What if a synagogue didn’t charge dues?

What if a synagogue didn’t charge dues?

Rabbis Kerry and Avi Olitzky challenge old congregation models

Rabbis Kerry and Avi Olitzky are asking shrinking synagogues to consider the once unthinkable: stop charging dues.

With health clubs and cultural institutions dropping the “membership” model in favor of cultivating individuals, synagogue might consider a number of alternatives. For example, a synagogue might welcome all members of a community to use its services, but charge only for “upgrades” or “premium services,” such as pastoral care or religious school.

The “pay as you go” concept for American synagogues is just one of 10 models the father-and-son team offers in their forthcoming book, New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue: From Traditional Dues to Fair Share to Gifts from the Heart (Jewish Lights Publishing).

And if its ideas strike some as radical, that’s part of their point.

“We are in an era of transition for the Jewish community and my father and I both believe in order for our community to get ahead of the curve we have to transform the synagogue,’ said Avi Olitzky, assistant rabbi at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minn. “The Jewish community across the country is voting with their feet more than ever before,” he noted, but in many cases leadership “is finally ready to deal with the tumult at hand.”

“Just about every synagogue and Jewish institution is struggling with this notion of membership and consistency of revenue stream,” said his father Kerry, a North Brunswick resident and executive director of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. “However, the diminution of membership is as much an American phenomenon as a Jewish phenomenon.”

The new book, the latest of more than 70 Kerry has authored or co-authored, not only offers new financial models for struggling synagogues, but offers guidance in redefining the synagogue’s mission for the 21st century.

The book lists 24 reasons why Jews should participate in synagogue life, although not every reason or model is applicable to every shul.

“We have to move from issues of affiliation to that of engagement,” Kerry said. “The first thing we have to do is define the mission of the institution and help membership understand the benefits of participation in that particular institution. That is something we don’t often do or communicate in the Jewish community.”

As a synagogue rethinks and defines its mission it needs to focus not so much on its costs, but the benefits it provides.

“It’s not so much the fact that people can’t afford to belong as much as it is an issue of the value they receive in return,” said Kerry. “Ideally, a synagogue should be a place to engage God, encounter God, and wrestle with God, but the system has made sure it’s a place that not always meets this promise. It should be a place where the big questions of life are answered, a place I can find community with meaning. It’s not about trying to get members. It’s about engaging people, serving members. That has to come first.”

In a separate interview, Avi Olitzky said his own 1,250-family member Conservative synagogue does charge dues and is growing monthly, but he said that is more a reflection of its vitality and innovation rather than an “antiquated” dues system. 

Programming aimed at a wider community is a special draw. For example, it recently featured a talk by Taya Kyle, widow of Chris Kyle, whose story was featured in the Academy Award-nominated movie, American Sniper. Although the subject matter was not Jewish per se, it drew more than 1,000 people, not all of them members.

The previous night, a Tu B’Shevat seder featured four celebrity chefs. It drew 175 participants, half of whom weren’t members.

“My father often talks about institutional Darwinism and I believe if synagogues don’t change then they’ll be forced to change,” said Avi. “It’s not all about adding cool, hip events. I believe the majority of American synagogues, even five years from now, will not look anything like they did five years ago. Most synagogues operate as risk adverse and lean toward managing hemostasis, but the next generation is looking for communities that meet them where they are. They don’t expect institutional fealty.

Both rabbis stressed the need for new models of membership and finance to “get ahead of the curve.”

“Every synagogue in every community is different,” said Avi. “But the membership dues system forces synagogues to view their members as commodities.”

That outlook too often causes synagogues to stray from their mission in a struggle for financial viability. 

Kerry said about 30 synagogues across the country that have moved to voluntary dues are doing “quite well.”

Added Avi: “The only people complaining about what they are spending on a synagogue are those that perceive they’re not getting a return on their investment. They [synagogues] need to show proof of concept on why they need money.” 

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