Dues have gone the way of the dinosaur at Congregation Torat El in Oakhurst. It is among about 30 congregations nationwide that are challenging the traditional membership formula. Instead of setting a one-size-fits-all amount, beginning with the upcoming fiscal year congregants will be asked for voluntary contributions to the Conservative synagogue.
Torat El’s Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun likens the new model to public radio’s pledge drives or museum policies of suggested donations.
“The Torah talks about how when the tabernacle was built, each person brought gifts according to their means, but everyone contributed,” he said. “I hope this changes the feeling of the congregation, in how they participate, take part in the community, and volunteer. My hope is that this model creates a sense of connection, buy-in, and ownership, where people feel it’s their congregation.”
In the traditional model, synagogue administrators calculate fixed costs (salaries as well as building costs like utility bills and the like), consider the number of members, and then set the dues. Anyone who cannot pay must seek dues relief from administrators and/or lay leaders.
The new model instead says, here’s the number we think we’ll need from sustaining members. Pay more or pay less, it’s up to you.
For Schonbrun, the new policy better reflects Jewish values. He suggested that the traditional membership model created the expectation of services — like a fee-for-service model, where people would ask, What am I getting? Instead, he said, “This is a two-way relationship.”
The process was part of a fuller revisioning and strategic planning undertaking at the synagogue, which is the result of a merger of two congregations five years ago.
“We have been looking at every aspect of our operation to increase engagement. Funding is just one component,” said president Andrew Robbins. He looks at the congregation “as a community building relationships. One aspect is a spiritual relationship. Another is a fiscal relationship — how do we relate to the financial aspect of the congregation?”
Robins concluded that the membership model turns the fiscal relationship into something akin to one’s relationship with utilities.
“We’re not a water bill. This is your community. That’s the difference,” he said. “When you start a new community, leaders gather together and enlist their friends and everyone pays what they can. Telling people they have to pay $2,000 wouldn’t work then. So why do we think it will work now?”
He said he finds the new model “liberating,” especially when it comes to affordability. “If I’m not in a financially good position, my options were to seek dues relief or quit. Now people can make a difficult decision to be part of the community and give what they can.”
Administrators at the 465-family member synagogue are optimistic that they have hit on a financial model that better suits today’s synagogues. Schonbrun 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 model.
According to the study, “Are Voluntary Dues Right for Your Synagogue?,” “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.
At Torat El, Robbins said they were having a similar experience.
(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, has just been published.
Under the new format at Torat El, the “sustaining member” or suggested price is $2,600 for families. But members can pay what they want, with a minimum set at $400. Membership dues were formerly set at $1,900 for families and $900 for singles. Robbins said more people have pledged to pay a number higher than their former dues for the upcoming fiscal year than those who said they would decrease their contributions.
The synagogue is also offering incentives to make higher giving more appealing, from recognition in donor listings at the sustaining level; to complimentary membership in sisterhood, brotherhood, or Hazak; to a reserved High Holy Day parking space. The incentives get better with the amount given.
“The bottom line is that if synagogues want to last, congregants must be invested financially, spiritually, and as volunteers. That’s the bread and butter of synagogue life,” said Schonbrun.