No dues is good news

No dues is good news

Teaneck’s Temple Emeth makes membership payments voluntary

Rabbi Steven Sirbu, left, and Rabbi Dan Judson
Rabbi Steven Sirbu, left, and Rabbi Dan Judson

How much are dues?

That’s no longer a relevant question at Temple Emeth in Teaneck. This summer, as its fiscal year began, the Reform congregation changed how it raised money.

Instead of asking for a set annual fee from members — synagogue dues — the synagogue now is asking for a voluntary donation — what it calls “terumat halev,” meaning a gift of the heart.

How much members pay is up to them.

They are given a guide, though: a statement of the per-household cost of keeping the synagogue running — roughly $1,800.

The change followed a yearlong discussion of the shift by the congregation.

And as for results?

“It’s been great,” Amy Abrams, the shul’s president, said. “We’re in pretty good shape. We have pledges back from almost all of the congregation.”

As of the High Holidays, Temple Emeth gained 38 new members — a not insignificant increase for a synagogue with a membership of around 300 families.

Some of the newcomers, Ms. Abrams said, were people who once had belonged, left, “and now feel able to come back” because finances no longer are an obstacle.

Not that finances ever were a direct obstacle.

People who couldn’t afford the dues — as set out in an intimidating list of 20 possible rates, depending on whether you were a family or single, working or retired, and so on — could call the financial secretary and ask for a dues reduction.

“The reduction was always given but they had to have the conversation,” Ms. Abrams said. “It was awkward and difficult and unpleasant and didn’t make people feel good about being a member.

“We wanted to find a way that finances would not be perceived as a barrier.”

Eliminating dues “created a very good, energized feeling in the congregation. People who don’t have to go through the unpleasantness of asking for a dues reduction feel better about their membership,” she said.

Instead, the conversation around membership has changed from affordability to the benefits of joining. Now, it’s “what can the temple do for me? Is it something I want to be part of? That’s a very positive shift,” she said.

The membership renewal forms that went out over the summer featured, along with the pledge form, a statement of how much the member had given in the past. That sum included dues, contributions, and religious school tuition — which has been eliminated for synagogue members.

Rabbi Steven Sirbu supported the decision to eliminate dues.

“I saw the potential of changing conversations,” he said. “We want people to be thinking, ‘What can I offer Temple Emeth,’ rather than ‘What is being demanded of me?’

“Most people are not out to game the system,” he said. “They understand what it costs to run a synagogue. They want to do their fair share. They understand that for every person who volunteers less, someone has to pay more.”

Eliminating religious school tuition made sense, Rabbi Sirbu said, “because the religious school was heavily subsidized anyway. We decided that education is an important value of ours and something we want to support. Often it’s the younger families who can’t afford membership and have issues with the fees.”

Temple Emeth may be a trailblazer in north Jersey in eliminating its dues, but it joins 60 other synagogues across the country that have changed their approach to membership in recent years.

According to Rabbi Dan Judson, whose book “Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money” will be published by Brandeis University next year, synagogues have been supporting themselves by collecting dues for only a century. “It started becoming the primary way synagogues raise money around 1920, in the post World War One era,” he said.

Before that, synagogues sold seats.

“You would buy a seat the way you’d buy a seat to the New York Giants. You would own that seat. Nobody can sit in that seat if you’re not there. You could sell that seat back to the congregation, or it would go to your heirs — like the way you own an apartment,” he said.

That approach isn’t coming back, but it had some advantages, Rabbi Judson continued. “There’s a certain way that when you owned the seat you were literally invested in the congregation. That kind of engagement and investment is something we’d like to re-engender,” he said.

Even before the Great War, there was an experiment with the voluntary giving model. Rabbi Stephen Wise, then leading a congregation in Portland, Oregon, applied to be rabbi at New York’s leading Reform congregation, Temple Emanu-El — until he learned that the board of trustees would have to approve his sermons. But with his heart set on moving to the big city, he organized the Free Synagogue.

“It was free from dues but the big thing was that it was free from seat ownership,” Rabbi Judson said. “You gave voluntarily, as your heart moved you.

“It worked out well for Stephen Wise, because he was one of the most famous rabbis in America. After his death it didn’t work so well, and that synagogue ended up instituting dues.”

So far, however, this century’s experiment with dues-less synagogues has been working out. “The overall aggregate has been very positive,” Rabbi Judson said.

He studied 50 synagogues that eliminated dues, looking at their revenue and membership numbers. “There was a small but steady increase in membership and revenues” in the synagogues that made the switch.

“It was about a 3.5 percent annual increase in membership; slightly less in revenue,” he said. “That should be compared to a broader national membership number that has been going down for a number of years. So a 3.5 percent annual increase is a significant number.”

Rabbi Judson said the old system “isn’t working the same way it has for 90 years. The concern over money is obviously important, but there’s a danger in not making a change.”

Why did the old system stop working?

“People are more attuned to the sense of embarrassment of asking for dues reduction,” he said.

“For previous generations, it was embarrassing and at times embittering to talk to the congregation. Now there’s a sense they don’t need that. They don’t need to belong to a congregation. They can get their Jewish life online. They can hire a rabbi to teach their kids. There are so many other ways, why do they have to deal with the embarrassment?”

Temple Emeth had a backup plan in place. Donors had offered to make up the loss if the new membership plan didn’t work out.

Rabbi Judson said that all the congregations he looked at either had such a plan in place, or were prepared to revert to dues if voluntary giving didn’t bring in the expected revenue.

“Not a single synagogue in the survey used the backup plan,” he said.

He does offer another revenue suggestion for contemporary synagogues, based on his study of 19th and early 20th century congregational ledgers.

“Synagogues used to raise a little bit of money by fining people who acted out during services or refused to come to board meetings on time,” he said. “I encourage synagogues to bring back fining, but I don’t think anyone is going to take me up on it.”

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