As Jews around the world prepare to usher in a new year with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, more synagogues around the country are reconsidering whether mandatory dues should be treated like 5775: left in the past.
The traditional model for membership has synagogues dictate to their members how much money they should contribute each year. Although this model has persisted through several generations, it is losing its original appeal. Across the board and with few exceptions, synagogues in the United States are contracting instead of expanding.
“It’s a cultural shift taking place. … What was once an innovation is now, like other American institutions, being challenged,” said Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, author of “New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue.”
Olitzky’s book is focused on providing synagogues with alternatives to the traditional model of synagogue membership. He explained the traditional model is under scrutiny, not for its cost, but for its cost-benefit. Members want to know exactly what they are receiving for the fees they pay. Olitzky wrote the book with his son, Rabbi Avi Olitzky.
“We have to get ahead of the curve because the traditional dues model has already failed,” said Rabbi Avi Olitzky, from Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis. “We’re lucky being in the Midwest, because we’re behind the movement and the trend.”
Maryland synagogues clearly do not have that luxury. Although the traditional model is far from gone, many local synagogues recognize its downfalls and want to find alternatives. The JT reached out to the leadership of roughly 80 synagogues in the city of Baltimore, Baltimore County, Howard County and other area locales for this story and spoke to more than 25 percent of them.
“We’ve been following studies about affiliations and [the current] membership dues model is a disincentive,” said Rabbi Susan Grossman from Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia. “To a certain extent, it is more similar to a business model like a health club, and it equates synagogue membership as a discretionary income decision rather than an identity.”
Grossman said Beth Shalom uses a hybrid model that allows for members to pay what they are able if they cannot afford the full rate. This model has been used elsewhere, but Beth Shalom does not require members to provide documentation proving their financial situation, which can be an unpleasant and sometimes embarrassing situation.
Although many synagogues will not turn people away over finances, they all have bills to pay for programming, overhead, salaries and Hebrew school.
“We still have a traditional dues structure, but it is becoming more of a challenge,” said David Sliom, president of Kneseth Israel in Annapolis. Sliom added that many parents of younger children want to send their children to Hebrew school, but the congregation requires membership to make use of the Hebrew school.
Temple Emanuel recently sold its building and is now sharing space with Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills, according to its president, David Beller.
“[We] have a unique situation of a Reform [congregation] renting space from a Conservative congregation,” said Beller. “At this point our [membership] structure parallels the Beth Israel structure.”
Beller added that the congregation looked at what models other congregations are using and decided it was not in a position to implement them.
Both Columbia Jewish Congregation and Bet Aviv in Howard County are based at the Oakland Mills Meeting House — an interfaith center designed to host several religious congregations. They share space not only with each other, but also with three Christian congregations.
“We’ve had a traditional [dues] model, but for the past year and upcoming two years we are re-evaluating that model. We’ve had people coming from our movement to talk about different options,” said Rabbi Sonya Starr from Columbia Jewish Congregation.
CJC’s board has agreed to commit to whatever the congregation decides to do. But what is more important, according to Starr, is that the fee structure is responsible, from not only a fiduciary point of view, but also a Jewish one.
“This has to be done as a Jewish organization with Jewish values and ethics,” said Starr, who anticipates CJC having a new membership model by 2017.
While traditional synagogues have struggled with dues, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement has always taken a different approach to membership in general.
“Fluid is a good way to describe it. [Each Chabad] figures out what audience [they] are servicing and how to attract them,” said Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Maryland. Kaplan added that if Chabad charged service fees on college campuses, he “can guarantee that very few people will come.”
“Every synagogue needs funding, but membership is more limiting for people who are disenchanted with organized religion,” added Rabbi Kushi Schusterman from Harford Chabad.
Schusterman, who like many Chabad rabbis does not require membership, explained that Chabad organizations must find a balance between fundraising and their obligations as a religious institution. Schusterman said that when he has a stable flow of money, it allows him to attend to other obligations such as births, bar mitzvahs, funerals and other life-cycle events.
“The way I put it is: By us, membership is a final step, not the first step,” said Rabbi Sholom Raichik from Chabad of Upper Montgomery County.
With their movement having spread worldwide, Chabad’s formula has managed to prosper but the Chabad rabbi at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., went a step further than most do in justifying his financial expenses.
In 2007, Rabbi Peretz Chein laid out all of his finances for maintaining his Chabad House, hosting programs and paying his salary on his website for the public to view.
“My donor base doesn’t interact with me on a regular basis so I wanted them to be connected with the institution and beyond telling them what we do, I wanted them to see under the hood,” said Chein. “I want their financial support so I figured it would be meaningful to them if they can see happens with those dollars.”
Chein’s actions received a positive response from the community and ended up eliciting a strong sense of connection and care for the Chabad House. However he doesn’t see what he did as extraordinary. He believes that showing people how he spends their money is simply a reasonable thing to do.
“The question isn’t why am I doing it, the question is why are others not doing it?” said Chein, who has continued to be transparent about his finances to date.
Any change in a membership model has to be accompanied by a change in the institutional culture and framework.
“I believe that synagogues need to become more transparent places. It’s about improving the conversation about money and in our culture to have these organizations have such a lacking of transparency,” said Judson. “It makes no sense, it is totally out of touch with the zeitgeist, the cultural feeling of the time.”
Among other forms of programming, services for the High Holidays is an issue that is interwoven into membership models. Synagogues must decide whether to include tickets for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into their dues or whether to charge separately.
Excluding the several Chabad synagogues, which have open door policies, there was an even split among the synagogues interviewed for this article between those that include tickets with dues and those who do not.
Regardless of the approaches synagogues take when it comes to membership, many of the experts agree that the discussion surrounding dues is not all about money.
“Any change in a membership model has to be accompanied by a change in the institutional culture and framework,” said Kerry Olitzky.
Judson and Debbie Joseph were researchers for “Are voluntary dues right for your synagogue? A practical guide,” which focused on 26 congregations in the U.S. that use a voluntary dues model and was commissioned by the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York.
Both Judson and Joseph worked with Olitzky on his book and echoed his comment about changing the institutional culture. Joseph said the biggest problem with the traditional model is the relationship it creates between synagogues and their members.
“People talk about money first, ‘I want to join the congregation. How much does it cost?’ The first line of joining was associated with what it costs to belong,” said Joseph. “Part of that cultural change is how you talk to people about money and belonging. How do you get people, in their minds, to not equate money with membership?”
However, when Joseph and Judson began their research, a pattern emerged among many of the congregations.
“When we started [our research,] we thought the synagogues had already made cultural changes which would make it easier to move to this system [of voluntary dues,]” said Judson. “But in many congregations, it worked the opposite way.”
Judson explained that once synagogues transitioned to a voluntary dues model it led to more positive interactions between the synagogue and members in general. Many of the synagogues, that Judson and Joseph researched, reported an overall positive change in revenue, membership growth and cultural change as a result of the switch.
“Synagogues changed the conversation they were having with their members about money. They found a better environment to ask members for resources because there wasn’t the obligatory nature of telling people what to pay,” said Judson. “And by in large even without a dues system, members paid, they didn’t take the moment to abandon the synagogue.”
In his book, Olitzky included 25 reasons to join a synagogue and while he recognizes that people will disagree with some of the reasons, he hopes to ignite a conversation.
Olitzky said synagogue affiliation is at an all-time low since World War II. When it comes to membership, millennials are voting with their feet and establishing the institutions that cater to their own needs.
“The institution [of a synagogue] represents something very different for the generation of my children then it does for older generations,” said Olitzky. “And because of this they are not prepared to support the edifices of their parents.”