Getting rid of synagogue dues its worth a try

It’s no secret that synagogues have struggled mightily in recent years. Membership rolls have shrunk, as have revenue and post–b’nai mitzvah member retention rates.

Clearly, the old 20th-century model of synagogue management no longer works.

With the best minds in American Judaism on the case, all sorts of solutions have been proposed. But one congregation in Danville recently launched a truly radical experiment: Do away with dues altogether.

Rabbi Dan Goldblatt of Beth Chaim Congregation announced the plan at last year’s High Holy Day services. Labeling it “committed engagement,” the new system has members deciding for themselves how much money — if any — they will pay for membership.

They can opt for zero. However, the terms of committed engagement do not end with the writing or withholding of a check. Members must also decide what they want out of their synagogue affiliation and what they are willing to put in. It need not be monetary. Dedicated volunteerism would suffice.

Beth Chaim is gambling that if members sincerely sign on to committed engagement, they will constitute a more dedicated congregation, one that will never allow their institution to falter economically.

So far, reports Goldblatt, it seems to be working. As our story on page 4 indicates, not only is membership up — around five new families a month are joining the congregation — revenue has also increased, at least as pledged by members so far.

Philosophically, the wider debate on how best to revive the American synagogue often comes down to a binary argument between so-called transactional Judaism vs. relational Judaism. This is the terminology of scholars such as Rabbi Sid Schwarz, who will be speaking about synagogue engagement next weekend at several locations in Marin (see article, page 29).

The idea behind relational Judaism is that consumerist or “transactional” fee-for-service Jewish practice is a dead end, and that growing in one’s Judaism should be the goal. Relationship, community, meaning, all must take precedence over the old mindset of “if we program it, they will come.” Because experience shows that in many cases they won’t.

If a culture of relational Judaism takes hold in a given community, the members will thrive individually, collectively and institutionally.

That’s the theory.

We wish Beth Chaim Congregation great success. If this works over the long haul, committed engagement may become a model for other synagogues to adopt.

Kudos to Rabbi Goldblatt and the synagogue board for trying something bold.