Synagogues adopt voluntary dues model

Synagogues adopt voluntary dues model

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The May 27 annual meeting of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, where a new membership model was adopted.     
The May 27 annual meeting of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, where a new membership model was adopted.     

Dues are going the way of the dinosaur at synagogues across the area including, most recently, Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair and Temple B’nai Or in Morristown. 

They are among about 30 congregations nationwide that are challenging the traditional membership formula. Instead of setting a one-size-fits-all amount, congregants are being asked instead for voluntary contributions. (Temple Emanu-El of West Essex in Livingston was among the first synagogues to experiment with this new model back in 2013.)

Nick Levitin, president of the Conservative Shomrei Emunah, likens the new model to public radio’s pledge drives. “We depend on your support and please remember how much we provide to you in so many ways,” would be the pitch for the synagogue, he said. “Whether it was the hurricane, or a personal tragedy, or a family simha — we are a caring and loving community, and a meaningful one. It’s a two-way street. Your membership sustains us and we sustain you.” 

In the traditional model, administrators calculate fixed costs (salaries as well as building costs like utility bills), consider the number of members, and set the dues. Anyone who cannot pay must seek dues relief from administrators and/or lay leaders. 

The new model says instead: Here’s the number we think we’ll need from sustaining members. Pay more or pay less; it’s up to you. 

“The idea is to remove any financial barriers to entering the synagogue and to ask people to make their own commitment, to lay their own stake in the synagogue community,” said Andy Silver, who served as cochair of the strategic planning process at Shomrei Emunah with fellow congregant Fern Heinig. The process began more than two years ago and led, in part, to the new membership model.

“It was a cycle of negative feelings,” said Wendy Gottsegen, executive director at the Reform B’nai Or. “With fixed dues, new members often did not have a good feeling when they couldn’t afford the dues and would have to ask for relief right off the bat. We wanted to open our doors as wide as we could and get rid of everything that added to the cycle of bad feelings.”

Leaders at both synagogues are optimistic that they have hit on a financial model that better suits today’s congregations. Shomrei Emunah’s Rabbi David Greenstein said they looked carefully at a study of the model, published in February by the UJA-Federation of New York, of the 26 synagogues that had adopted the voluntary contribution system, in addition to speaking with a variety of synagogues that have preceded them down this path. Although the study was not available in time for B’nai Or’s switch, leaders there spoke at length with administrators at other congregations. 

According to the study, “many American Jews today have lost the sense that the dues system is egalitarian. Instead, dues and the policies that surround their compliance can function as institutional barriers that separate those who can pay from those who cannot.”

The study revealed that despite the risks involved, most synagogues were able to meet their budgets under the new system without having to resort to a backup plan. (Since that study was completed another six or seven synagogues have adopted the model, according to one of the study’s authors.)

In addition to that study, a book on the subject, New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of Highland Park and his son Rabbi Avi Olitzky of Minneapolis, was recently published.

Transparency seems to breed engagement, according to Gottsegen, who reported that many older members have been surprised at what it really costs to run a synagogue. “They’ve been saying thank you for letting us know,” and they’ve been giving at top levels, said Gottsegen.

Shomrei Emunah had been following the traditional dues structure, although with a tiered system for different family compositions, from singles to seniors and full families; B’nai Or had used a “fair share” model, in which people were supposed to pledge based on varying income levels.

Neither system was working anymore.

At Shomrei, young people were not joining, and a divided dynamic — leadership versus membership — had taken root. At B’nai Or, according to Gottsegen, “Engagement was declining, including volunteering, participating in events, and taking board positions.” She continued, “People resented being asked about their income level, however mildly.” Instead, “the average pledge was at the lowest level, and we had a low response rate — we never collected more than one third of all the forms, and we’d just rebill people at the previous year’s level. No one was buying into the bill.” 

“We needed to get back on track,” Gottsegen said. “But we wanted people to give not only financially but also of their time and creativity so that they could make the friends, the connections, and the memories” that make a synagogue what it is supposed to be. 

Both congregations have been invigorated by their embrace of two slightly different versions of the sustaining synagogue model.

B’nai Or set its sustaining level by dividing its projected operating budget by its number of families. Last year  the sustaining member number was set at just under $2,600 per family; this year it will be just over $2,700. Additional fund-raisers are held through the year to cover extra building expenses, from replacing the roof to repairing shingles, instead of what used to be called a building fund. Now, in addition to raising the necessary funds more successfully, Gottsegen said, congregants are having fun together at social events.

Shomrei Emunah has wrapped all of its expenses into its sustaining level, so there will be no additional asks through the year. Its sustaining amount is therefore higher than that at most synagogues that have adopted the model, set at roughly $2,500 per adult. 

Both have incorporated a parallel track for volunteering. “This is not about joining a country club, where you pay for services. This is about the opportunity this model presents to be able to participate and contribute,” said Shomrei Emunah’s Levitin. 

Shomrei calculated that it takes 5,000 volunteer hours per year to keep the synagogue going, and shared that with the congregation. “Now we can make people understand that we are not Apple or Google or General Motors,” said Greenstein. “We’re not a big corporation that wants you to buy stock or a product. It’s just us.” He added, “We need someone to put out the tuna fish on Friday night, someone to help with printing material, and someone to organize Shabbat services.”

At B’nai Or, rather than calculate volunteer hours, administrators put together a list of all the volunteering options. Members are expected to survey the list anew every year, and each member is expected to take on at least one volunteer activity, as well as consider what skills and talents they can offer the congregation. 

Everyone involved views adopting the new model “a risk.” However, said Levitin, “doing nothing involved a bigger risk” at Shomrei Emunah, as at synagogues across the country. Silver said that before proceeding down this road, they asked congregants what they would give. With 70 percent responding, Silver said, “we’d already covered more than our dues, building fund, and Kol Nidrei appeal combined used to cover.”

At B’nai Or, leaders had similar concerns. Gottsegen said, “We worried about what we would do if everyone pledged $10. But that never happened. People really came together to make it work.” She added, “Every synagogue that had already done this said, ‘Have faith, you’ll collect.’ And that has absolutely been the case here.” (Neither synagogue has a real “floor” for giving; while some do set a minimum level — at Emanu-El in Livingston it was $600 — at B’nai Or it is “not $0,” and at Shomrei Emunah it is $36.)

Participation at B’nai Or also increased dramatically according to Gottsegen. More people came to every event, and joined and even created more committees during this first year of the new model. Social action events in particular have quadrupled in participation. And the synagogue got 45 new members this year, compared with 12 the year before implementation was being considered. 

Gottsegen said, “It’s such a relief from an administrative perspective and from a good will perspective. It was such an easy decision for the board to make to continue the initiative this year.”

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