A year ago, when Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria was facing a steady decline in membership, leaders believed one reason was membership dues.
“We had heard people would not join because the dues were too high,” said congregation President Julienne Bramesco.
Rather than lower the dues, leaders of the Reform congregation laid out the operating budget and told congregants the average amount needed from each household to keep the lights on and water running.
Since then, Bramesco said, two things happened: Beth El’s membership is steady for the first time in years. And members voluntarily contributed enough money to cover the budget.
“We hope that by educating people about what it really costs” to operate a synagogue, she said, “people who can afford to give more, will give more, and that covers people who can’t afford to give as much.”
Voluntary dues are becoming increasingly popular among synagogues around the United States, including in Greater Washington. The number of synagogues nationwide that eliminated fixed annual dues doubled in the past two years, according to a newly released study by the UJA-Federation of New York.
On average, the 57 synagogues nationwide that stopped charging mandatory dues reported increases of 3.6 percent in total membership and 1.8 percent in dues revenue. That means overall that more money is coming in from more people, but the average annual membership contribution from each member has fallen.
Beth El implemented the voluntary dues as a two-year pilot program.
The congregation experimented with its dues structure before. In 2013, it set annual dues at between 1 percent and 1.5 percent of each member’s income in what was called the fair-share dues model. In practice though, Bramesco said, everyone ended up paying slightly different percentages because of the adjustments made by rounding amounts up or down. It didn’t work out as intended.
The UJA study found that synagogues adopted the voluntary model due to a mix of financial and values-based reasons. After the 2008 financial crisis, synagogue members generally were increasingly reticent to pay mandatory dues, and a pay-what-you-can system was more appealing to those with tighter budgets.
Also, dues may have alienated families; some wanted to feel welcome unconditionally at synagogue, and other may have been uncomfortable explaining to a board of fellow congregants why they could not pay the full fee, according to the report.
“I think the perception of the old model is that it did not seem fair. There was a huge burden that was put on some of the younger families,” said Jen Motley, congregation president at Temple Solel in Bowie, which was included in the UJA’s study.
One of the issues with a traditional dues structure is generational.
Studies suggest that millennials are less inclined to become members of old institutions. Jack Wertheimer, a history professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said that free programs like Birthright — the 10-day trip to Israel for young adults — get young Jews used to the idea of no- and low-cost Jewish services.
“We’re living in a time when some Jews don’t want to pay anything to go to synagogue and benefit from synagogue,” Wertheimer said. “We’re living in a time today when institutions are held suspect and also seen as rather cold and distant. This whole idea of membership dues reinforces that point.”
Temple Solel switched to voluntary dues last June. Synagogue leaders said both membership and annual revenue have increased.
It’s part of a three-year process. The focus last year was on determining its budget, informing members and collecting dues. This year will be about getting members more involved in synagogue life, said Michael Tanenhaus, chair the synagogue’s budget and finance committee.
We “didn’t want it to be all about the money,” said Tanenhaus. “We really wanted to change the conversation about how [members] can engage, and how we can make their membership in our community central to their everyday lives.”
Next year will bring a fine-tuning of the new arrangement.
Greater involvement by congregants has been a common goal among synagogues that switched to voluntary dues, according to the report. It encourages members to invest in their synagogues by volunteering on a committee or helping with an event, not only monetarily.
The voluntary dues model also drives synagogues to increase financial transparency; members have a better idea of what they’re paying for.
“The existing model is no longer really aligning with the values and culture of the synagogue,” said Adina Frydman, executive director of Synergy, a division of the New York federation that advises synagogues on strategy and produced the UJA report.
“The process of asking for a [dues] adjustment becomes all about the money, as opposed to ‘you are a member of this congregation and community.’”
On the whole, Orthodox synagogues are not adopting the model. Frydman and Wertheimer suggested that because Orthodox Jews view prayer as mandatory, the obligation carries over to synagogue membership.
One large Orthodox organization that doesn’t charge dues, however, is Chabad. Its centers worldwide rely on voluntary donations. While that means that the emissaries who run the movement’s outreach efforts spend a significant amount of time fundraising, Chabad spokesman Rabbi Motti Seligson said it also removes a barrier to participation in Jewish life — and forces
Chabad centers to run programs people want.
Columbia Jewish Congregation, in Howard County, voted to switch to voluntary dues last year, and began implementing the system this spring. The Reconstructionist congregation has taken a slightly different approach than Solel and Beth El in a move to avoid the fear of not knowing the amount of dues money that will come in.
By asking members to pledge how much money they intend to give, Co-President Steven Kramer said the congregation will have a heads-up on whether it will be under or over budget. In the first year of voluntary dues, the synagogue looks to be under budget, Kramer said.
However, he anticipates the model will be successful over the long term based on the research he has seen.
Regardless, there is still apprehension about the change.
“The support [from the congregation] was overwhelming, but it was a leap of faith. We’re changing everything we do,” Kramer said. “Because it is still new, we’re nervous about how it is going to work out.” n
Justin Katz is a staff writer for Washington Jewish Week.
Ben Sales writes for Jewish Telegraphic Agency News and Features.