Dues and don’ts: Shuls try different membership models

After proposing marriage to his fiancée, Mike Joseph continued to date around. Not other women. Synagogues.

The 29-year-old Philadelphia native started shul shopping after arriving in San Francisco last year to take a job at Google. He attended services at a couple of synagogues in the city, and ultimately was smitten by Congregation Sherith Israel.

In time, Joseph was ready for a long-term commitment.

Last April, he took the plunge and officially joined the synagogue. With that came the responsibilities of membership.

Including the paying of dues.

“I want to have a tie to this congregation,” Joseph says of Sherith Israel, “and I’m willing to join for that. The dues are an issue, but it feels to me like a necessary obligation. I can’t see going every week and not joining.”

Dues are a necessary obligation imposed by most synagogues. Yet the expense can seem forbiddingly high to some prospective members.

A nationwide study in 2002 commissioned by the American Jewish Committee found that average annual synagogue dues are $1,100 — although wealthy people are paying much more than that if they belong to a synagogue that calculates dues as a percentage of household income.

And dues usually don’t include outlays for building funds, Hebrew school tuition and other extras.

Though most synagogues have policies along the lines of “no one will be denied membership for financial reasons,” and dues reductions are granted often, all synagogues keep a watchful eye on the bottom line. In tough economic times, synagogues have had to find creative ways to make paying dues more palatable.

In a guide for its member congregations, the Union for Reform Judaism spells it out: “There are many negative stereotypes of synagogues that act as if they care only about money. In fact, a congregation’s handling of financial matters does send a powerful message about the personalities and priorities of a congregation.”

Several dues models exist in the URJ guide, from “Choose Your Dues” to “First Year Free.” Sherith Israel, a San Francisco Reform synagogue, uses the simple “Fair Share” guidelines recommended by the URJ. Those propose that dues range from 1 to 3 percent of household income, though at Sherith Israel, the preferred number is 2 percent.

“The whole idea is that everyone will pay based on their ability,” says Carrie Rice, Sherith Israel’s membership director. “No one walking around the synagogue knows what anyone else is paying. High end or low end, that’s not a factor.”

Mike Joseph appreciated that, as well as the fact that dues are eligible as a federal income tax deduction (though he wishes Sherith Israel, wihich has 600 member units, would make it easier to pay online).

Along with the democratization of the rate is an end to the once-common practice of synagogues examining members’ tax returns to verify income. Rice says there’s no need to demand proof.

“When you take in the fact that we [in the Bay Area] have the lowest affiliation rate in the country — 14 percent — [members] are highly self-selected. Why would they not want to be honest with their giving if they are going so far out of their way to make this a part of their lives?”

Nevertheless, given the recent recession and its aftershocks, Sherith Israel had seen a dip in receivables and a bump in dues-reduction allowances.

To sustain membership rolls in tough times, Congregation Beth Am, a large Reform synagogue in Los Altos Hills with 1,480 member households, recently launched its “36 for 36” policy, which grants members under the age of 37 annual dues totaling a mere $36.

It inflicts a little short-term fiscal pain in exchange for potential long-term gain.

“We came up with a nice Jewish number [double chai] for membership,” says Rachel Tasch, Beth Am’s executive director. “We had a feeling that for young adults, finances were a barrier. We thought that by offering this introductory rate it would get people in the door.”

Tasch says Beth Am can afford “36 for 36” because wealthier congregants have subsidized it with large gifts on top of their dues. So far, the synagogue has signed up more than a dozen new members through the program, and Tasch is in conversation with a dozen more potential members.

Of course, some existing Beth Am congregants under the age of 37 wanted in, too. Tasch said OK.

“There’s a lot of buzz and excitement,” she notes. “We look at it as an investment for the long term. Folks paying this low level of member commitment will not fully cover their costs, and we understand that, [but] it’s not like we have to hire extra staff to run this.”

Though the URJ claims dues ideally should cover up to 75 percent of a synagogue’s operating budget, reality has proven crueler than that.

Amy Mallor, the executive director of Sherith Israel says, “We all know what’s true: Membership dues only pay a portion of the operating budget. I’ve seen it range from  20 to 50 percent. Nothing higher than that.”

For years, at Adath Israel Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco, dues payments beat the spread, accounting for nearly 70 percent of income. But it wasn’t enough.

Hungarian-born Tamas Makany joined Adath Israel three years ago after he and his wife moved to San Francisco’s Sunset District. He also joined the

synagogue’s board of directors and became part of a team that implemented an overhaul of temple finances last year.

Makany learned the synagogue had long been assessing dues at a rigid $900 for individuals, $1,800 for families. Why those amounts? Nobody seemed to know.

“Nobody could rationalize why or explain if it was sufficient,” Makany says. “The only thing that we knew was that we had financial uncertainties. Our accounting system needed an upgrade, everything was on paper. We’re talking about an old shul with a long history, but as the years went by there was no real innovation in the management nor in accounting.”

After consulting with an expert on nonprofits, the board decided on a “fair share” dues structure. Though it shares the same name as the URJ plan, it’s not based on percentage of income.

Makany simply divided Adath Israel’s revised operating budget by 81 — the number of its “member units” (either a family or a single member). That worked out to $3,000 per unit.

That is the fair share cost. One size fits all.

“The number we came up with was not a magical number,” he says, “but we determined that if every member unit paid the same amount, then 75 percent of operating costs would be covered. We realized not everybody was capable of paying that, and we didn’t expect it.”

After phoning all 81 families, Makany and his colleagues on the board found little resistance. In some cases, members chose to pay more than the fair share. After one year, though the plan left the shul short of the 75-percent goal, Makany calls the policy a success, noting, “It turns out Orthodox shuls can actually rely on members paying their dues more than other nonprofit organizations.”

One way to improve the margins is to keep expenses low. That’s easier to do when the congregation doesn’t own a building. Forego the real estate and costs drop dramatically.

That’s how they’ve done it for 20 years at Gan HaLev, a small independent congregation in San Geronimo Valley in Marin County.

It all started when a few unaffiliated Jews in and around West Marin would meet for Shabbat potlucks and holidays. After two years, as the gatherings drew more people, founders Suzanne Sadowsky and others secured nonprofit status for Gan HaLev, which today boasts a membership of around 50 families.

“West Marin has a separate subculture,” Sadowsky says, “somewhat different from mainstream. We’re not as prosperous as the larger congregations, but there’s also a sense of counterculture lifestyle.

For years, Gan HaLev has met at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center — roughly halfway between San Anselmo and Point Reyes — and until recently had no rabbi’s salary on its balance sheet. Dues were low and remain low, running $600 for families, $400 for individuals.

As with other congregations, this amount doesn’t cover all expenses. The congregation mounted a separate fundraising campaign to pay the salary of Rabbi Elisheva Salamo, who this summer began serving Gan Halev on a part-time basis.

“We were successful but we’re holding our breath [that] this could be sustained,” Sadowsky says. “Having a rabbi will draw more people to the congregation. Without a building or a rabbi, you’re operating on a prayer, so to speak.”

Sadowsky says congregational leaders looked at revamping the dues structure to something closer to the “fair share” model, but decided it wouldn’t have worked. “It was complicated and [there was] no way to monitor it,” she says.

Nevertheless, at some point, she says, the dues will have to factor in their rabbi’s salary, which of course means costs will rise. Then again, a dynamic permanent rabbi can lure potential congregants and spur growth.

Mortgages and rabbi salaries have never been a problem at the Mission Minyan. The independent San Francisco congregation has neither a rabbi nor a synagogue. It is lay led, and rents space at the Women’s Building in San Francisco.

In fact, Mission Minyan leaders say volunteerism matters more than a check. There is no dues requirement. Instead, individual minyanites choose to buy food for onegs, pay for printing siddurs or rent a room for davening.

Or not. It’s up to them.

“I don’t remember a serious discussion about dues,” says the minyan’s co-founder, David Henkin, a 46-year-old U.C. Berkeley history professor. “We don’t have a building, we don’t have paid staff and we don’t have membership. So what exactly would we be asking for dues for? We struggle more with how to apportion time commitments and responsibilities than how to apportion the financial burden of running the operation.”

Money has its place. Financial donations are welcome, and a few years ago, the Mission Minyan raised $20,000 to commission the writing of a Torah scroll. It also pays a freelance bookkeeper and maintains an office at the Women’s Building.

Mission Minyan celebrates its new Torah in 2009 in San Francisco. (Photo/Simon Goldrei)

Jennifer Blumenfeld, 29, swears that office in reality is more of “a closet.” She’s been part of the Mission Minyan executive committee, and though she now lives in Oakland, she maintains a connection with her old house of prayer.

She echoes Henkin’s sentiment about dues.

“There’s a big value on showing up and being part of the community,” Blumenfeld says. “People contribute in different ways, but I found the most meaningful way is with time. Mission Minyan has a strict rule: If you want something to happen, someone has to do it. If you want kids’ services, then you organize that for yourself.”

One other reason dues wouldn’t work at Mission Minyan is the transient nature of its congregants. Many are students or visiting professors. Every High Holy Days brings a sea of new faces, and many of the old ones have moved on.

Dues by definition anchor a member to a congregation. Short-termers might be disinclined to buy in.

“We are not a wealthy community,” Henkin says, “so we bump up against limits. [But] we have never been unable to do something because we didn’t have money.”

Back at Sherith Israel, executive director Mallor says her synagogue, like most others, “is looking for a different model that may produce more revenue.” She notes that the URJ has even formed a think tank to “relay some creative ideas for membership.”

Some of those ideas, as laid out in a URJ publication called “Money Matters,” suggests introductory rates for particular constituencies, such as young adults, military personnel and couples who were married at the synagogue.

The same publication notes that expense is frequently cited as a reason some Jews sever ties with a synagogue or choose not to affiliate in the first place.

That’s exactly what synagogue leaders want to avoid, even though the income is crucial for survival. Fortunately, most congregants — including Joseph at Sherith Israel — understand this.

“It’s not cheap but it’s important, and I’m happy to be a member there,” Joseph says. “It’s great that people can go regardless of financial means.”

Noting the beauty of Sherith Israel’s 107-year-old sanctuary, he adds, “My fiancée pointed out that for some people, [the synagogue] may be the nicest place they go to in their week.”

Nice enough to pay 2 percent of their annual income? Rice, Sherith Israel’s membership director, says her synagogue is counting on it.

“You can date us up to a certain point,” she says, “and then you have to marry us.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.