Guess what? The Stephen Wise Free Synagogue is not free. Free referred to the idea of free will and one’s free-will-based affiliation with a temple. Most American temples – even free ones – charge membership fees based on family income and size, using a “fair share” system that translates into 1% to 2.5% of a family’s annual income.

For the past few years, the UJA-Federation of New York has been studying ways to make synagogues thrive, and not just because strong synagogues make for strong affiliations and connections, and can increase charitable donations to help support social services. One of their studies has followed about 26 North American synagogues that have done away with set dues that are based on family incomes. They have a more pay what you wish revenue model.

Has it helped their financial sustainability?

Research conducted by Dr. Beth Cousens, titled “Connected Congregations: From Dues and Membership to Sustaining Communities of Purpose, showed that many potential Jewish members of synagogues no longer just donate to sustain an institution. The UJA-commissioned study found that many see their temple relationships as transactional, and seek out Bangs for their Temple Bucks. Therefore synagogues, like those quaint “shuls with the pools,” need to offer more and greater benefits and programs to justify their dues, and to compete with other local institutions (and maybe Chabad?). The value proposition for a temple is no longer “belong because you are expected to belong.”

Some synagogues can no longer base membership dues on incomes. Dues need to be based on the value provided to each member or family. The new model is the “voluntary commitment model.”

Cousens study found that the economic downturn of 2008 was a catalyst that led some Jewish families to quit their synagogue memberships. It is easier to stop paying dues than to stop paying for HBO or cable, and some felt that were not getting “value” for their membership payments. Several complained over the lack of inclusion in their synagogues. The economic recession merely uncovered the growing weakness in the need for affiliation, and a reduction in the feeling of obligation to support a local synagogue (except among Orthodox Jews).

One solution is to recreate the engaged, caring, synagogue of relational Judaism, and then build a revenue model on top of it that allows members to match their payments to the actual or perceived values they receive. It forces synagogues to keep members engaged, and to be transparent, meaning they must justify their budgets and spending to congregants.

Take Temple Kol Ami for example and its Gift from the Heart dues model. The Detroit area synagogue charged annual dues, paid prior to Rosh Hashana. But as the recession reduced family incomes in Michigan and younger Jews avoided affiliation, budget gaps widened. So three years ago, Kol Ami did away with set dues, and just asked for pledges and contributions. Rabbi Norman T. Roman found that it stemmed the loss of members who were too embarrassed to be outed as not having the funds to join. On the other hand, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, a very large congregation, found the voluntary system unworkable and is now back on the mandatory dues model. It turned out that families that used the temple similarly for the same levels of prayer and education were paying different amounts and conflicted with the idea of fairness. I peeked at their current dues schedule. It is very reasonable for a large city. Singles under 30 pay only a suggested rate of $250, and young families in their 30’s are asked for $700-$1350.

The New York Times, in a story on some of the synagogues in the study wrote that Scott Roseman, a lay leader at Temple Beth El in Aptos, CA, described the requirement that congregants with lower incomes explain their financial need to a synagogue official as “a super embarrassing process targeted to those with less.” Rabbi Alexis Berk of Touro Synagogue in New Orleans called it “the shame route.” Rabbi Berk said, “This generation of Jews doesn’t find it inspiring to be told what their obligation is, what their burden should be and how guilty they should feel if they don’t do that.” Rabbi Michael Wasserman of The New Shul in Scottsdale – a grad of JTS, Shalom Hartman, and JTS, said his congregation had sought “to redefine membership as something you can’t buy” and make the dues structure congruent with the community’s philosophy.

The study quoted Rabbi Debra Hachen, from Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, NJ saying, “Voluntary commitment enables those going through financial changes in their lives to maintain membership without having to ask for an abatement. Our members who retire on limited income, or have to pay college tuition, or have a job loss can adjust their pledge year by year.” Rabbi Eric Lazar at Temple B’rith Achim in King of Prussia, PA, articulated a different idea. He believes the free-will model is based on values grounded in Torah: “The voluntary commitment model is specifically based upon the story in the Torah where God asks the Israelites: In building the mishkan [the holy space], give as your hearts move you. In our community we have now created our own mishkan. We ask our folks to give what they can, both financially and in other ways that could benefit the synagogue. We call it our Gift of the Heart and Gift of the Hand program.”

Cousens study found that the 26 Reform and Conservative temples that opted for non-mandatory dues were mainly small or medium-sized (81% had under 550 members), and had long-serving rabbis (81% had rabbis with at least 5 years of tenure) with strong lay leaderships with financial acumen and experience. The study showed an average growth in revenue and membership of 4%.

It is an interesting study and can be found HERE I am reminded of the semi-annual appeal by Rabbi Listokin at Manhattan’s Garment Synagogue. As he would say, ‘you can join an uptown synagogue for thousands of dollars a year and get nothing. Or you can join the Garment Center shul for just $150 a year and get the same nothing.’ It is a bargain that I happily accept.

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  • Transformation from a consumer purchase to a mishkan style terumah offering will require a lot of introspection by the baalebatim and the Rabbis. I think if you were to ask any synagogue officer today whether they fulfill their mission of advancing Judaism among their members they would say they are. My own congregation got into branding a few years ago, selecting the logo of embracing/engaging/enriching. From my own encounters, I’m not even sure it’s a work in progress that has been internalized into decision making. If you were to ask anyone on the Executive committee they would tell you that the congregation functions that way, if you ask somebody who departed membership, they would judge otherwise.