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Dues out, members in: Can new financial structures save our synagogues?
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Dues out, members in: Can new financial structures save our synagogues?

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Now defunct Temple Emanu-El in Livingston tried to institute a voluntary dues model. If the congregation had continued, the program would not have been “sustainable.”
Now defunct Temple Emanu-El in Livingston tried to institute a voluntary dues model. If the congregation had continued, the program would not have been “sustainable.”

Back in 2012, the membership of Temple Beth-El in Jersey City was way down, and close to 40 percent of congregants were on dues relief. The average age of the congregation was 77. And after a roof repair, the insurance company dropped the aging building, which was erected in 1926.

“Dues were not coming close to covering our expenses,” said Kay Magilavy, past president of Beth-El. “It was going to cost more to save the building than to build a new one.” At that point, she said, synagogue leaders were sure it “wouldn’t have lasted two more years.” 

But Magilavy had a big idea: Drop the traditional dues structure and create in its place a voluntary financial commitment system, with complete transparency regarding how the money was being used. 

Today, the temple is not only still going, it’s been able to undertake a major building renovation. The average age of the congregants has dropped to 44, with religious school enrollment up from 7 to about 60, and 15 bar and bat mitzvahs are scheduled for the coming year.

The approach that saved Beth-El is a model gaining in popularity around the country and among local congregations — and national organizations are taking notice.

In May, UJA-Federation of New York commissioned a report revealing that nearly 60 congregations nationwide have adopted the model. That’s twice the number as compared with 2015, when its first report on the practice was issued.

Locally, in addition to Beth-El, Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston was among the pioneers in adopting the model. In 2013 it was part of a pilot project to implement the system, with plenty of input from the umbrella organization Union for Reform Judaism. 

Beth-El’s Magilavy had seen the model in action in Cincinnati; there was no name for it then she said, but she saw its potential. Temple B’nai Or in Morristown started in 2014 and was singled out in the 2017 study for its thoughtful implementation. Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair adopted the system in 2015, as did two other New Jersey synagogues: Congregation Torat El in Oakhurst and Flemington Jewish Community Center.

Each synagogue has its own version, but basically, it goes like this: The congregation board calculates the expected expenses for the year, subtracts income from sources like religious-school tuition and space-rental fees, and then divides the remainder by the number of member families to arrive at a guideline or sustaining number. To ensure transparency, all of these numbers are presented to the community. 

For many congregations, there is also a volunteer component, designed to increase participation and engagement. 

Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains is among the newest to get on board — so new, in fact, that it’s not in the report. The congregation started with the current fiscal year that began in July. 

“The traditional model wasn’t working for us,” said Temple Sholom president Karyn Weingarten. “We were having shortfalls. People were embarrassed to ask for abatement. We were always chasing people down. We want people to have fun rather than always asking them to donate money. 

“We want their interaction to be more meaningful overall,” continued Weingarten. “Being connected should not be based on finances.” She acknowledged that the temple had lost members who could no longer afford the dues. Now, at least one of those families is considering rejoining, she said. They call their model Mishpacha, family, and it contains four components: religious services, social activities, social action, and financial contributions.

According to executive director Jill Wallis the idea is that people will touch on all four “in a way most meaningful to them to be an active member of the community. The balance will be different for each person.” None of the four areas are mandatory; only the financial contribution comes with a guiding number. 

“It’s not always a message that we need money,” said Weingarten. “Now it’s more: ‘We need you.’”

At Shomrei Emunah, with implementation of the plan, finances stabilized quickly and membership increased at a “breakthrough” level, but the volunteer component was more of a challenge, according to past president Nick Levitin. “It has been a slow process,” he acknowledged, but it is finally beginning to show promise. “There is recognition that it takes a community of participants to build a synagogue.” 

Some synagogues pad the base number to manage unexpected expenses, while others have regular fund-raisers. Some issue calls for donations to close the financial gap if one opens as the year progresses. While some plans have a minimum for what members pay, others will accept any amount, except zero. 

The updated report offers an analysis of 56 synagogues that is, on the whole, positive. Most of those synagogues reported seeing a rise in membership, if not as dramatic as what Beth-El experienced. They are also seeing increased engagement among the congregation community. 

Several synagogues, however, insisted that continuing education and reeducation is necessary after implementation. And after year three, even for those congregations that gain stability, the dramatic growth in funds and members generally hits a plateau, and members don’t always increase their pledges from year to year in line with rising costs.

At B’nai Or, executive director Wendy Gottsegen said, the synagogue has eliminated a “cycle of bad feelings” that came with traditional dues structures. Volunteerism has increased, along with “growing enthusiasm” among members for serving on the board. But in its third year, the congregation lost more members than it gained, and the average pledge declined, forcing the committee that first introduced what they call the Kehillah program to reconvene and consider how to manage the shortfall. 

Not every synagogue that considers the model embraces it, such as Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove. Instead, they’ve gone with a model that eliminates religious school tuition. “We saw that religious school pricing was a barrier to more enduring involvement in temple life,” said copresident Lynne Brennen. 

Temple Emanu-El in Livingston, which closed its doors at the end of June and was not included in the report, told NJJN that, for them, the model was ineffective. “Voluntary dues created a culture of ‘have to’ and ‘do not have to’ at Temple Emanu-El,” said Dave Spiler, a member of the congregation. Excluding those members with true financial hardships, he said, the voluntary dues structure polarized the synagogue. “Those who chose to pay beneath their means were supported for many years by even fewer congregants who gave above expectations,” he said. 

Over a five-year period, revenue as a percentage of dues decreased from 70 percent to 49 percent at Emanu-El. Over the same time, just over 5 percent of congregants participated in fund-raising to close the gap. “We needed to be accountable to the 5 percent of generous families that were seeking answers as to how we were not going to ask them for more each year while creating more compelling reasons for below-average contributors to increase their giving.” Ultimately, they ran out of time to answer those questions. But Spiler knew one thing for sure: 

“Had we continued as a congregation, it was clear that this model was not sustainable,” he said. 

Magilavy at Beth-El in Jersey City said that not everyone loves the voluntary dues. “It’s hard to break old habits, especially for the 70-year-olds. We’re changing all the rules, and leadership is shifting to a younger generation. So we have people who just can’t get away from wanting to make other people do things their way.” 

But, Magilavy said, for younger generations, synagogue membership is “very much a choice; there’s very little obligation out there anymore. People have to want to be part of a community.” 

It’s a matter of shifting the paradigm, she said, from a model that asks people, “Are you good enough to be part of our community?” to, “How can we bring you in?”

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