Voluntary dues boost Emanu-El

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The ad appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Examiner, S.F. Weekly, the Bay Guardian and, oh yes — the Jewish Bulletin.

With a simple shofar graphic, the words "Rosh Hashanah begins Friday, September 29" and a Web address — www.highholydays.org — the ad gave no mention of who paid for it.

The site provides information about High Holy Day services at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El.

"Every ad in the Jewish Bulletin for the last 15 years looks the same," said Gary Cohn, executive director of the Reform Emanu-El. "Every congregation says, 'We're the welcoming congregation, we're the premier congregation, we're the haimish congregation.' We have to find other ways of reaching a different person who is not affiliated." So Cohn came up with this approach, and after the ad had run just one day each in the Chronicle and Examiner, the page had already received over 150 "hits" or visits.

Cohn, who has spent a lot of time studying successful marketing models, said his research has proved "you can't do things the way you've always done them. You've got to come up with new ways."

It was that belief that propelled Cohn to come up with Emanu-El's voluntary dues program four years ago.

No matter how hard the synagogue tried to promote its innovative Hebrew school, dynamic clergy or range of services, prospective members always had one question: How much does it cost?

"They didn't want to know who the rabbi was or what the programs were," Cohn recalled. "They wanted to know about dues, and we wanted to take that out of the equation."

So four years ago, the temple did something that is standard marketing in the for-profit world but unusual for a Jewish organization: It offered one-year trial memberships.

Under Emanu-El's policy of voluntary dues, newcomers are encouraged, but not required, to make a contribution the first year. If they stay on as members, they are asked to gradually increase the contribution over the next three years to the standard rate: 2 percent of the family's household income, with a suggested minimum of $1,400.

Dues for continuing members are collected according to an honor system, with no one at the temple checking tax forms to ensure that people are honestly reporting their incomes.

That means some people have cheated. One family bought a $5 million house but only paid $2,000 in dues, said Cohn.

"Some congregations will make a big deal of that," Cohn said. "We say, OK it happened. Now it's our job to create a bond between us and the member so when we ask for a large capital gift for the endowment or ask them to sponsor a program, they're going to want to do it."

So far, the voluntary first-year policy has attracted approximately 200 new members each year, compared with 50 new members per year before it existed.

"We found that that 65 percent of people renewed their membership the second year, and the next year it was closer to 70 percent," said Cohn, adding that of those who could have paid no dues at all, 67 percent paid something.

In a Brandeis University study surveying Emanu-El's policy, 78 percent of new members said the dues policy was important in their decision to join the synagogue. About 73 percent of those respondents had never belonged to a synagogue as adults.

"This said [that] we don't care about your money, we care about you," said Cohn. "It said [that] we know after you've been around awhile you'll make the right choices when it comes to contributions."

Many newcomers — given the choice — actually opted to pay more than they were asked, with one person jumping from a $400 contribution to a $4,000 contribution, and another going from giving nothing to contributing $3,000.

"This was breaking down a barrier or perceived barrier," Cohn said.

With the apparent success of Emanu-El's experiment — which has become standard policy for the 1,775-family congregation — about 40 synagogues nationwide have mimicked the approach so far, said Rabbi Stephen Pearce, senior spiritual leader of Emanu-El.

"It's so wildly successful, it seems like a slam dunk," Pearce said, citing the fact that every Reform synagogue in Baltimore as well as Toronto's largest Reform congregation followed suit.

"I don't see how synagogues could not not afford it," he said, "as it draws people in who never would have thought of joining."

Leaders of the national movements, who have little information about their congregations' dues policies, have instigated no movement-wide discussions on how dues affect outreach to new members.

However, Synagogue 2000, an organization leading synagogue transformation efforts around the country, recently began encouraging congregations to think about dues when it makes efforts to attract newcomers.

Membership dues vary widely throughout the country. They range from $100 in small congregations that offer few services to more than $3,000-plus building fund contributions in large synagogues with religious schools and other amenities.

Most congregations have set rates for families, singles and seniors, but a growing number are shifting to rates based on percentage of income.

While most synagogues say they turn no one away and are willing to privately discuss scholarships or reduced rates, sticker shock often scares off potential members. Other Jews considering membership frequently economize by joining a synagogue only when their children reach Hebrew school age.

"We recognize that very frequently the financial considerations keep people away from synagogues," said Rabbi Larry Hoffman, a Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion professor who is one of Synagogue 2000's co-founders.

Voluntary dues can be a hard sell to congregations, said Hoffman, noting that "many think they're unrealistic."

As Rabbi Moshe Krupka, national director of synagogue services for the Orthodox Union said, "The bottom line is that synagogues need dues as a basis for their budgets. Synagogues don't have readily available cash flow other than dues and donations so it's not a very appealing practice to have voluntary dues or abolish dues."

One particular strategy Synagogue 2000 expects to promote is combining voluntary dues with a Jewish Lamaze class as a way to recruit young families.

The Lamaze class would provide a forum for expectant parents not only to learn about childbirth, but to study Jewish rituals and teachings related to parenting. The idea is to create a community of young parents who then feel tied to the congregation and want to stay on as members even after they face a charge.