Years ago, Tom Temin stopped for lunch in a restaurant in what once had been a church. When the church closed its doors it was taken over by a group of investors who thought the light-brown stone building could be put to profitable use. Temin, now president of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, ate there several times, but he could never shake the feeling that you can’t repurpose “sacred space,” whether a church or a synagogue.
Temin told this story in a letter to his Reform congregation as he announced an effort to come up “with strategies to ensure Temple Beth Ami remains … vibrant and financially stable.”
In the local area and across the country, many congregations are revisiting their financial bottom line as membership drops and as a growing percentage of Jews do not affiliate with Jewish organizations.
“Temple Beth Ami is not failing,” as that church-turned-restaurant did, Temin wrote. “It’s not even showing its age. By all measures, we are a healthy, vibrant religious community. But we need to take a long-term view.”
Beth Ami has 1,000 member families, down from a peak of 1,200. That affects the congregation’s income from dues.
“We have a higher than average dependence on dues — almost 90 percent,” Temin said in an interview. Beth Ami also derives a small income from endowments and fundraising, he said.
Dues, income and membership levels are only part of the puzzle, however. “The real purpose” of the initiative, called “TBA Strategy 2020,” “is sustainability,” Temin said.
That involves not only sufficient numbers, but a membership that identifies strongly with the congregation. “Once people join, how connected do they feel?” he asked.
Strategy 2020, launched during the High Holidays, coincides with the final year of longtime Rabbi Jack Luxemburg, who will retire in early summer, as well as a search for a rabbi to succeed him.
“We want to have a plan two-thirds ready on June 30 so we can tell the [rabbinic] candidates that we have a plan. Our hope is that the new rabbi will complete the plan,” Temin said.
A change in rabbinic leadership can be an optimal time for a synagogue to reassess itself, said Rabbi Esther Lederman, director of Communities of Practice for the Union for Reform Judaism. “It has to be tied to other things going on in the congregation,” she said.
Lederman oversees “Reimagining Financial Support for your 21st Century Congregation,” a Reform movement program to consider the issues that communities like Beth Ami are confronting and to experiment with solutions.
Lederman said the movement has learned that “if there is no change in the culture of the congregation,” simply changing dues to “fair share” (where dues are set as a percentage of income) or freewill giving (where members are told what their slice of operating costs are and are allowed to give that amount, less or more) or some other model will not adequately sustain the congregation.
“Dues models are an element of the sustainability puzzle, but they are not the whole puzzle,” said Barry Mael, director of kehilla (congregation) operations and finance for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
So-called voluntary or freewill dues seem friendlier and less discouraging for potential members, he said. And while people are happier to pay only what they want and it eliminates the need for a committee to consider dues relief, “I haven’t seen strong evidence that it increases income,” he said.
Temin said Beth Ami has not signed up for “Reimagining Financial Support,” but is using URJ resources.
Beth El had set its annual dues at 1-1.5 percent of members’ income, known as the “fair share” model, when it joined the program in 2013.
“Beth El ended up doing, not a change in dues, but a strategic plan in which financials are a part of it,” Lederman said.
One innovation growing out of Beth El’s strategic study is a volunteer position “focused on integrating new members into the congregation and reaching out to new and existing members to get the uninvolved involved,” according to the congregation’s August newsletter.
Temple Sinai’s consideration of its dues model also led it to undertake a strategic study that included an online survey in the spring. The strategic planning committee is holding a series of what it calls “listening sessions” with groups within the congregation in October and November.
“What the community is being forced to do is define why it needs to be,” Mael said. “The community has to sell itself.”
See also: Paying our fair share