MICHELE NORRIS, host: Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow at sundown. And this year, the start of the Jewish New Year comes with some anxiety. Synagogues raise a large part of their budget during the High Holy Days, and as NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, many congregants can't afford to be generous this year.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: A few days before Rosh Hashanah, the cantor and vocalists at Adas Israel Congregation rehearse some ancient songs for a new beginning.
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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)
HAGERTY: They're expecting 5,000 people to gather in the Washington, D.C., synagogue to pray and remember their spiritual roots.
Rabbi GIL STEINLAUF: Rosh Hashanah is a time of renewal, and it's a time of reconnecting with what really matters for us as a Jewish people.
HAGERTY: Rabbi Gil Steinlauf says the start of the Jewish New Year is a time of spiritual awe and practical considerations. Unlike churches, most synagogues charge membership dues to keep the lights on and fund the programs.
STEINLAUF: The bread and butter of how you make a synagogue run is membership dues. That's how it works.
HAGERTY: And this year, the staff is a bit worried.
GLEN EASTON: It's as bad as I've seen in my 30-some-odd years doing this.
HAGERTY: Glenn Easton is the temple's executive director and finance officer. Easton says the recession is hitting everyone, even in this relatively wealthy congregation.
EASTON: More lawyers out of work, more business owners out of work - people who are in categories of employment that have been extremely generous and supportive over the years.
HAGERTY: Some are not showing up, embarrassed that they can't give as they did before. Easton tells everyone that they do not need to pay their full dues to participate. And he says the synagogue is thinking about ways people can contribute other than giving money; for example, unemployed lawyers contributing legal advice, or contactors doing repairs.
Rabbi DAN JUDSON: What I think the recession does is just exacerbate a trend.
HAGERTY: Rabbi Dan Judson teaches at Hebrew College Rabbinical School and is an expert on the history of money and synagogues. He sees parallels with the Great Depression - membership dropping off, a sort of spiritual malaise, particularly among Reform and Conservative Jews.
And as in the Depression, those synagogues that were barely hanging on in good times are having to take drastic action now. For example, Judson says some temples are replacing their rabbis, and searching for others who can energize the congregation.
JUDSON: Some synagogues are selling their building, trying to move to a model where they don't have a capital cost but are renting from churches, renting from community centers. Some synagogues are making the hard decision, and thinking about, is this the time that we stop being a synagogue?
HAGERTY: Some are closing their doors; others are merging to cut costs.
Rabbi PETER LEVY: So this is our main sanctuary, which is...
HAGERTY: Rabbi Peter Levy shows off his refurbished synagogue, Temple Beth El in Orange County, California. He pauses at the kitchen.
LEVY: We have two kitchens, one upstairs and one downstairs. So this is our kosher dairy kitchen.
HAGERTY: The reason they have two kitchens is that Beth El merged last year with another nearby synagogue, Congregation Eliat. Over time, Congregation Eliat lost members. They couldn't afford their mortgage, and they asked Levy's congregation to let them in. Levy says it was bittersweet for them.
LEVY: And even despite all the warm fuzzies and the welcoming and the embrace that they have at Beth El, it was a very difficult and painful decision to make. But ultimately, they knew it was one they had to make in order to continue.
HAGERTY: Synagogue mergers are happening across the country. But what's extraordinary about this one is that Levy's congregation is Reform Jewish, and Eliat is Conservative. And that's why they have two kitchens - one kosher, one not - and why they have two different sanctuaries so the congregations can worship in their own way.
LEVY: Half my colleagues think I'm utterly crazy. And the other half think it's fabulous.
HAGERTY: It's complicated, Levy says, but it's working. And the merger has given him a solid, two-year cushion for his budget.
LEVY: I think this is really part of the wave of the future, even if the economy gets phenomenally healthy. And we'll be a model for a lot of communities out there.
HAGERTY: One thing is certain: The recession is prompting synagogues to do some soul-searching about how they pay their bills, even during the most sacred of holidays. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
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