VEaston, Glenn
VEaston, Glenn

Its time for a change to synagogue dues

I have said it for many years: Synagogue membership dues are too high. In fact, the financing structure of synagogues is out of date, out of touch and unsustainable.

This might sound odd coming from a synagogue executive whose own livelihood is dependent upon these generous, voluntary membership dues contributions

Glenn S. Easton

But in addition to being a shul professional, I am also a Jewish community consumer. I pay dues to two different congregations; I’ve paid Jewish day school tuition and Jewish summer camp fees; I contribute to two Jewish federations and numerous Jewish organizations, and even allocate a meaningful portion of my salary to our local kosher butchers (particularly during Pesach).

It is, indeed, expensive to be Jewish, but I can only address synagogues.

First, two interesting facts: The average cost of maintaining a synagogue is $2,400 per household regardless of number of members (the largest congregations average $2,700 per year).

Approximately 80 percent of all Jews belong to a synagogue at some point in their lives, and 90 percent of households with children belong to a synagogue at some point.

Therefore, the financial problem with synagogues is not recruitment, but retention.

It should not cost thousands of dollars to call yourself an affiliated Jew. In fact, there should not be a set, expected membership dues level or annual dues bill to belong to a synagogue community.

Synagogue membership is a voluntary act, and contributing to one’s synagogue community should be a voluntary amount. Instead of sending a family a synagogue invoice, we should be sending thank-you notes. I don’t know about you, but I don’t contribute $2,400 to very many organizations, and if I did, they would consider and treat me like a “major” contributor.

Not only do we not send thank you notes to our synagogue members, we send collection letters dunning the family for paying “only” $2,000 of its $2,400 annual dues bill.

We also set membership dues levels incorrectly. Instead of giving a “discount” to a young, 40-year-old single attorney or a successful, retired senior, we should offer reductions to parents with kids in college or those paying for parents in assisted living facilities.

Don’t you think that a synagogue member who no longer uses the synagogue schools or who is not a frequent attendee would retain his or her affiliation if dues were voluntary — perhaps $500 instead of $2,400 per year?

If this were a business model, congregations would “make it up on volume” rather than rely on the generosity of the few — the 30 percent or so of Jewish households currently affiliated. Generous and capable members would continue to be generous (as they currently are) and those who leave over the high price tag, too embarassed to ask for a dues reduction, could remain affiliated and connected to the community.

As a synagogue professional, I deeply believe that the primary source of Jewish strength and continuity in North America is the synagogue. The community wants synagogues, clergy, religious schools, lifelong learning, lifecycle events and communal support available when needed, but also needs to support our synagogues during the years in between those needs.

Two things must happen for this transformation to occur.

First, one or more “mega-donors” must underwrite any shortfall during a synagogue’s experimental transition. For synagogues to be able to test the new model, it has to be revenue neutral. Second, synagogues must build up their endowment funds to supplement the rising costs and make synagogue affiliation more affordable.

We are told in Pirke Avot, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Let’s stop giving people a reason and excuse to separate from our wonderful, sacred Jewish community.

Glenn S. Easton is executive director of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. He wrote this piece for the Washington Jewish Week.