What's Driving Jews Away From Synagogues? Not Dues, but 'Membership'

Faced with dwindling congregations, synagogues should stop worrying about how community members pay, and instead focus on the term being used to describe what they get in return.

The opening last month of the new $5m Central Shule in Melbourne built by ex-South Africans largely for those immigrants.
The opening last month of the new $5m Central Shule in Melbourne built by ex-South Africans largely for those immigrants. Credit: Pinni Flesher

It is no secret that the traditional synagogue model is showing signs of age: Over the past two decades, membership has declined across the United States, forcing many synagogues to merge and even to close for good.

There has been abundant analysis on this trend, especially after the Pew Report was released in the fall of 2013. Fingers have been pointed in various different directions, and, because there remains widespread agreement about the value of synagogues, varying prescriptions have been written to cure the ills of these legacy institutions.

One popular target is the traditional dues model that most synagogues today utilize as the backbone of their financial model. This model, which was developed and has been left largely unchanged since before World War II, stipulates a set fee that would-be congregants must pay in order to become a “member” of the community. Membership, in turn, grants the individual (and his/her family, if relevant) certain rights and privileges within the congregation.

Only a member, for example, can attend services on the High Holy Days, vote in congregational decisions, serve on committees and boards, or have access to clergy for counseling and lifecycle officiation. Aside from the obligation to pay one’s dues, little or nothing is generally expected of members. Members are free to utilize the services and programs offered by the synagogue as much or as little as desired or necessary, and are similarly free to participate in congregational life and leadership if they so choose.

Critics of this model often point to the high cost of dues at the typical synagogue, arguing that many American Jews struggle to afford them and, moreover, that many do not affiliate because of the expense. More to the point, critics of the traditional dues model point out that many Jews feel the expense of membership far exceeds the benefits. Considering that most synagogue members only attend their temple on the High Holy Days, and rarely if ever utilize the other benefits of membership or participate in synagogue leadership (especially after the last child has his or her bar or bat mitzvah), they might rightly ask what they are receiving for their two grand (or more) per year.

American Jews, especially young ones, who are increasingly less religious while, at the same time, experiencing greater financial pressures than their parents or grandparents, look at synagogue membership (and institutional memberships in general) as too costly for the value provided.

The challenge of the expense of membership is significant despite the fact that many synagogues offer dues reductions. Indeed, the dues reductions process at most synagogues – sometimes requiring invasive financial disclosures and committee reviews – is itself problematic. Critics point out that this often painful and embarrassing ordeal highlights the ways in which the typical membership model is out of step with the times, out of sync with synagogues’ purpose, and discordant with Jewish values. Many understandably choose to drop membership, or not apply for it at all, rather than face that process.

For these reasons, there has been a growing movement in the American Jewish community for synagogues to change their financial model. Advocates for change usually advance a voluntary-giving model of one kind or another, While there are a number of different versions of voluntary-giving structures (many of which are analyzed in detail in the exceptional new book "New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue" by Rabbis Kerry and Avi Olitzky (Jewish Lights, 2015)), they all more or less advocate decoupling membership from financial obligation. Membership is free, universal giving is encouraged.

Yet, many congregations are wary of transitioning to systems like the voluntary-giving model, as they are inherently less predictable and have less of a proven track-record of sustainability than the traditional dues model.

At the moment, my synagogue is one such congregation. Over the past year, a team of thoughtful and sensitive leaders was tasked with studying and analyzing these alternative models in order to determine whether changing to a new model would be right for our community. Ultimately, they concluded that the risks outweighed the potential rewards, and as people who cared about the congregation’s long-term future, they could not recommend a change.

As this taskforce presented its findings to me and our congregation’s “visioning” committee, I was disappointed. Years of studying the sociological trends and organizational best-practices had led me to conclude that voluntary-giving models were the wave of the future, not only because they were more in sync with the zeitgeist, but also because they were more in line with Jewish values of communal inclusion.

But as the conversation progressed, something dawned on me: the major flaw in the traditional model is not necessarily the fixed cost typically associated with membership but, rather, the notion of membership itself. Voluntary giving systems will ultimately be ineffective unless they address the fundamental flaw inherent in the traditional membership model. Similarly, congregations unwilling to part with a traditional dues system can yet remain relevant, vital, and vibrant, so long as they address this flaw.

How did I arrive at this conclusion? The more I heard the word “membership,” the more I realized that it is an inherently transactional term. A member of an organization is typically one who pays some sort of premium in order to receive certain benefits that organization provides at no additional cost. It is, therefore, the very definition of fee-for-service. Consider the things we are members of today: I’m a member of my gym, of Costco, of Netflix and Amazon Prime. The one thing all of these memberships have in common is that I am a regular consumer of their products and services. The membership premium makes sense so long as I remain a regular customer.

Synagogues, however, generally purport to be communities, not merely service providers. Community is supposed to be covenantal, not transactional. Communities are made up of people committed to supporting each other and to the infrastructure and systems that facilitate communal well-being. While a member of an organization is primarily interested in what he or she is receiving for him or herself, a participant in a community, while not necessarily sacrificing his or her own needs, is simultaneously interested in the welfare of his or her neighbors and in the success of the community as a whole.

Using the metaphor of “membership” to define belonging to a community reinforces and perpetuates a mentality that is the very antithesis of community.

It is precisely this reality that drives contemporary Jews away from the traditional synagogue model. Individuals who want Jewish experiences can consume it in any number of different venues, with much less baggage, and for much cheaper. One can effortlessly find a freelance bar mitzvah tutor or readily rent a rabbi to officiate his or her family’s lifecycle events. One can access all the Jewish information one could ever possibly need, for free, on the Web.

Thus, even those synagogues that have adopted a voluntary-giving model won’t change the dynamic driving their decline unless they also stop identifying belonging as “membership,” because even free or pay-what-you-want membership is still fundamentally transactional. At the same time, synagogues that are unprepared to adopt a voluntary-giving model can still transform themselves so long as they reframe what it means to be a part of the community.

How can synagogues do this? For starters, they can employ a term other than “membership,” something that connotes covenantal responsibility rather than consumer transaction. For example, a pastor friend of mine uses the term “teammates” instead of “members” at his rapidly growing startup church. I like that. “Partner,” “supporter,” or “builder” are also good options.

My humble suggestion? Use the term “friend” instead of “member.” Why? First, because the Hebrew word for member is haver, which also means friend. (Those who may find a change of this magnitude difficult can take comfort in the strong linguistic continuity between the two terms.) Second, because there are few words more evocative of a covenantal relationship than “friend,” a concept virtually synonymous with support, interdependence, and sharing, all essential elements of communal participation.

Friendship isn’t free. As a midrash puts it, “One only acquires a friend through great effort” (Sifre Devarim, Piska 305). Thus, it is not inherently antithetical for a synagogue to expect potential friends to give a specific financial amount as a statement of their dedication and as an acknowledgement that covenantal communities require resources to sustain them. However, the term “dues” is as fraught with unhelpful transactional connotations as “membership,” so it should probably also be replaced, perhaps with something like “investment” or “commitment.”

But synagogues must also make clear to potential friends that belonging to community is not a fee-for-service transaction. True friendship also takes a commitment of one’s time and talent. Becoming a friend of a synagogue community must thus also require active personal involvement – participation in programs and in leadership – in addition to monetary commitment. Only then can friendship fulfill the promise it implies, and only then can synagogues truly flourish.

Synagogues in our era will only flourish if they cease being transactional, service-providing organizations and become true covenantal communities. Changing terminology won’t itself accomplish this task. But then again, recall that when God set about creating the world, God chose to do so through words.

Rabbi Michael Knopf is rabbi of Temple Beth-el in Richmond, Virginia, and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow. Named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis" by The Jewish Daily Forward, he enjoys movies, traveling, and pizza. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiKnopf.

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