When Allison Fine first became president of Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, N.Y., she was immediately struck by the process by which new and existing members applied for dues relief.

“The idea of having to declare that you couldn’t afford membership was humiliating and shaming to some members. It contradicted everything we are trying to accomplish as a welcoming congregation. And it contradicted Jewish values,” said Fine, a noted blogger, podcaster, and author of several books including Matterness: Fearless Leadership for a Social World.

Following a few years of exploration and lots of provocative discussion, the entire congregation voted earlier this year to upend the conventional dues structure, becoming one of roughly 30 around the country to take such a step. As reported in the New York Jewish Week, the 400-member congregation – which is affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism but also features Conservative services – implemented a flexible “dues” model. The congregation suggests an annual membership rate of $3,300, but congregants can decide themselves how much they are willing and able to pay – without having to ask for any kind of relief. Temple Beth Abraham is among the latest of roughly 30 congregations nationwide to adopt an alternative financial structure that eliminates any mention of the word“dues.” There are at least a few dozen names for the new models, including: voluntary contributions, the pledging system, gift of the heart and temple community commitment.

“Before, it felt like sending out a check to the IRS. We didn’t even send out thank you notes for membership dues, which is unheard of in the nonprofit world. The organizations that are going to do well are going to make people feel good about their participation,” said Fine, now a past president and board member. “The change was about making people feel like they matter.”

It is no secret that the subject of overhauling the century-old system of membership dues has been a topic of much discussion in the synagogue world. While the topic of membership models is crucial in its own right, and part of an effort to make belonging to a congregation more appealing, the conversation about dues is part of a much broader re-examination of the whole gamut of synagogue life, including finances, mission and purpose of 21st century synagogues.

Congregations have explored alternative models in order to improve their finances, be more in line with their values, and create an effective engagement tool. The idea of set dues, once viewed as an egalitarian antidote to the older practice of “selling off” seats to fund synagogue activities, seems out of touch with today’s sensibilities, advocates contend. Dues are for health clubs and membership clubs, not houses of worship. For a number of years, our firm has been advising synagogues to jettison the dues terminology, even if they aren’t substantively changing their financial models.

“There is a cultural shift going on today in American life and Jewish life. There is an eschewing of the membership model,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, co-author of New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue, published this January by Jewish Lights. (Olitzky co-wrote the book with his son, Rabbi Avi Olitzky, of Beth El Synagogue in St Louis Park, Minn.)

What’s driving the push for change?

Olitzky, the director of Big Tent Judaism, formerly the Jewish Outreach Institute, argued that for decades, synagogues financially relied on dues paid by Jews who felt obligated to belong, but rarely participated in, Jewish life.

He added that the Great Recession exacerbated a process already underway: a relatively small percentage of the American Jews community feels an obligation to pay dues. Another undercurrent, he said, is that many non-Jewish spouses in interfaith marriages are often perplexed and turned off by the set dues system.

Rabbi Avi Olitzky added that young adults and millennial feel little sense of institutional loyalty.

“Large synagogues with multi-million dollar budgets can no longer sustain dues line items to the tune of $1M or $1.5M,” Avi Olitzky wrote in an email. “There is too much variability and too much fluctuation. It needs to be about the cultivation of relationships and not the ‘Jewish tax’, so to speak. Even the notion of membership is backwards—people should feel they belong, not pay a fee to belong or be told they do not. In addition, whereas congregational leadership debates affiliation with organizations like USCJ and URJ, determining whether or not it is a worthy investment, congregants do the same—what are they getting in return.”

Chatter about alternative financial models grew even louder in February with the release of the UJA-Federation New York SYNERGY Study, “Are Voluntary Dues Right for Your Synagogue?” So far, more than 1,250 people have downloaded the report. Following the study’s release, the NY Times ran a prominent story, “The ‘Pay What You Want’ Experiment at Synagogues.” Since that time, a number of regional Jewish and secular publications have focused on the issue.

The study was significant because it offered synagogues real data on which to evaluate the prospect of taking a leap of faith. The researchers found that congregations that adopted a voluntary system experienced an average 4 percent increase in membership and an average 4.4 percent increase in overall revenue. The study also found that the majority of synagogues that have made the change had fewer than 600 member families, meaning that voluntary dues remain relatively untested in our largest congregations.

Kate Lauzar, Planning Director of SYNERGY: UJA-Federation of NY, noted that the study was undertaken not as a means to promote a particular financial model, but to provide a resource and information to synagogues.

“We are here to help synagogues have these critical discussions,” said Lauzar. “It seems clear that synagogues thrive best when their visions and their financial operations are in alignment.”
Kerry Olitzky said that most synagogues tend to be risk averse. The study’s data, he noted, makes it seem a little less risky to reform dues structures.

The conversation about membership models may have seemed ubiquitous these past few months and years, but in reality it is just getting started. In a JTA op-ed, Nina Badzin wrote that “a massive change in the dues structure is necessary, but is it sufficient? Changing the financial requirement for membership without addressing the widespread lack of interest in attending synagogue or engaging in Jewish life is going to yield more of the same long term: low participation and apathy.”

Surely a change in the membership model is not, in and of itself, a sufficient response to the challenges facing synagogues today.

“This can’t be about finances alone; this has to be about improving all areas of feeling connected and being part of a religious community,” said Fine, of Temple Beth Abraham.

In addition to rethinking the dues structure, we have also been urging congregations to increase financial transparency. In an age when donors display a healthy dose of skepticism, most congregations remain opaque. Part of the idea behind voluntary dues is that synagogues become more open about what it costs to run the congregation. It is just the first stop on the road to greater transparency.

One thinker who focuses on the importance of transparency is Rabbi Dan Judson, one of the lead researchers and contributors to the SYNERGY study, who is the director of professional development at Hebrew College in Boston. (Judson also wrote the afterward to the Jewish Lights book on membership and financial models). Judson’s 2012 post for eJewishphilanthropy.com, “Scrapping Synagogue Dues: A Case Study” sparked a great deal of interest in alternative dues. He hopes that the push to overhaul the dues structure also leads to increased transparency.

“Pick your Jewish organization and you can find an annual report, budget, all that basic stuff. With a synagogue, you can’t get any of that,” said Judson, who argues that greater transparency and a more open dues model are important steps toward creating more financially stable and vibrant institutions.

“I do see the change in the synagogue financial system as part of the movement of Relational Judaism. It is about engagement and about creating a synagogue that is even more obligated to the lives of its congregants,” he said.

Barry Mael, director of Kehilla Operations and Finance for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), has been intrigued by the number of congregations that are exploring alternative membership models. He noted that in synagogues with at least 200 members, dues typically fund approximately 50 percent of the annual budget, with the rest coming from a variety of other sources. His assessment is that the examination of membership models should lead congregations to a full-scale reassessment of their own finances.

To that end, he has introduced a new program called the Financial Sustainability Action Community. With an initial cohort of 10 congregations, the program entails a 6-7 month process of planning and to at least a year-long timeframe of implementation of a sustainability plan.

“Dues are an important piece of a bigger puzzle,” said Mael. “Anyone who participates in synagogue life these days is a voluntary giver.”

Offering someone the freedom to set their own membership contribution may lower the barrier to entry, which is half the battle, but it doesn’t necessarily get people interested in the first place. Olitzky has written about the concept of “Playlist Judaism” – the idea that the individual Jew, not an institution, controls his or her Judaism. Democratizing membership models and becoming financially sustainable are hugely important goals for synagogues. But, Olitzky argues, to reclaim preeminence in American Jewish life, synagogues must think about how they can transform people’s lives.

“We have to move the conversation away from obligation and towards benefit,” said Olitzky. “People aren’t thinking ‘what is my obligation to the synagogue.’ They are thinking ‘how can I benefit from it.’ If people are finding meaning through the institution, they will think, ‘yes, I am willing to support it.’ ”

Based on the results of the study and our own experience working with congregations, we are confident in suggesting that synagogues should at least explore the idea of adopting a voluntary dues model. We are hopeful that the model can serve as a step toward developing a more philanthropic congregation. The fact that average revenues increased demonstrates that some congregants gave more than the requested amount. We may not yet know the long-term impact on voluntary dues on the philanthropic cultures of a critical mass of congregations. But our prediction is that this shift will ultimately lead to more involved and more philanthropically focused “investors” in the future of essential American Jewish institutions.