Monday, October 03, 2005

Do supply and demand apply to religious services too?

(Oops! I needlessly changed the timestamp to p.m. when it was a.m. I've been doing that a few times in the last while, when staying up too late.)

This AP story had my attention:
Cost of High Holy Day Services Raises Ire

When their religious new year begins at sundown Monday, Jews across the world will begin a 10-day period of spiritual reflection to atone for their wrongdoing and reconcile with God. For many, holiday worship also will have an impact on their wallets.

Synagogues often charge hundreds of dollars for tickets to attend services for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, called the High Holy Days because they are among the most sacred in the Jewish calendar.

The expense of participating has become a simmering issue within the Jewish community, with leaders trying to balance their desire to strengthen observance with the need to cover costs. There also is a fear that high-priced tickets create a disincentive for Jews who don't belong to a synagogue.

"The holidays are a time for people to connect. When you distract it with money, it chases people away," said Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman, whose Hasidic Chabad Intown congregation has rented out an Atlanta hotel to offer free services to worshippers.

But congregational leaders say the cost is justified by the expense of organizing the services, which involves hiring extra clergy for worship that lasts hours each day, and the need to raise money for programs for the rest of the year.

"It's how we help pay to keep the lights on," said Mark Wolf, president of Congregation Beth Am in Los Angeles, where a balcony seat for services this year will cost nonmembers $180 and twice as much for a choice seat in the front.

"It's a fact of life our dues structure doesn't factor all of our expenses."

Each year, adults take off work and students are excused from school to celebrate the holidays. Synagogues with sparse weekly attendance suddenly overflow with worshippers who spill into banquet rooms and auditoriums. On these rare days when the entire congregation is under one roof, rabbis and administrators appeal for financial support.

Synagogues also face a crush of the unaffiliated. Many are young college graduates yet to plant roots, "two-day" Jews with only nominal ties to the religion and those unwilling to pay annual membership costs that can exceed $1,000 per family.

The National Jewish Outreach Program, a nonprofit that aims to provide basic religious education to Jews so they remain within the community, said its research on the impact of the costly tickets revealed that they were a turnoff and should be reconsidered.

"We end up charging so much money we push people out," said Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, director of the New York-based group.

At Atlanta's Congregation Beth Shalom, nonmembers pay $360 a ticket. President David Klarman said the price was set to prod families to sign up for the $1,650 annual membership — which includes tickets — rather than buy individual tickets.

"You've got to encourage membership," he said.

Beth Am in Los Angeles hosts an annual spring banquet, a music concert and other events. This year, the Second City comedy troupe is headlining a show. But Wolf said the 400 or so holiday tickets they sell each year is its largest fundraiser.

Some Jews who want to attend have taken to the Web seeking help.

Jason Glick, who moved to San Francisco last year, posted an online want ad in search of affordable tickets. "There's got to be someone out there who's going out of town or has a slightly capitalistic attitude," said Glick, a 22-year-old paralegal.

Budget crunch or not, rarely will a synagogue turn away a worshipper who cannot afford a ticket. And many offer deep discounts for students, military personnel and relatives of members. Synagogues across the nation have opened their doors free of charge to Hurricane Katrina victims, and some offer reciprocity to members of the same branch of American Judaism from other parts of the country.

In Washington, D.C., Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld's Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah Congregation sells tickets to members for $75 and nonmembers for $100, but allows anyone in the door for free. "Rather than view this as an opportunity to money grab, we should view this as an opportunity to bring people back to the synagogue. Jews belong to the synagogue," he said....
Let me preface my commentary by saying I'm not, in any way whatsoever, telling any people how to run their congregation. That said, it's unfortunate but unavoidable that holding even the most sincere of religious services generally requires money, and that they are subject to certain principles by which businesses are run. Even if a banquet isn't catered, the food must be bought. Electric and phone bills need to be paid, as do full-time clergy. (Here my friends Charlie and Steve would remind me of Mormons' tradition of an unpaid ministry. I recognize the benefits in its volunteer nature, however, I still see merit in full-time clergy.)

But what about congregations charging what most people would call "high prices" for only several days of services? The prices are apparently set higher than the cost of services themselves, although Austrian economics, in correcting the fallacious "labor theory of value" that Adam Smith, Karl Marx and others put forth, tells us that final prices are not set by the labor put in. Still, is it proper that a peaceful religion, with a very spiritual basis in devotion to God, accept being subject to free market forces?

I argue yes, as ungodly as some may think. Charging for tickets eliminates any "free rider problem," i.e. "two-day Jews" who may, for whatever reason, not share equally in the financial burden of running a synagogue. This applies to Christians too. Most people will accept that, since it takes money to run things and the money has to come from somewhere, it's only proper to give something if you attend. Let me add that I'm not at all criticizing anyone, and that pursuant to Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4, I believe that God has given us good guidelines, yet still allows people the freedom to give according to their own conscience.

The article did mention one congregation renting a hotel ballroom, evidently recognizing it otherwise lacked the space to host the expected crowd. While it may not charge specifically for Rosh Hashanah services, the money must still come from what people contribute, whether at a single time or throughout the year. And with all sincerity, a religious group will be dismayed at having to host guests who do not share in the expenses. Mindful of this, when I started attending church as a teenager, on my own and before I had ever held a job, my father gave me money for the offering plates. He was Catholic by heritage but became an atheist at 17, yet wanted "me" to help support the church. It was his way of giving to charity. These days I'm an infrequent church-goer; my home church, a little Baptist church always short on money but never on love, is across the country. Now I do not say this to boast, but when visiting a friend's church, I am mindful of my guest status and as such always give, so that I don't become a "free rider."

Shall we apply Mises' explanation of the price system, that they're the mechanism for allocating scarce resources to those who value them most? This is tied in to discouraging "free riders." But in this case, it's not necessarily allocating limited seating to those who will pay the most. The article has examples of congregations offering discounts, even free seating to those who cannot afford full-priced tickets. If any congregations are worried about driving people away, they should follow the practices of others: free or lower-priced tickets for those who cannot afford the services, with others paying higher prices as a form of charity. It can be done, for it's being done.

Statists cannot fathom the previous paragraph, because with their typical flawed perception of free markets and capitalism, they cannot understand how individuals, not government, are perfectly capable of helping the poor -- and that they have done so throughout the several thousand years of human history. Here we have another example of voluntary charity, indeed in one of the world's great religions whose members are often unfairly maligned as loving money more than God.

The article also mentions that the higher prices help fund the other services throughout the year. It might sound more ideal if people simply contributed consistently from January through December (in this case, Nisan through Adar I, or Adar II in a pregnant year), instead of a congregation depending on a few major fundraisers. Think of it like a monthly subscription versus PBS: the latter tends to be more consistent and is usually easier to plan around. Also, people giving as they attend means that they pay only for the services (meant in both senses) that they consume, which sounds more "fair." But this is all beside the point: the attendance is purely voluntary, as is purchasing tickets for popular services.

By definition, the synagogues being able to charge "high prices" for tickets means that people are willing to pay those prices, with the knowledge that they are probably paying more to support the congregation than others. Unlike government and taxation, those attending are paying out of their own free will, in accordance with their personal preferences. On the other hand, when Congress spends $60 billion (and that's just for starters) on post-Katrina relief and rebuilding, it is taking from the many and giving to the few, with no regard as to the many who disapprove of how the government spends their coerced tax dollars.

My personal view is that were people to follow Abraham's example and give regular tithes and offerings, even ten percent may not be necessary if a congregation is thrifty, and if enough people volunteer their time and labor. Also consider this scenario: the synagogue or church's lawn needs mowing. Doing it myself would take about 90 minutes, but I could donate $20 to hire someone who can do it in an hour. Let's say my time happens to be worth $20 per hour, so my opportunity cost (what I'm giving up) to mow it myself is $30. Normally we'd say it's more efficient to hire the other person, but is it not the greater gift to do it myself?


Blogger owlish said...

You lost me on your last line. God wants you to do things as inefficiently as possible?

On the other hand, there may be other reasons for you to mow the lawn yourself. You may connect more to the church if you support it with your sweat and blood, rather than just greenbacks. You may have a time of fellowship, if others are working at the same time. Etc, etc.

Monday, October 03, 2005 10:35:00 PM  
Blogger Perry Eidelbus said...

No, I'm not promoting inefficiency. I'm just saying that doing something for your congregation, when you could hire someone, is a greater sacrifice and is greater service to God.

Monday, October 03, 2005 10:43:00 PM  

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