Now trending: voluntary dues for synagogues

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Synagogues, like other membership organizations, count on dues to keep their doors open, the lights on and their programs running. So what would happen if they abolished fixed, mandatory membership dues and moved to a voluntary system that allowed people to pay as much, or as little, as moved them? Would they be able to survive and thrive?

The answer, at least in the Bay Area, appears to be “yes.” In fact, a growing number of congregations in Northern California are expected to shift to a voluntary dues structure over the next couple of years. At least two area synagogues — Temple Beth El in Aptos and Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville — have fully implemented such a system.

Rabbi Richard Litvak

Since 2010, when Temple Beth El instituted voluntary dues, it has experienced growth in membership, stronger financial footing and a more active and engaged congregational base, according to the synagogue’s senior rabbi, Richard Litvak.

“Three years ago, we had 477 members,” Litvak said of his Reform congregation. “Today we have 541 members. We have more families with preschool-age children, who are vital to the lifeblood of the congregation, and we are getting former members who are returning. There has been a strengthening in our volunteer base, a resource that often gets lost when assessing membership contributions.”

For Scott Roseman, Beth El’s vice president of membership development and president-elect, the voluntary dues initiative has been gratifying. “It was the right thing to do,” he said. “The old-school way of doing things is antithetical to our faith, and we have to get away from synagogue dues as a sense of obligation. The Generation Xers and millennials are not interested in club memberships.”

Beth Cousens, a Bay Area consultant who advises Jewish institutions across the United States, couldn’t agree more. The author of the widely circulated report “Connected Congregations: From Dues and Membership to Sustaining Communities of Purpose,” a document she prepared for the UJA Federation of New York in 2013, Cousens has long contended that traditional membership dues have been the greatest barrier to the growth of non-Orthodox synagogues.

She has called for a complete revamping of the system so that any conversations about money and financial responsibilities to synagogues follow, rather than precede, prospective members’ engagement with Jewish houses of worship.

Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville adopted voluntary dues two years ago.

Cousens and many others firmly believe that younger Jews, particularly those in large urban centers with significant Jewish populations — places like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C. — have many alternatives to synagogues to express their Jewishness. These experts believe that if synagogues want to continue to maintain or grow their congregations, they will need to replace what some call “transactional Judaism” — or “pay to pray” — with a voluntary dues system that works because congregants feel emotionally invested to lend their continued support.

“I haven’t heard of any synagogue experiencing growth without making these changes,” Cousens said.

According to Rabbi Dan Judson, the director of professional development and placement at Hebrew College, a rabbinical school in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, and an authority on the history and finances of American synagogues, 33 synagogues across the country have instituted voluntary dues, a 100 percent increase from five years ago. And more are expected to make the transition over the coming year from a fixed-dues model or fair-share plan, in which dues are assessed on a family’s income, to a voluntary dues structure, he said.

Many have long seen fixed- and fair-share dues as outmoded practices that have effectively barred many middle-class Jewish families from congregational life. Ironically, though, the tradition of paying for temple memberships through a flat fee or an algorithm based on household income came into being to correct what many in the Jewish community had believed to be an inegalitarian system.

Judson said that throughout the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, Jewish families who wanted to belong to congregations would buy seats — not unlike longtime Giants fans who hold personal seat licenses at AT&T Park.

 “The seats were your property,” Judson said, “and they could be passed on in your will.”

The most affluent Jews purchased the most coveted seats, and less well-to-do Jews would buy seats elsewhere. Those who could not afford to buy could rent, while some seats were always set aside for the poorest Jews who lacked the means even to rent.

Rabbi Dan Goldblatt

This practice fell out of favor around World War I with the advent of Wilsonian democracy, according to Judson. “People saw selling seats as unfair; it was out of alignment with the cultural zeitgeist.”

That’s when uniform dues became de rigueur — and the standard for the past 100 years.

It was the recession of 2008, Judson said, that prompted many synagogues to re-examine best practices for dues and memberships.

One Bay Area synagogue now seriously considering a shift to fully voluntary dues is Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. The Conservative institution is working closely with Rabbi Marvin Goodman, executive director of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, on a “Community of Practice Dues and Membership Models” initiative, a partnership with the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund in San Francisco.

Kol Shofar has implemented a pilot program, now entering its third year, in which new members and current members receiving financial accommodations (upwards of 40 percent of the congregation) now pay what synagogue leaders refer to as “self-assessed dues.”

“We changed the dialogue,” said Steven Tulsky, president of the congregation. “We stopped talking about ‘arrangements’ and changed it to ‘What works for you?’ We emphasize that what members give to Kol Shofar is a donation, not a fee for service.”

Steven Tulsky

Tulsky and Kol Shofar executive director Nancy Drapin said they have seen an uptick in membership among families with young children, and a spike in their religious school enrollment. And what has been a deterrent to many synagogues’ adoption of voluntary dues — the fear that annual giving will decline precipitously — has proven just the opposite: Contributions have gone way up.

“This has been a really positive approach to annual giving,” Drapin said, referring to dues, contributions to the annual fund, and other gifts. “The structure has opened the door to young people and given them an opportunity to give more.”

It’s too soon to tell whether average household giving has changed permanently, she said, “and we continue to monitor our growth.”

An early leader in the adoption of voluntary dues was Danville’s Beth Chaim Congregation. Rabbi Dan Goldblatt, the independent congregation’s spiritual leader, said membership has grown “enormously” since voluntary dues came into place two years ago: from 210 families to 300.

“Every demographic has increased — not only young families, but older Jews as well,” he said. “We also have more volunteers than ever before.”

Both Goldblatt and Litvak of Aptos’ Temple Beth El noted that they have received many inquiries from colleagues and Jewish leaders across the country seeking information and guidance to implement a voluntary dues approach.

But that doesn’t mean that all — or even most — non-Orthodox synagogues will be discontinuing fixed and fair-share dues structures any time soon.

Judson, the synagogue finance expert, noted that synagogues with stable membership populations have no incentive to grow and that larger synagogues — those with more than 600 family memberships — are loath to change course as well.

Many in the Jewish community point to the case of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, one of the first synagogues in the country to adopt voluntary dues — in the late 1990s — and one of the first to abandon the practice, in 2008. “We were finding that people didn’t have a good sense of why some were paying more and some were paying less,” said David Goldman, executive director of the 2,160-family congregation. “It left too much confusion.”

Another challenge for synagogues that have already implemented voluntary dues, or are considering the approach, is publicizing it to prospective members.

Roseman, Beth El’s incoming president, said he wasn’t sure how many Jews in the Santa Cruz area knew about the temple’s voluntary dues structure. “There are still people in our community who believe that they need to come up with huge dollars and don’t know that everyone is welcome,” he said.

That perception exists well beyond Santa Cruz. Eric Singer, a nonprofit professional who recently moved to Sonoma County from San Francisco with his wife, Jessica, and 3-year-old son, Lionel, said that he and his family would be interested in joining a synagogue but for their concern over a substantial financial commitment.

“That’s an obstruction,” said Singer, who does send Lionel to a Jewish preschool.

Whether they are on the cusp of implementing voluntary dues or not, rabbis and other synagogue leaders want to let the Singers and other Jewish families know that the days of going before abatement committees at synagogues to plead their case for a dues reduction are long gone. The consensus is that abatement committees were more like abasement committees, and that anyone or any family interested, irrespective of financial capacity, is now welcome to a congregation.

“We are at one end of the tipping point,” said consultant Cousens. “In five to 10 years, we’ll be at the other end.”

Meanwhile, Kol Shofar’s transition to all voluntary dues “is continuing quietly — we’re changing the language around people’s annual support, not speaking about ‘dues,’ but rather about their ongoing support for the community,” Drapin said. “While we ask them to pay a certain amount, we also give them easy alternatives to choose to pay a different amount, whether higher or lower — so it is clear that it is their choice.”

At the same time, she said, “It’s important that people understand what we need to keep the community operating, and to know that their continued support at similar or higher levels is necessary if we are to remain available to meet the needs of all our congregants.”

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.