Dues Blues: U.S. Synagogues Are Dropping Dues in Favor of Voluntary Contributions

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Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum of Kavana cooperative in Seattle.

NEW YORK – Temple Beth Tzedek did something radical a year ago: It dropped dues as a requirement for membership. Now people pledge to pay whatever they wish to the Buffalo, N.Y.-area synagogue.

Despite tremendous resistance and fear among many of the synagogue’s lay leaders, the new approach didn’t send the congregation’s income plummeting, says Rabbi Perry Netter. In fact, the shul brought in more than ever before.

Beth Tzedek is one of a growing number of U.S. synagogues ditching conventional dues in which each household pays a set amount each year for membership. Using a vocabulary rooted more in philanthropy and commitment than membership, synagogues are asking people to offer what their involvement is worth. It seems to be working, though many synagogue leaders are still resisting heavily, experts say.

While 25 or so American synagogues have already made the switch, many more are seriously considering it, says Rabbi Dan Judson, a consultant to the Union for Reform Judaism whose doctoral dissertation is on synagogues and money. The idea is drawing increasing attention, with a thorough analysis put out by UJA-Federation of New York’s Synergy department and a cover story by Reform Judaism magazine: “The Dues Experiments.”

Synagogues that have already put a voluntary system in place “have all seen either revenue increase or be stable,” says Judson. “They all say that there is just a better culture around money in their congregation. None have seen any problems.” Nevertheless, resistance remains in many synagogues — even where there is already proven success, says Judson and others.

Getting Temple Beth Tzedek’s board members to agree to switch was an uphill battle, adds Netter. They were afraid people would offer to contribute only a nominal sum to the 530-household-member synagogue.

In fact, the synagogue reaped $50,000 more than if all members paid the roughly $2,000-per-household membership fee charged the previous year, says Netter. And in no congregation does every member pay full dues.

“I have all these past presidents looking in the rearview mirror who begged us not to do this,” Netter says. “And our experience was exactly the opposite.”

“Most congregations at some level are having conversations about how they sustain long term,” adds Barry Mael, director of kehilla operations and finance at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which has about 600 member congregations, down significantly in recent
decades. “We’re starting to see more that are making the change” to a voluntary system.

U.S. financial crisis was a catalyst

Reform temple “memberships are down 5 to 10 percent in virtually every congregation since 2007,” says Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which has 874 member congregations, down about 30 in recent years. The financial crisis proved a turning point for many congregations as the percentage of members who could not pay full dues spiked.

That coincided with shifts in attitude: Young Americans don’t want to be members — whether of religious communities or country clubs.

They want to pay for the services they use, a sensibility that doesn’t easily jibe with the need to provide an always-available rabbi. Jewish community and spirituality are also far more available on an ad hoc basis than ever before, from Chabad congregations that don’t charge membership but ask for donations, to Jewish community centers, more of which have offerings that used to be available only in synagogues.

“The membership stuff has become very negative language,” says Freelander. “Americans right now are not inclined to become members of things. They will support causes and institutions they believe in but with dues they flit in and out.”

According to Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, “Social identities of all sorts are weakening and individual autonomy is strengthening, so people feel less obligated and interested in paying for affiliations, and more interested in paying for consumption.”

At Seattle’s independent Kavana cooperative, the goal is to provide easy access to involvement, says Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum [no relation]. There the emphasis is on partnership. Participants are asked about how they will contribute their time to the community, then about money. Those who commit are called partners and sign a contract.

“We want it to feel that everyone is buying in in a significant way,” Nussbaum says of the community’s 90 partner households. About 500 people come to High Holy Day services. “We also want face time. They have to show up if they want to be part of this. We say up front that coming once a year is not enough. We don’t want paper members.”

Those who want a lower level of commitment can pay fee for service, like a requested $180 donation for High Holy Day tickets. “It’s an empowerment model,” says Nussbaum. “The onus is on you.”

Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, a Conservative congregation in Philadelphia suburb Wynnewood, adopted an “investor model” paired with traditional dues. Members can choose either. The change was made after Rabbi Neil Cooper saw three years ago that the synagogue had a $150,000 deficit.

“Looking at that daunting gap, and looking down the road at a stagnant income from dues, I decided that this is not a scenario that can go on indefinitely,” he says. Cooper pushed for the investor model, using language that works well in his affluent area.

Regular membership dues are just under $2,400 for a household with two adults between ages 35 and 64. On top of that there are fees; for security, the Men’s Club, Sisterhood, youth groups, havurah, plus several times a year when the synagogue approaches members for fund-raising.

But if you choose to be a patron by contributing $3,600 or more, all fees, plus entrance to fund-raising events and an invitation to a special party, are included. No one hits you up for more. Contribute $10,000 or more and you even get a reserved parking spot on the High Holy Days.

It is working well in Wynnewood. “I liken it to a frequent flier program in the airlines,” says Cooper. So far, 122 of the synagogue’s 400 member households have signed on.

The old-fashioned way

Still, some communities, even experimental ones, are returning to standard dues. Romemu, the vibrant independent community on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which has about 500 member households, at first tried a sliding-scale model based on income.

“We had good reasons to believe that there were people opting into lower categories rather than the one they belonged in, so we went to a simpler model that gives people less leeway and assume that if people need help they would ask for it,” says Rabbi David Ingber.

He speaks frequently from the pulpit about “covenantal membership” during Romemu’s annual membership drive between Passover and Shavuot. “We don’t just want your money. We only want members who feel this is the community that feeds and nourishes them,” he says.

But Ingber makes explicit the potential cost of not contributing financially. “If you want this community you have to support it,” he says. “Romemu could fold tomorrow if the community doesn’t support it.”

And while most things — the prayer books, the music, the energy — at Romemu are notably different than what’s found nearly anywhere else, the community didn’t seriously consider a totally voluntary dues model, Ingber notes.

“I don’t think that the membership structure in general is broken. To say that is to locate the problem of synagogue life in the wrong place,” he says. “I still think it’s not compelling enough. If synagogue life is compelling, people will join.”

At Temple Beth Tzedek the voluntary system “is working and we’re continuing it,” says Netter. “Every synagogue has to go to this model. The dues model is oppressive. It’s really dehumanizing. If they’re being told by this faceless voiceless amorphous body of elders ‘pay this or you’re a charity case,’ people walk away.”

According to Netter, “How wonderful everybody feels when someone comes and says they can pay only $750 and we say great!” Before, needing to ask for a dues reduction, “the person would have come hat in hand.” The new system “is completely liberating. And it brings out the best in people. Not the worst.”

Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Philadelphia, and his wife Lori.Credit: courtesy

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