I Have a Modest Proposal: Let Us Eliminate Synagogue Dues



by Rabbi Howard Jaffe

bug-finance.jpgOkay, it is not so modest. It may be a bit too ambitious. So how about this: can we at least rethink how we fund our synagogues?

We need a new financial model in North American Jewish life.

Once upon a time, Jews grew up, became young adults, almost always married other Jews, and within a few years, joined a synagogue. Whatever that synagogue asked for in dues, they paid (and did not see it as a contribution, but more of a Jewish tax). No more. Even so, the vast majority of our congregations still operate with models that were created in a different time, and reflect a different reality. Think about it: right now, if someone comes to one of our communities, we invite them in warmly, and ask them to commit to thousands of dollars per year to become part of a congregation with which they have yet to make a personal connection.

My synagogue is not unusual in relying on dues for the greatest part of our annual revenue. We are in good financial shape, and weathered the economic storm of recent years in large part thanks to two extraordinary well-timed gifts to our endowment. Our membership has increased over the past several years, and by most objective measures,we are thriving. And yet, in spite of the meaningful amount of interest that our endowment continues to yield, and in spite of our increased membership, our current financial model, the same one that is found in the vast majority of North American synagogue, is unsustainable.

Our congregation has a flat dues program, as opposed to a fair share or other somewhat less conventional model. And like most congregations, we are committed to the principle that no one will ever be turned away from membership because of genuine financial need.Beginning in 2008, when we first saw, as most congregations did, a sharp spike in the need for special arrangements, both the number of requests for such arrangements and the aggregate value of those arrangements have steadily increased.  While their numbers have been small, we have found, as have other congregations, that every year there are congregants who decide that the extent of their expected financial commitment to the Temple exceeds their sense of what is an appropriate annual contribution, and so, resign their membership. Many of them are quite blunt about this it: they would continue to be congregants if they could do so for a smaller annual commitment. There are congregations with flat dues that accommodate those requests,but most, including ours, do not. The result of all of these factors is that, even with careful controls and financial discipline, the income we receive from dues as a percentage of our annual revenue is decreasing, requiring us to increase revenue from other sources or,over time, dramatically reduce our expenses, resulting in a different synagogue than we have today. We are neither small nor huge (about 820 households), and we pride ourselves on the extraordinary efforts and leadership provided by our congregants, but with a smaller staff than we currently have, and without financial resources to support our efforts(as it is, a very small percentage of our budget goes to support programming), we simply cannot continue as we are today.

We have decided, then, to embark on an unprecedented effort (in our community, at least) to increase the level of philanthropy within the congregation, in a combination of endowment and annual giving so as to, at the very least, slow the pace of dues increases, likely reduce the standard amount of dues that we ask congregants to contribute, and perhaps even reduce the threshold amount of “standard” dues so that finance is no longer a barrier to the participation of anyone, not only those who are unable to afford that “standard” amount.  Imagine how wonderful it would be to be able to welcome any newcomers to our community to participate in the lives of our congregations, and only later raising with them the matter of financial support!

My own experience has been that raising the level of philanthropy has been much easier than I ever imagined. Ours is not an especially affluent community, though admittedly, we have a few folks who have been able to make extraordinary gifts that have made a great difference. Our efforts, however, are broad-based, as the vast majority of our congregants are able to contribute significantly more to the Temple on an annual basis than they currently do, but have never been asked. We know from the experience of other organizations and institutions that rely on philanthropy that a compelling mission and a compelling story result in meaningful financial support. As long as our mission and our story is compelling, we can experience the same results, and create a new model for a new time and a new reality.

Rabbi Howard Jaffe is the Senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA.

Spotlight on Finance and Fundraising: This month we are highlighting the URJ’s resources for helping congregations with fundraising, budgets, annual commitments, surviving in the current economic crisis, and much more. Visit the Congregational Finance website for more info.

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6 Responses to “I Have a Modest Proposal: Let Us Eliminate Synagogue Dues”

  1. avatar

    Rabbi Jaffe appropriately makes the distinction between I can’t afford the dues and I don’t perceive enough value in membership to warrant paying the dues. And his congregation has been fortunate in its ability to raise the level of philanthropy so that endowment income etc. slows the need for dues increases.
    But while he points to the results other types of organizations have experienced through “a compelling mission and a compelling story,” he leaves us hanging for what that compelling mission and story might be for any given synagogue…and meanwhile our congregations remain dependent on the obsolete and unsustainable model of yesteryear.
    I don’t have the answer either — and I know that wiser heads than mine are looking for it. I also know that we have a lot to learn from the mega-churches and from Chabad, both of which wait until they have you hooked (a statement that should not be interpreted as in any way a pejorative), and only then begin talking about money. Rabbi Jaffe suggests the same thing in his next-to-last paragraph — now how do we all make it work?

  2. avatar

    I would be happy to share some general thoughts about what our “master” story is (though I would submit that this is really in the purview of our national leadership (and sepcifically Rick Jacobs as ghe takes the helm of the URJ), but it seems to me that each of our specific stories is (or ought to be) sufficiently distinct and particular that each congreagtion needs to do so for itself. I would further submit that if asked to do so, few leaders of our congreagtions (rabbinic/cantorial and lay leaders) would be prepared to do so — not because theya re unable to do so, but because they have not been provoked/inspired/challenged to do so. Few congreagtions undertake or have ever undertaken the effort to articualte their unique vision, in part becuase few of us know how or do so or even know what questions to ask so that we can identify resources (human and otherwise) that we could call upon to help us get started.
    An anecdote: about 20 years ago, I presented a workshop at a particular regional URj (then UAHC) meeting about synagogue membership and affiliation. There were about 30 people in the room, all of whom, I learned by asking, were either presidents or vice presidents of their congregations. When I asked them why someone should join their synagogues, or any synagogue, the answers I received were: “Tradition”; “So your kid can become Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah”; “To support the Jewish community” and the like. No one spoke in terms of finding meaning, being part of the sacred community, or any of the other reasons that we might hope people would offer. I do not know if it would be any different if I asked a similar group today, but my sense is that we continue to operate more from momentum, tradition, and history than we do from vision and a sense of mission. Tradition and history are both valuable, and momentum can help us keep moving, but unless we are able to articulate a clear vision, and have a clear sense of mission as to why we even exist as synagogue communities, the challenge to have sufficient funding will simply be a reflection of the fundamental challenge (and opportunity) we face.

  3. avatar

    The solution begs a further question…what do you do about MUM dues which predicates itself on member numbers? Who is a member, those who contribute or those who participate & identify themselves as members even though they don’t contribute?

  4. avatar

    Thank you Rabbi Jaffe for initiating this discussion in an open, broad-based forum. Too often this question is discussed in private, or discussed only be affluent leaders, or only by strapped former members.
    Can there be anything more important than figuring out appropriate ways of providing the financial wherewithall for the survival of our movement?
    URJ leadership and congregational leadership must address the issue immediately, or there will be little to address.

  5. avatar

    I really like the idea of swinging the door wide open for a year and saying this first year is free. Please come on in and enjoy, get involved. And then- after there is an investment of time and emotion ask for the money investment.
    We have all heard the words ” I don’t have to pay money to be Jewish”
    We need to say: Yes, you have to pay money to be Jewish!!!
    We need to find the words that say to the unaffiliated:
    If not you, who??

  6. avatar

    Howard is my brother, but even so we think alike on this subject.

    As executive director of Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, I have seen the same trends. We have weathered the harsh economic times, but more of our members are paying reduced dues than ever before, and we have done well because those who can give more than the annual dues, have done so freely in the knowledge that they are making it possible for others to remain members.

    One of the things we do here to encourage connection is invite newcomers to visit often and become part of the community before they join — by attending services and holiday celebrations and programs for preschoolers, and other events. We sell tickets to nonmembers for our High Holy Day services, and have found that this serves two important functions: it creates an open portal for those new to the community to try us out in a deeply meaningful way; and it allows those who have resigned for a wide variety of reasons (including those who have moved out of town)to reconnect with the community annually.

    Connection is what it is all about. Those who connect stay as members, or if they need to physically leave the community, they stay as supporters.

    Dues at some level are essential, since people must buy in both spiritually and economically to feel they are part of a community. And because some folks will only pay the minimum annual contribution, no matter what their situation in life. But the standard model is not working all that well anymore. Each synagogue needs to create a funding model that works for its own community. For very, very few it will be the standard dues model in effect now in most of our communities.

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