No-dues policy a big success at Danville synagogue

When there’s a drop in revenue from dues, what’s a synagogue to do? One Danville congregation has chosen to go in a counterintuitive direction: abolishing dues altogether.

Beth Chaim Congregation recently instituted a new policy, replacing traditional member dues with a concept that leaders of the 36-year-old independent synagogue are calling “engagement commitment.”

Now, congregants decide what they want out of their synagogue membership, as well as what they will contribute — monetarily and otherwise.

Mitchell Lombardi (right) holds the Torah as Rabbi Dan Goldblatt (left) and Harold Freiman look on. photo/courtesy beth chaim congregation

Yep, writing that annual check is now optional.

According to Beth Chaim Rabbi Dan Goldblatt, “engagement commitment” could mean anything from participating in the sisterhood to donating money, from working in the temple garden to volunteering for a social justice project.

The new policy was announced from the bimah at the High Holy Days last year, and since then, the 220-family congregation has seen an increase in both membership and revenue.

Optional dues — yet an increase in revenue?

According to the rabbi, 45 percent of members have already pledged an amount equal to or greater than the “sustaining amount,” that is, the per-family-unit amount needed to sustain the synagogue’s annual budget.

In addition, Goldblatt added, 88 percent have pledged to contribute in 2014 an amount equal to or greater than what they paid last year.

That should add up to a synagogue in the black, he said.

Those stats are in contrast to what has happened at other synagogues around the country that have tried a no-dues policy. According to Goldblatt, there aren’t many, but “all of them” experienced a 1-4 percent decrease in revenue the first year.

On top of the financial statistics, Beth Chaim is also smiling over its membership numbers.

“We have grown dramatically, by five families a month,” Goldblatt said. “We haven’t seen this kind of growth in a long time. Many are coming in because they heard about the [policy]. The whole issue of money is off the table. No one can ever again complain about money, which is incredibly liberating.”

The new policy was not an easy sell to the board. But according to the rabbi, it became necessary to make a bold change — in part because of the sticker shock prospective members often experience when considering joining.

“We had many people come in, excited about joining,” Goldblatt said. “Then they’d heard how much dues were and they’d turn around. They would say, ‘We don’t want to join and not pull our weight.’ And they’d walk out the door.”

Add to that a national crisis of engagement, in which younger generations have fallen away from the old model of synagogue membership, and Beth Chaim’s leadership came to understand that things had to change.

“The buzzwords in the Jewish community were how we have to move away from transactional relationships and more towards relational engagement,” Goldblatt said.

Last spring, Beth Chaim leaders held a series of one-on-one meetings, small-group discussions and community forums to learn what congregants wanted from and for their community.

Some told the rabbi that attending the women’s Rosh Hodesh group was their central point of engagement. Others said holiday celebrations were most important.

“Rather than a top-down, program-driven environment, we’re now inviting people to articulate what is their sense of connection to the community,” the rabbi noted. “We told people we’re no longer trying to seduce you with programming or chase after you.”

The Beth Chaim move has caught the eye of those who study and foster synagogue innovation.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, author of “Jewish Megatrends,” is one such observer. He consulted with Goldblatt during the planning stages of the new policy, and is eager to see it succeed.

“I track these sorts of things across the country pretty closely,” said Schwarz, a senior fellow at Clal: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “I help rabbis find ways to change the existing paradigm. This is one example of disruptive innovation, which has tremendous impact on a community.”

He believes the old synagogue model, which stood up for more than half a century, is no longer viable. That’s why steps like Beth Chaim’s are necessary, he said, even if they fail.

“I’m thrilled to see a rabbi do something as dramatic as what [Goldblatt] has done,” Schwarz said. “The early returns look promising. We’re not going to reinvent the American synagogue by playing it safe. I talk to rabbis about creating an environment where the leadership has a high tolerance for risk-taking and failure.”

But can the financial risk of abolishing dues prove too high? Not according to Schwarz, who believes the need for community and meaning is something Jews will pay for.

“It flips on its head the model from before,” he said of Beth Chaim’s bold move. “To be part of a community engaged in serious Jewish learning, prayer, social action and on and on — when you’re part of it, you realize that nothing of value comes for free.”

That’s the gamble, and though it is too soon to know if it will work in the long term, Goldblatt feels good about the early returns.

“I’m not scared,” he said. “I believe this honors how people think about what it means to be part of community. We’ve really empowered people to define how they want their Jewish life to be.”

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.