By Dani Robbins
My career has taken me to multiple cities in several states, and each time I’ve moved, I’ve looked for a new religious home by calling around to local synagogues. I found it off-putting, however, when the people on the other end talked to me about money before they welcomed me or invited me to visit. By the third or fourth call, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about the way our congregations welcome prospective members.
Imagine my delight, then, in learning that my current congregation, Congregation Beth Tikvah, was considering changing its dues model – really turning it on its head. I’ve been reimagining the financial future of Jewish congregations for years, so I was thrilled to participate in the congregation’s efforts to do so.
For years, Congregation Beth Tikvah, which was founded upon and employs egalitarian values in all its endeavors, has been moving toward a relationship-based model – one in which the congregation builds a community of enhanced relationships, both among members and with the congregation, moving away from fee-based dues and tickets. Although we didn’t know it at the time, relational Judaism was the lens we used when we eliminated the committee that approved dues reductions, selected our new rabbi, and began to consider whether a new funding model was right for us.
Upon his arrival in 2011, Rabbi Rick Kellner helped us put relational thinking at the forefront of our actions and vocabulary, and encouraged us to adopt it within our community. Under his leadership, we expanded programming for young children and seniors, and finished building a new sanctuary and social hall that had begun before he arrived. Both efforts attracted new families, and our community grew.
Along the way, we found that our existing financial model no longer fit our needs. Eager to learn about alternatives, when the URJ announced its new Community of Practice (CoP), Reimagining Financial Support for Your 21st-Century Congregation, we signed on. Launched in March 2013, the CoP enabled us to learn from one another, other congregations, and experts brought in by the URJ. Ours was one of 17 congregations in the two-year guided program, which included an in-person gathering, periodic webinars, individual check-ins, and shared resources.
Our CoP committee explored various financial models. We looked at our congregation’s history and culture. We discussed definitions of “dues,” “member,” and “transaction.” We challenged, argued, and debated each other, ultimately building consensus. Though we started out talking about money, we ended up talking about community. We studied congregations that implemented new models, reading their literature and interviewing their members. We talked about who we wanted to be and to what kind of community we wanted to belong. We held formal and informal gatherings to engage constituents. We wrote letters and articles. We sought and received feedback.
We learned that promoting engagement and providing connections among members are more vital than any funding discussion possibly could be. In fact, at one point, we committed to changing our language, and now are moving toward deepening relationships and engaging with each other, our congregation, and our faith. Our goal was no longer about changing congregational dues models; it was – and is – about changing our congregational culture. Finally, we made formal recommendations to our board, and presentations to our fellow congregants, received suggestions, and revised our recommendations accordingly.
It was daunting, nonetheless, to recommend a process that potentially would allow people to participate in our congregation without supporting it financially. We knew various outcomes were possible: we could lose significant income, gain significant income, lose income but gain members, or lose members but gain income (though we all doubted that this last possibility would come to pass). We trusted that if we created a place and a space in which everyone belongs, something magical would happen, and everyone would, indeed, feel like they belong.
So we jumped, and the net appeared.
Our plan included changing our language to change our culture, evolving from the word “dues” to the term “membership commitment.” Importantly, we provided guidance about the annual costs to sustain programming, as well as how people could give below, at, or above that level.
What happened? Some people gave less, and some people gave nothing but still joined, which also was part of the goal. Some people gave more, and some gave a lot more. One thing is for sure: We’ve left the transactional model behind. No one who calls our congregation to inquire about joining is told about dues.
We’re not finished yet. Our movement toward relational Judaism laid the foundation for a culture of philanthropy that will continue to evolve. It remains to be seen whether we will need to introduce a more formal process to engage donors. For now, though, it’s safe to say that our committee is delighted with where we are and where we’re going. We are currently just one family shy of last year’s membership numbers, with almost exactly the same income. We did it!
We changed our words. We changed our culture. But we didn’t change our income.
Dani Robbins is part of the Reimagining Financial Support Community of Practice Committee at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, OH. She grew up in New Rochelle, NY, in a fiercely secular Jewish household. Her parents were always worried the Italian boys she dated would convert her. Today, she serves as a nonprofit leadership consultant and is happily married to a man who is neither Jewish nor Italian. Her daughter becomes a bat mitzvah later this year.