After Temple Beth Abraham, a nearly 120-year-old congregation in Tarrytown that has both Reform and Conservative styles of worship, adopted a voluntary dues program nearly three years ago, about 20 families that had left over the years rejoined.
“One of the families said, ‘You made it impossible for us not to come back,’” recalled the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi David Holtz. “And a member said, ‘I’m giving the same amount I gave last year when we had to pay dues, but I feel better about it now.”
The voluntary dues program has been such a “success,” Rabbi Holtz said, that even though some in his 400-member congregation are giving less, “others have increased their pledge … and we’re going to break even this year.”
Voluntary dues programs like Temple Beth Abraham’s are now being employed by 55 other congregations across the country, a number that is expected to grow to 60 by the end of the year, according to a report commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York.
Although none are in New York City or on Long Island, Adina Frydman, executive director of SYNERGY: UJA-Federation of NY and Synagogues Together, said that is expected to change. She noted that a conference SYNERGY sponsored May 16 to announce the report’s results was attended by several congregations from the city and the Island. Among those on the Island that sent several representatives were Temple Beth-El of Great Neck and the Jericho Jewish Center. The Lab/Shul and Congregation Rodeph Sholom were two of the Manhattan synagogues represented.
Will the voluntary commitment model soon supplant the pay-to-pray model?
“My sense is that things hit the Island a little bit later, but they are starting to pay attention now,” Frydman said. “And in Manhattan, it is the [large] size of the synagogues. Of those that are using the voluntary dues model, only a couple have more than 500 family units.”
There are some who believe the voluntary commitment model of supporting synagogues may eventually supplant what many disparagingly call the pay-to-pray model.
“The dues-member model is going away,” said Rabbi Holtz. “It can’t last and synagogues have to find something else. … The way synagogues in America have supported themselves has changed over the years. At one time, they auctioned off aliyahs, then they sold family pews, then they sold High Holy Day seats and you paid more depending on where you sat.”
“I don’t think there will be one model for how synagogues will survive…”
But Rabbi Dan Judson, associate dean of the Hebrew College in Boston and a co-author of the voluntary dues report, said he doesn’t believe the “membership dues model is dead.”
“I don’t think there will be one model for how synagogues will survive,” he said. “Some will survive on dues, some with the voluntary dues model, some will find resources like rents and cemeteries and other ways to make money to offset dues – and wealthier families will give more.”
Amy Asin, the Union for Reform Judaism’s vice president for strengthening congregations, said she, too, believes that although congregations are rethinking membership dues, “I’m not ready to say dues are a thing of the past. But 10 years from now we’ll see a new way of doing revenue at most congregations.”
Among the innovative approaches to attracting new members, Asin said, is offering free membership for a year to those who send their children to the synagogue’s religious school. Other congregations are charging dues of $36 to families in which the oldest member is under the age of 36; dues don’t increase until that person turns 37.
“There are as many variations as there are synagogues,” she said. “I think a lot of congregations are doing voluntary dues but are not publicizing it. So if someone calls and says they can only do x, they say thank you.”
[The] report found that congregations using the voluntary dues model experienced a 3.6 percent increase in membership and a 1.8 percent increase in pledge revenue.
The UJA-Federation report found that congregations using the voluntary dues model experienced a 3.6 percent increase in membership and a 1.8 percent increase in pledge revenue. None of the congregations reported an interest in returning to the mandatory dues model, and many said the “positive cultural impact of the change is as important as the financial ramifications.”
The majority of the congregations using the voluntary dues model are Reform, but more Conservative congregations than Reform have switched in the last two years. And no congregation reported a decline in its financial health as a result of using the voluntary dues model.
“This suggests it may be possible for synagogues in more challenging financial circumstances to benefit from — or, at a minimum, hold steady financially, when changing to the voluntary commitment model,” the report said.
Joel Wagman, president of the Scarsdale Synagogue, said his congregation studied the voluntary dues model for two years before adopting it last July 1.
“We lost no members and added 25 new members,” he said of the congregation, which has 350 membership units. “Some of our former members returned.
“The goal of the process is to have a giving relationship as opposed to one that is transactional. It’s not like going to the theater…”
“What needs to be changed is the way people feel and relate to their synagogue,” Wagman said. “The goal of the process is to have a giving relationship as opposed to one that is transactional. It’s not like going to the theater. …
“We used to have 450 to 500 members and that is now my aspiration. … Millennials don’t affiliate automatically. You have to provide them with something other than a transaction for them to join. We have to help them develop a social network in which they support one another and come together to consider social justice and other issues. They may not be joining for a religious experience, but to be with those who are like-minded on social matters.”
The Community Synagogue in Port Washington has developed what Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz described as a “hybrid” structure, no longer using the word “dues” and coming up with a figure that represents “our sustaining level.”
“We say that if everybody paid that amount, we should be able to be financially solvent,” he said. “It’s a shared responsibility. Some people have the blessing of having more, and if you can’t pay it, we’ll work with you. That is not fully voluntary because if someone says he is going to give $300 below the base, we ask to have a conversation with him.”
Synagogues must be “engaging, relevant, predicated upon relationships and have a vision and mission that is compelling to what is going on.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, agreed more needs to be done than just changing the dues structure to attract new members. He said synagogues must be “engaging, relevant, predicated upon relationships and have a vision and mission that is compelling to what is going on.”
Asin pointed out that the first congregation to use voluntary dues did so “not because of revenue but because they thought it was the right thing to do — they did not want the first conversation with a potential new member to be about money.”
One of the first congregations to adopt the voluntary dues structure was Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. But after 13 years, it resorted back to the mandatory dues structure in 2009 after finding wide disparities in the amounts families with very similar means contributed to the synagogue. Lianna Levine Reisner, the report’s co-author, pointed out that Congregation Emanu-El had 2,100 members. She said there are not enoughof other large congregations using the voluntary dues model to determine whether it is “viable” for large congregations.
At around the same time Congregation Emanu-El introduced voluntary dues, a much smaller congregation, Valley Temple in Cincinnati, also adopted them.
“We took the fair-share dues model and stopped calling it that because it was based on one’s income,” said Rabbi Sanford Kopnick. “Instead, we said there is a cost to running the congregation and we took the expenses and divided by the number of members. The number was $1,800. It was then up to each family to determine how much they could afford. Some families did triple that, some said they couldn’t afford that much. … When you join, the number is set and you also say how much you are going to pay towards the building fund.”
Rabbi Kopnick said a pledge letter sent this year to the 260-family congregation asked that each of them increase their pledge by 10 to 20 percent.
“It generated more money than ever,” Rabbi Kopnick said, adding that he didn’t find anyone “taking advantage of the system” or leaving because of the dues structure.
A key is to “create a conversation and not present it as an ultimatum,” he said. “We don’t call it a bill, we call it a statement and a contribution.”
“They (Chabad) are successful in engaging people to become part of the synagogue and in attracting money to allow them to continue their work.”
Judson suggested that the Chabad system might be another model to be emulated by some synagogues.
“They look to do development work to support themselves without relying on dues,” he said. “They are successful in engaging people to become part of the synagogue and in attracting money to allow them to continue their work. The Chabad model is centralized and focused around a rabbi who is empowered to make decisions as opposed to a synagogue where a board makes the decisions.”
Driving the need to scrap the dues model is the change in the attitudes of the next generation of Jews, according to Asin.
“There are dozens, if not scores, of congregations that are making changes in the way they collect revenue after learning that the conveyor belt of people who used to see congregational affiliation as an obligation is broken,” she said. “The sense that new members are going to come is no longer a correct assumption.”
This new approach appears to be working.
“We discovered that we have taken away the main reason people leave — their kids are through with Hebrew school and they don’t believe membership is worth it,” Rabbi Holtz said. “So we are losing fewer members, and most who leave now are moving away or passed away. We get very few who are dropping out.”