Writings from the Rabbis

Rabbi2Rabbi: an email dialogue between Rabbi Adam Cutler and Rabbi Adam Scheier (March 2017)
May 25th 2017


Episode 30 - March 2017

Dear Rav Adam,

An Anglican priest was recently complaining to me that while his older parishioners can be counted on for regular donations to the church's general fund, younger Christians are more attracted to occasional targeted projects. Anecdotally, I told him, we see the same in the Jewish community.

Research indicates that Millennials, while generous relative to their means, prefer supporting causes that can tell a story and whose success can be easily measured. They want to see (and often participate in) transformation.

Synagogues, I think we both agree, are engaged in ongoing, holy work. On Shabbat mornings, we pray for those provide for a shul's lighting, wine for kiddush and havdallah, food for guests, and charity for the poor. These are not sexy causes. They are the maintenance and operational needs of institutions engaged in never-ending critical work.

How do synagogues attract younger givers? How do we best sell our value proposition?

Adam Cutler
Beth Tzedec Congregation
Toronto, ON
416-781-3514 ext. 219

Dear Rav Adam,

I can share, anecdotally, that the research is not always correct. I have encountered many younger givers who step forward to contribute to causes that do not, at first glance, directly improve the condition of the Jewish world. My synagogue’s most recent push to raise funds to replace an HVAC system – and the donors of all ages who have stepped forward – might be a good example of a more generous trend.

However, I have heard many bemoan the generational divide that you observe. Perhaps it, like all other societal ills, it can be ascribed to spoiled Millennials’ approach of “What can the synagogue do for me,” as opposed to previous generations’ attitude of “What can I do for the synagogue.” This generalization is certainly not fair to Millenials, and perhaps not an entirely-accurate reflection of synagogue involvement of yesteryear.  

I prefer to think of the new generation of donors’ challenge as a positive one. Instead of giving because it feels good, or because it is our tradition, maybe they want to invest in success. Perhaps this younger generation is holding its institutions accountable to measurables that, for generations, were not the norm in Jewish communal life. They’re inviting us to sell them on the value and impact of their giving, as opposed to simply expecting that the funds will always be there. In raising funds, perhaps the language should expand beyond tradition and religious obligation; it must needs include the charting of impact, the defining of success, and the strategy for engagement and continuity. In other words, they say, don’t just assume that the HVAC is worthy of my investment – prove to me how it fits in to the overall mission of our synagogue!

Do you think that, in professionalizing the language and operations of our spiritual institutions, we sacrifice a bit of the “holiness” of yore?

Rabbi Adam Scheier
Congregation Shaar Hashomayim
Westmount, QC

Dear R' Adam,

I believe that measurables are absolutely necessary for the success of a synagogue, both to improve its own operations and to entice donors. Yet, as you suggest, there is reasonable concern that an undue focus on metrics potentially diminishes the atmosphere of holiness that we work hard to develop and that certain areas of focus are hardly quantifiable. How does one measure whether a Jew's prayers reach God?

With difficulty, we could count how many out-of-town visitors rely on Montreal's synagogues to be open so they can say kaddish. We can also count the number of prospective converts who rely on Toronto's synagogues for guidance and ultimate entrance into the Jewish people. However, even if the numbers are small, we can all agree that the availability of synagogues, which are the rare membership organization whose mandate is to serve a community far beyond its membership, is worthwhile.

With respect to the Tabernacle, there were two types of donations. For the construction itself, all whose hearts moved them gave voluntarily. Ongoing operations however were funded by a mandatory half-shekel annual contribution. I like to think about Jewish life similarly. There are big, one-time projects that require those whose are moved by the project's goals to give. There are also the quiet, never-ending community needs that are ideally funded by every community member. These needs are addressed through UJA and its funded agencies such as Jewish Family and Child, JIAS, and more as well as by synagogues of all denominations. Indeed, annual giving to UJA or synagogues (as opposed to more specific Jewish causes) is a way of affirming membership within the Jewish community.

How does your shul think about the difference between synagogue members and the community at large in terms of allocation or resources? How do you entice non-members to donate?

Adam Cutler
Beth Tzedec Congregation
Toronto, Ontario