating those who argue that “pay what you can” models are unrealistic, Judson cites data demonstrating that such models actually have led to an increase in both membership and revenue. [4]

(29:40 - 41:56): Continuing the thread about synagogue dues, Judson creates a picture of what “pay what you can” models look like in practice, [5] including the ways in which they could potentially rely on a few wealthy donors for a much greater contribution than they are asked to commit through a traditional dues model. To close the episode, Judson looks at the question of rabbinic salaries — both in earlier eras of Jewish history and today — emphasizing how rabbis have consistently been paid far more than clergy of other religious traditions. He also plays a little bit of “futurology,” offering some educated guesses regarding how the rabbinic role may evolve over the next few decades. [6]

Image Credit: UJAFedNy.org

Image Credit: UJAFedNy.org

[1] Learn more about Dan Judson by checking out his bio, accessible at this link. You can purchase Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money by clicking here.

[2] Read more from Judson on the subject of “mushroom synagogues” in this 2011 piece he wrote for The New York Jewish Week.

[3] To think more about the role of synagogue buildings, and to hear about one community that has chosen not to have one (San Francisco’s The Kitchen), listen to Episode 23: Hello Mazel - Noa Kushner, Yoav Schlesinger.

[4] Read the full report that Judson co-authored with Lianna Levine Reisner on voluntary dues structures here.

[5] Learn more about what the New York Times terms “pay what you want” models in this 2015 piece, which quotes Judson.

[6] Think further about the present and future role of rabbis by listening to Episode 68: Rabbis Without Borders - Rebecca Sirbu.