One donation, no fees, does it all at Peninsula Sinai Congregation

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Ornit Rose is going to be able to send her four children to religious school tuition-free this year.

That’s because Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City has undergone a major overhaul in what it charges its members. Not only will parents no longer have to pay fees for their kids’ religious school, but the synagogue also has eliminated standard membership dues and charges for services such as bar and bat mitzvahs.

In a momentous vote this spring, members of the 49-year-old Conservative synagogue decided to replace the fees for education programs, membership, and other services and activities with an annual voluntary financial pledge that has no bearing on membership status. Becoming a member at Peninsula Sinai is now as simple as telling the synagogue that you are one.

Rabbi Corey Helfand

Other synagogues around the country have instituted a similar model in recent years, but the one major difference is that all of them (at least those of significant size) still require a payment for religious school. Peninsula Sinai appears to be the first medium-to-large synagogue in the United States that has done away with religious school tuition in addition to including all synagogue programming under the umbrella of a voluntary donation system.

“Every single year, right before the High Holidays, I would get in touch with the treasurer and say, ‘This is my situation. Can I pay over three or four payment cycles? Or have a reduced fee because there are four kids?’ ” said Rose of San Mateo. “It’s an uncomfortable conversation every time.”

This year, the awkwardness and stress have been eliminated. Now she and her husband, Jack, a neurologist at Washington Hospital in Fremont, are empowered to decide how much money to give to their synagogue and on what schedule they will pay it.

“It’s nice not to have to worry about it, because I know what I can pay,” said Rose, an attorney and stay-at-home mom. “Because of that, you have all these good feelings toward the synagogue.”

Like most North American synagogues, Peninsula Sinai traditionally charged dues at set rates; the way you became a member and continued on as one was by paying them. But now Peninsula Sinai has joined a small but growing number of synagogues that have shifted how they think about membership.

In the Bay Area, Congregation Beth David in Saratoga, Congregation Beth Chaim in Danville and Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon have adopted or are moving toward what is commonly called the “sustaining model” of membership, where every family sets its own membership dues at a voluntary amount.

But those models include charging separately for religious school.

Ornit Rose and family at her eldest son’s bar mitzvah

Barry Mael, who oversees operations and finance for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which boasts 580 affiliated congregations, has spent a lot of time studying new membership models. Even in synagogues that charge voluntary dues, he said, religious school tuition usually falls into the “fee-for-service” category.

“I’m going to be fascinated to see how [this] plays out” at Peninsula Sinai, he said.

Mael’s research has shown that for most Conservative synagogues that adopt the sustaining model, the dues revenue remains steady or increases slightly, in the range of 2 to 5 percent. (It’s called the “sustaining model” because synagogues that adopt it, including Peninsula Sinai, publish a “sustaining number,” the synagogue’s annual operating expenses divided by the number of member families, as a guide for pledging, although members are free to pledge what they wish.)

A report published last year by UJA-Federation of New York found that average dues revenue increased by 4 percent for Reform synagogues that had begun using the sustaining model. Those synagogues, however, charge tuition for religious school, fees for bar and bat mitzvah services and often hold separate High Holy Days fundraising appeals.

Peninsula Sinai has eliminated all of those line-item costs to members, though it will hold a fundraising gala in the spring to commemorate its 50th anniversary, and may fundraise at other times when it faces unexpected expenses, such as building repairs.

“I believe that under the thoughtful work of Rabbi [Corey] Helfand and the lay leadership of the congregation, it will be successful and potentially become a national model,” said Rabbi Dan Judson, who co-authored the UJA-Federation of New York report. (In a New York Times piece last year on the “pay what you want” experiment at synagogues, Judson was identified as “an expert on the history of the financing of American synagogues.”)

Families enjoy Peninsula Sinai’s annual Purim celebration

Before Peninsula Sinai’s plan becomes a “national model,” though, there will be a learning curve. For example, synagogue members who don’t have school-age children might wonder why their payment should support the religious school. A Peninsula Sinai letter addressed that and other concerns of what it’s calling the “flexible commitment model.”

The letter explained that more than half of the religious school’s 2015-16 budget of $118,000 was subsidized by the congregation’s general fund (a common practice, Mael said). Further, the letter stated, supporting all synagogue activities, even if one is not a direct participant in them, is a core part of Peninsula Sinai’s inclusive values:

“Taxpayers don’t drive on every road, appear before every judge or visit every county park,” the letter stated. “But we believe strongly that supporting one another is a vital part of our community values, and is, ultimately, at the heart of strengthening the community as a whole, not just for today but for the future.”

Helfand, who is beginning his sixth year as Peninsula Sinai’s rabbi, was central in forging a new vision of membership that he and others say places relationships and community first and money second.

“People shared with me that conversations they had around money, dues and financial contributions were not sacred. They felt purely transactional and uncomfortable,” Helfand said. “Part of me thinks that we were missing a bigger opportunity to focus on helping people get engaged with Jewish community. I wanted to say, ‘Just come, check us out, experience the welcoming part of community and how you can explore your own derekh [personal journey]. In time, we’ll figure out a meaningful way for you to give back and support the community.’ ”

Fourth-graders at Peninsula Sinai religious school, which is now tuition-free photo/courtesy peninsula sinai congregation

Like most synagogues, Peninsula Sinai has always offered reduced annual dues for families that need them. But having to ask for a discount, or prove a hardship, can be a discouraging experience that turns off many families. Furthermore, even for those who can pay the sticker price, having to deal with money issues up-front often makes people feel more like customers than community members.

“Research has shown that millennials today are less inclined to be interested in a dues-based model for synagogues. It emphasizes a ‘service model’ for the synagogue: We have some services to give you, and you’re buying it,” said Ron Mester, Peninsula Sinai’s board president. “That feels like an athletic club. It doesn’t feel like a community.”

But just because the dues model has changed doesn’t mean that synagogue life is free. Far from it. Peninsula Sinai has an annual operating budget of $745,000, which it meets almost entirely through member contributions.

Synagogue leadership hopes to continue to grow its membership — which has increased to about 270 families today from about 200 when Helfand started in 2011 — and reach more unaffiliated Jews who may be attracted by the new model. So far, most synagogues that have shifted their dues models have seen promising results, according to Mael, Judson and others.

A notable exception is Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, which adopted a voluntary dues model in the late 1990s but abandoned it a decade later. David Goldman, Emanu-El’s executive director, told J. last year, “We were finding that people didn’t have a good sense of why some were paying more and some were paying less. It left too much confusion.”

For their part, Ornit Rose and her family are choosing to voluntarily give Peninsula Sinai the same amount they paid last year, a figure that included religious school tuition and bar mitzvah fees and is well above the $2,867 sustaining number. Their four children, ranging from age 6 to 13, all will be attending religious school this year; in the past, annual tuition ranged from $725 to $1,050 per child, but now it’s all included.

Rose and her husband can divide their annual payment into multiple installments over the year, and they don’t have to be concerned about how much this or that is going to cost, because now everything is covered. Moreover, in addition to offering installment plans that people can tailor to their individual needs, Peninsula Sinai is now offering other flexible options, such as letting people pay by credit card.

Overall, Rose said, she feels good about the new system, whereas the old system left her feeling uncomfortable at times. The family is making a contribution at a high level, she said, because “we want to” and because “this community is important to us,” not because they are getting a bill from the front office.

“Now that it’s all kind of wrapped into the flexible commitment model, I feel like as long as we can pay to support our community, then we will,” she said. “It’s fantastic.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.