Emanu-El is opening its doors with one-year-free membership

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Hoping to lower the 80 percent unaffiliated rate among Bay Area Jews, San Francisco Congregation Emanu-El is making the unprecedented move of offering no-cost memberships for one year.

The synagogue's rabbis and board are hoping other congregations will follow suit.

"If 80 percent of Jews don't belong to synagogue, we're doing something wrong. Synagogues aren't offering products and services to meet the needs of Jews in the Bay Area," said Gary Cohn, Emanu-El executive director.

"When Ford and GM weren't meeting consumer needs, Toyota grew. When Nordstrom came up with real customer service, Macy's had a problem," he added.

"It's time for synagogues to proactively fill the needs of people and one of those ways is to get them into the synagogue."

One of the barriers keeping Jews out is the perception that affiliation is costly, Cohn said.

Each year about 100 new families join Emanu-El's 1,450 family-strong congregation, paying average annual dues of $800, according to Rabbi Stephen Pearce. Now Emanu-El is anticipating another 100 families will take advantage of the no-cost membership.

"When people call, they want to know cost right away. Now we can say, `Come and see us. Do it for a year. Then we'll talk price,'" said Pearce.

Emanu-El leaders anticipate a loss in revenue of $45,000 for the first year. A bequest from the Caro Serensky family fund will cover the loss.

In addition, Cohn views the financial hit as a one-time -only expense.

"If we do the right thing, have the right integration of families into the congregation so they find a warm place to pray with social and educational activities, the money will come back to us more than tenfold by those who can afford full membership," Cohn said.

"The irony is, when someone calls and says, `I can't afford your dues,' I always ask what they can afford. I've never turned anyone's offer down," he added.

"But there's this perception that synagogues are tough about dues. It's a false perception. And this [no-dues offer] should eliminate that perception."

Rabbi Alan Lew, spiritual leader of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom and president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, called the proposition "an interesting idea."

But Lew also wonders whether the offer would hurt other synagogues.

"Will Emanu-El draw more customers and take unfair advantage or will they reach people who wouldn't affiliate elsewhere?" Lew said.

"Is it a noble experiment which we all might benefit from, or are they pressing unfair economic advantage?"

Last fall, Emanu-El opened its religious school to nonmembers. Beth Sholom lost a few of its less-committed families. But Emanu-El gained half of those who enrolled children in the school as new, full members.

"I think this is a hint of what we can expect," Pearce said.

Meanwhile, both congregations, and many others, are reaching out to the unaffiliated in a variety of ways. Emanu-El offers free High Holy Day services and voluntary membership fees to individuals 30 and younger. Beth Sholom initiated an associate membership for young adults at a fraction of the price of full dues.

Although Emanu-El is depending on a bequest to make up its revenue loss, its leaders contend they would make the one-year-free option available anyway. They add that all congregations, regardless of size, should be able to do the same.

"For a synagogue with 600 or 700 families, it would cost about $25,000 to $30,000 the first year. That's not a lot of money," Cohn said. "It's a matter of priority."

But Lew contends that for some synagogues, "it's not a matter of priority, but possibility.

"Emanu-El is in a different financial category than any other congregation," Lew said of one of the city's oldest, largest synagogues.

"Some synagogues can barely even keep the lights on. To assume all other congregations can be pressured to do the same is a little bit chutzpahdik."