A Perfect Formula for Dues

by Rob Berkovitz
URJ Congregational Finance Specialist

The truth is… that there is no perfect formula for dues!

There are many possibilities for dues models from fixed minimum models to fair share. All the models can be successful and can be unsuccessful. When the topic of dues comes up many congregational leaders struggle with the issue of congregants who feel that dues are cost prohibitive, that it is too expensive to be a member of a congregation or question when someone needs an abatement whether it is truly a financial need or just that the synagogue is not a priority.

We can be quick to judge these people. We look askance at those who want to attend High Holy Day services but don’t want to contribute financially to the synagogue. We do that because we can’t understand why they feel that way. Why is that? It is because we have found a connection that they just haven’t yet found. Our charge as congregational leaders is to find ways to build that connection because that is what it is really all about: building relationships with our members.

Perhaps those people who place the synagogue at a lower prioritysimply have not found a way to connect to the congregation. Or maybethe congregation has not found a way to connect to them. Maybe I ambeing naive but even those people who come to synagogue on the HighHoly Days for free perhaps come because there is some piece of themthat craves a connection to Judaism. Hopefully it is not just guilt.

There is a spark that exists inside of them, and ourcongregations need to find a way to add kindling to it. If there werenothing there–no spark–they would have not come at all. If we want toengage more people and increase the synagogue’s active and financiallycommitted core, we need to find ways to kindle those sparks so thatpaying dues no longer feels like a roadblock to synagogue membership.It needs to be a mutual and covenantal relationship between anindividual and the synagogue. The return on investment is personal.

A personal story: my wife is more an observer than a participant inour congregation. Having grown up in a somewhat traditional home herrelationship with Judaism was shaped by being forced to attend synagoguewithout any guidance as to what makes Judaism a wonderful beliefsystem. It was an obligation rather than an invitation. However,there are still sparks of connection to Judaism that radiate from her.

When we first brought our daughter to a Tot Shabbat all the childrenwere standing in front of the lit candles. The lights dimmed and tearsof joy were in my wife’s eyes. Some may argue that it is because ofthe emotional tie to our daughter and that is partly true. (She didlook pretty cute up there!) However, if my wife felt no bond toJudaism, she would have refused to go to begin with, and even if it wasbecause I prodded her to attend, she wouldn’t have felt the way shedid.

She wants our daughter to be involved with synagogue life and withJudaism as much as possible. She hopes our daughter will develop thebond she feels she didn’t have as a child. While it may not haveincreased my wife’s involvement at the present time, those moments dobuild engagement and ties to a community. Each person is going to havetheir own “a-ha moment,” and our congregations are the place to create these moments.

Some thoughts to help remove the roadblocks:

  • Let all new families join the first year for free! Then itis up to us to keep them engaged, show them how wonderful it is tobelong to a congregational family and that their ROI (return oninvestment) is considerable.
  • Consider no longer selling High Holy Day tickets. Some mayargue that they need tickets to ensure enough seats are available.It’s a decent argument.  However, ask yourself if that is trulythe reason tickets are sold or is it a way to collect dues from thosewho are in arrears? If you do away with tickets and open the doorson those days, will that many unaffiliated Jews come out of thewoodwork? If they did, would it be such a bad thing? Think of allthe potential members you could gain! And, if they don’t becomemembers and only come once a year, how much will it really affectthe “bottom line” of the synagogue?

Perhaps it is a way to reach the larger Jewish community who has yetto find a congregation they call home. Is there a better way thanusing the High Holy Days as a way to collect dues? Is that reallywelcoming? Does it truly increase revenue enough to make that a policyof the synagogue? If the answer is yes it does, then perhaps we need totake a longer look at ourselves and ask why and how do we change that.Additionally, How do we engage those people if their perception,accurate or not, is that the main concern of our synagogues is aboutpaying dues?

  • Consider building relationships to peopleoutside the doors of the synagogue. While you might considercoffee time with the rabbi at the local Starbucks or cocktailswith the cantor as a way to reach people outside the congregation,you, as an engaged congregant can also help make theserelationships happen. Bring the synagogue to where people are. Itmight just lead them to join you in the synagogue.

I have a heartfelt wish that I could solve all the financialconcerns our synagogues have and be able to give out that perfect duesformula that would make all synagogues successful. However, there is amuch bigger picture to look at. The synagogue is really about building connections and that needs to be done in new ways we may have not even thought of yet. I’m hopeful that collaboration like the Reform Judaism Think Tank will allow people to brainstorm about the future of our vibrant congregations. Who knows? Maybe we can do away with “dues.”

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4 Responses to “A Perfect Formula for Dues”

  1. avatar
    Former Reform Jew Reply August 23, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    Rob hit the nail on the head.
    My synagogue gets lots of twice-a-year Jews coming to us.
    We even made a separate “explanatory” service for them. Interesting, engaging, hits some highlights of the traditional service. We have an “ask the rabbi” open Q&A beforehand, and the rabbis running the service stay around afterwards to chat.
    All of this is provided for a suggested donation of $18. Many people reserve ahead of time, online. We do not check tickets or ask anyone for money at the door.
    Now, we are more than happy to keep providing this RH + YK option for these Jews who find both the cost and the content of Reform services overwhelming. They learn about other events and classes we offer throughout the year, and I’d say about 5% become actively involved in our synagogue – some of them eventually become fully Torah observant.
    That still leaves you guys with the other 95%. Listen to Rob; Make RH + YK free. Also, provide alternate service options for those who don’t want to hear the choir or the rabbi’s take on the AIDS epidemic in some country that none of us could locate on a map. (Yes, this was an actual topic of a YK speech in my Temple. Yes, really.)
    Thanks for reading my mind, Rob.

  2. avatar

    Rob, I’d like to see your article rewritten to express the same concepts but without using the four-letter D-word.
    Our real concern, as you communicate, is with maintaining a place where people can “do Jewish” together; and our challenge is finding a way or ways to support such a place financially. For a variety of reasons, the business model on which our congregations have operated is no longer working effectively, and we need to devise new approaches to financial support.
    Getting rid of the D-word would not in and of itself be a solution — but avoiding its use would be a constant reminder that we need some out of the box thinking about our approaches to funding.
    I’ve always remembered when our congregation’s president told the board not to give until it hurts, but rather to give until it feels good. We want people to feel good rather than coerced about their relationships with their communities.
    As Rob has suggested it, the goal is a relationship with a community, not a membership in a congregation. The way we talk influences the way we think; and the way we think influences the way we feel.

  3. avatar

    I am a Jew-by-Choice and the the first year after my conversion, my membership at my shul was free. I worried about how I would “afford” to be a Jew once the year was up but when the membership letter came in June, I was relieved to see that there were two members of the board that I could contact to discuss my membership fee. Via e-mail, I discussed my situation with one of the board members and I am happy to say that I am now a paying member of my shul.
    Something I came to believe as I studied for conversion with my sponsoring Rabbi (who also happens to be the Rabbi at my shul)was the importance of belonging to a community AND the importance of contributing financially to that community. I can count on the community to be there for me in times of sickness, through the sorrow of the death of a loved one, when I am in need of guidance, or when I simply need to re-connect with God on Shabbat.
    In turn, the community needs to know it can count on me and one of the many ways I am able to show my committment is through my monetary contribution.
    Throughout the year, our Rabbi makes it clear that no one will be turned away from membership in the community due to financial hardship and yet I believe there are many that still consider this the primary reason not to seek membership.
    As for HH Days, one of the things that makes the experience of this sacred time so meaningful is prayer with the community. It’s not all about me and MY relationship with God, but its about my relationship with God as part of something bigger than me. If I attend services twice a year out of simple obligation, I miss the experience of being a part of something bigger than I am and the prayers I say become simply hollow words. However, if I am a member of the community, I know that throughout the year they will be there with me to remind me of the prayers I recited during HH Days and help me appreciate the committments I made to God, the community, and myself.
    As someone who is new to Judaism, I don’t claim to have the answers to what I understand is a huge issue but I simply offer my thoughts on what I believe are the most important reasons to become a part of a shul community. I gladly pay what I can to be a part of it.

  4. avatar

    The issue of dues is not restricted to Reform Judaism. To one degree or another, all religious institutions struggle with this issue. I do think we can learn something from our Christian neighbors who emphasize that stewardship involves more than dues; rather it is composed of time, treasure and talent.
    Leaders of synagogue must make the institution a vital place for reform Jews in which the value of dues is self-apparent. However, if members are unable to fulfill the financial goals of temple membership, they must be willing and should be expected to contribute time and talent. You can volunteer to clean the grounds, work in Sunday school, provide music, etc. Conversely, simply sending a check for the designated dues level doesn’t absolve you from contributing time and sharing your special talent.

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