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Free memberships: Is it good for the dues?
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Free memberships: Is it good for the dues?

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Preschool and day care families will no longer pay dues at Temple Emanu-El of West Essex, as the Reform synagogue in Livingston attempts to lure new members.

In addition, new members get to decide how much synagogue life is worth, and set their own membership fees for their first two years (as long as the number is at least $600).

“Our primary goal is to lower the barrier to membership, to belonging, and to facilitate the engagement of people in our community,” said past congregation president Theresa Edelstein.

As of June 1, families with children enrolled in the synagogue’s preschool and day care programs are receiving automatic, complimentary memberships.  (Because they are automatic, and it is summer, it is hard to know what effect it will have at this point, according to Edelstein.)

The changes are not limited to younger or newer members. Current members will also see changes. “We’ve taken a clumsy, complicated structure and streamlined it to reflect the reality of what we’ve been hearing for the last five or six years regarding people’s life circumstances,” said Edelstein.

Members will be divided into different groups, such as religious school families or empty-nesters, with different associated fees.

Life circumstances will be built into the structure to avoid what Edelstein called “embarrassing” or “difficult” conversations around dues relief. So, for example, a religious school family may  pay one of two standard amounts: a larger fee or a smaller fee. Members are on the honor system in determining which figure to pay, but either way they do not have to seek “permission” from a synagogue committee to pay the lesser amount. In this way, dues begin to shift from fixed, predetermined membership costs to voluntary contributions.

Underscoring this shift, everyone, even those who pay the full cost of membership — now $3,144 per year — will now be making a “membership contribution,” rather than paying “dues.”

Ultimately, the board of the synagogue plans to extend the concept of voluntary dues to the entire congregation, perhaps within two years. “But given the newness of the idea and the fact that we have a relatively new rabbi we felt it would be premature to attempt this for the entire congregation at once,” said Edelstein. Rabbi Greg Litcofsky has just finished his first year at the temple.

Few people familiar with the strains of attracting new members and retaining them expressed surprise at Temple Emanu-El’s approach.

“In truth, I do not think that any attempt to rethink, recreate, and re-imagine dues is at all unusual in any way,” said Rabbi Randi Musnitsky of Temple Har Shalom in Warren. “In fact, it would be unusual if a congregation was not engaging in all such thought processes and considering myriad alternatives to conventional dues in this day and age.”

Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair, said his and other synagogues around the country are weighing similar efforts. “We currently have a sliding scale dues structure and have talked about moving to something” like Emanu-El’s, he said. “We also have a young families’ membership rate, which though not free is much cheaper than our regular dues structure.”

“Everyone is tinkering with dues,” agreed Rabbi Dan Judson, director of professional development and placement at Hebrew College in Boston and a Brandeis University doctoral candidate in history focusing on synagogue finances.  “There is a palpable sense across non-Orthodox denominations that the dues structure we have known for the past 80-100 years is not providing the financial stability it once did. A large percentage — as high as 15-20 percent of people — have left synagogues since the last recession, and the dues structure is one reason people point to as to why they are unwilling or unable to maintain their memberships.”

Judson often consults with synagogues regarding dues structure and works on the issue through the Union for Reform Judaism. Temple Emanu-El has sought his advice.

“People are no longer willing to pay just because they get a letter telling them they have to. So changing the dues structure is a matter of necessity,” he said.

Eliminating dues altogether and making contributions voluntary, following a church model, is uncharted territory for synagogues. Judson said he knows of about a dozen congregations that have moved to a voluntary system, including Temple Beth-El in Jersey City.  

“Of course, we’re not talking about passing the plate on Shabbos,” he said, but rather eliminating the custom of setting a number and telling people to pay it or talk to officials about dues relief.

Judson suggests that synagogues need more financial transparency, telling congregants what it costs to run the synagogue and what, ideally, the members would pay. “The rest is left up to individuals to decide,” he said. “It’s about re-empowering and creating partners out of members. It’s really trusting people to value the synagogue.”

At Emanu-El, Edelstein acknowledged, there is almost no downside to providing the free memberships to the day care and preschool families. Prior to June 1, only three such families had joined.

“We are hoping that by being out in front of this trend, we will appeal to people different from other synagogues and our membership will grow, and that at the very least, our current members will stay,” she added.

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