It was 2006, and Temple Israel of Sharon, like so many congregations across the country, was shrinking. The Conservative Sharon, Massachusetts, congregation, which had reached a peak of around 750 members in the last century, was down to 600. But where some people might have seen only decline and despair, Rob Carver, a professor of business statistics and the temple’s lay leader, saw a math problem.
“We were starting to notice that every year we would raise dues, increase the price, and actually bring in less revenue than the prior year,” Carver said.
Sharon, once a very Jewish suburb of Boston, had changing demographics. Fewer young Jewish families were moving in, and older families had let memberships lapse once their children reached bar mitzvah age or they retired to a warmer state. A local JCC had just closed down.
However, Carver believed some households opted out of synagogue membership because the cost of participating became too high. While the temple had an abatement system in place, “it was like applying for college financial aid,” he said. “It was a hassle. It was fair but it was demoralizing and embarrassing for people.” In the middle of the Great Recession, Carver, then the congregation’s president, decided to encourage an experiment. He got the board to agree to abandon the dues model for a system in which members choose their own annual pledge.
Few things in Jewish life combine guilt and money like synagogue dues, the tiered membership fees for temple membership, fees that can range into the thousands of dollars. In recent years, a small but growing number of shuls have abandoned what had been the dues model, which had been the primary source of financing Jewish religious life ever since bidding for well-located pews fell out of style in the early 20th century.
According to Rabbi Dan Judson, about 30 Reform and Conservative synagogues have adopted a pay-as-you-wish model for membership. Judson first heard about what Temple Israel of Sharon had done while writing his dissertation at Brandeis on the history of congregations and money, and he has become the go-to researcher on the alternative dues model.
Synagogues adopting at-will annual dues still typically send out a yearly mailing that includes a suggested amount, an average that, if contributed by each member household, would meet the temple’s needs. However, congregants can fill in any amount on the dotted line (one congregation maintains a minimum of $36, a multiple of chai).
The trend has accelerated, Judson said, “kicked off by the recession, but I do think there is a cultural element here.”
Scott Roseman, who led the adoption of at-will dues at Temple Beth El in Santa Cruz, California, compared the system to a public-radio pledge drive. Members, he said, “understand that if they want to be part of that community there’s a responsibility in being part of it. If they see the value in it they’re not going to want to keep paying minimal dues.”
Roseman had actually been interested in changing the temple’s dues model for a long time. His now-wife Jasmine had told him a story not long after they met through the shul. She had tried to join the shul shortly after her previous marriage had ended in divorce. Struggling financially as a single mom to two children, she had requested a reduction and ended up on an awkward call with someone from the membership committee about her income and spending.
“If you think about synagogue, it shouldn’t be an exclusive club,” observed Roseman. “The whole idea is antithetical to what we’re supposed to be about.”
“There was a lot of fear,” he said about making a change. However, the declining membership and the recession provided an opening to encourage a new approach. So far, members have stepped up financially. Roseman estimated that revenues rose 5 percent to 7 percent in the first years after Beth El made the switch, reversing a downhill trend. And at Temple Israel of Sharon, in Massachusetts, revenue losses have at least stopped if not rebounded.
“Many people think that when you move to this system of course it’s not going to work,” Dan Judson told me, “because Jews are going to become schnorrers meaning, in traditional economic terms, they’re going to become free riders.”
However, in his first in-depth study of 21 synagogues, he found most synagogues had seen at least a modest increase in membership revenues, averaging 4.4 percent. So far, only one temple that made the switch to at-will dues, Temple Emanu-El, in San Francisco, has gone back.
“We’re not necessarily in love with the current model,” said Temple Emanu-El’s director of membership, Terry Kraus. But under the experimental dues structure, she said, the synagogue was not receiving what it needed to run. She added they also considered the system more fair. “We found people who seemed to have similar means but they weren’t paying similar amounts.” New members can still choose their dues for their first year, and Kraus says the reduction process is “not onerous.”
Judson doesn’t suggest that all synagogues make the switch. “There should be diversity in Jewish life,” he said. He noted that buy-in and implementation are critical to pulling off this transition. In some cases, small congregations had the advantage of being able to have one-on-one conversations to explain the change to a large proportion of their membership. Many sought added security in advance by approaching past major donors to ask if they would commit to making up any shortfall.
However, the numbers he’s generated have, understandably, caught the attention of a world of perpetually struggling nonprofits, lately under extra strain.
The Reform and Conservative movements both insist they keep no numbers on total membership and revenues of their affiliates. However, according to a number of experts who study congregational life, both have been trending downward. The Pew Research Center reported this year that young Jews are more likely to respond that they consider themselves not religious (32 percent for millennials versus 7 percent for boomers). Only 39 percent of Jewish adults overall responded to that survey that a member of their household belonged to a synagogue.
Barry Mael, head of finance for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, added that, at least anecdotally, congregations have also heard from more congregants seeking reductions in their dues payments. He has begun organizing a cohort of synagogues to reexamine their overall financial situations and cautions that dues make up only a portion of congregations’ budgets.
However, Rabbi Deborah Hachen, head of Temple Beth-El in Jersey City, New Jersey, says she gets at least one call every month from congregations interested in her experience with at-will dues.
“I can’t say it generated a lot of extra money,” she tells them. However, three years in, the temple has seen the most dramatic increase in membership of any studied. The number of households that belong to the synagogue has risen 25 percent, of which Hachen attributes a significant portion to the change in dues.
“As a rabbi, it’s so much easier to be more inviting” she noted, observing that membership is right up there in importance with the congregation’s financial solvency. “We want their energy, not just their money.”
Jersey City has very different demographics from Northeastern suburbs like Sharon, with shrinking Jewish communities. Completed in 1926, when lots of Jews lived in the cities of northern New Jersey, the domed brick sanctuary remained long after most moved away. Jersey City, across the river from New York City, is now “an urban area being re-Jewified,” as Hachen describes it, but the new residents often have young children and already-stretched budgets.
Rebecca Missel does not have a family, but the 35-year-old belongs to Hachen’s target demographic, a “professional Jew” who has spent her life working for Jewish congregations and foundations.
She moved to the East Coast from the relatively less Jewish state of Arizona. “Scrappy—I guess scrappy would be kind of like the word I would use to describe the synagogue I grew up in,” she said. However, she argues an increase in the number of Jews in an area alone does not necessarily mean they will join the synagogue. (“Look at Brooklyn.”) She finds the message sent by an at-will dues model immensely appealing. It sends a message, she said: “Look, we know you want to be part of community. We don’t want cost to be deciding factor.”
But it has been for Missel. Liturgically, she actually feels more comfortable with the Conservative congregation in Hoboken, which holds more of its service in Hebrew. “But they have a dues structure that assumes after age of 30, you can afford $1,000 a year for dues.” Each year at Beth-El, she has pledged $180, “because I’m ridiculously Jewish and it seemed like an appropriate amount.” If her finances improve, she might contribute more. Without this option, she probably would not belong to any congregation.
“I think it’s very brave for a synagogue to be able to create this kind of structure but think it’s also really important to do,” as part of a wider strategy, Missel said.
There is a pause when I ask Carver, the former president of Temple Israel of Sharon, whether he considers the change to have been a success. While the membership losses seem to have stopped, it’s been an uphill climb to rebuild, and each year’s budgeting process remain unpredictable.
“It’s hard for me to judge because I invested a lot of myself in it,” Carver said. “I look around at synagogues in area still charging dues and closing their doors. I think abandoning traditional dues was right thing to do. Whether we settled on the right version of our revenue model, that’s not so clear to me. I think the evidence is still coming in.”
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Emma Jacobs is an independent public radio and print journalist currently based in Montreal.