Washington Hebrew Congregation changes dues model amid shift in Reform movement

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Cantor Susan Bortnick greets a child at Washington Hebrew Congregation, pre-COVID. (Photo courtesy of Washington Hebrew Congregation)

People don’t like to discuss their income. At least, that’s what Lindsay Feldman at Washington Hebrew Congregation noticed. The Reform synagogue operated a “fair share model,” where dues were a percentage of a household’s income.

Most of the congregation’s 2,200 member families paid between $2,390 and $5,945 a year in dues, said Feldman, Washington Hebrew’s assistant executive director.


That was “not welcoming or inviting,” she said.

So in 2017, the synagogue’s administration began developing a new model. They reached out to members, both current and former, for their feedback. The research resulted in a new membership model that Washington Hebrew Congregation launched this month.

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The “Congregational Commitment” system is a tiered model with flat rates. The basic plan, or members category, is $2,800 annually.

“We’re lowering the barrier for people to be members,” Feldman said. “So we think it is going to be appealing for prospective members.”


Congregants younger than 36 who don’t have children enrolled in preschool or religious school qualify for the young members category — $180 annually if under 30 and $360 if between 30 and 35.

A congregant who has moved away from Washington but still wants to contribute financially can sign up for the non-resident member category. The annual rate is $360.

Those who belong to other congregations in addition to Washington Hebrew Congregation can be eligible for a discount under the dual membership category, Feldman said. That includes membership in a non-Jewish house of worship.

Members can speak to the synagogue about reducing or eliminating the dues.

Feldman said the new model also encourages congregants to pay more through the sustaining members category. Giving levels range from $3,600 to $25,000.

The new system allows congregants “the opportunity to really give because they want to,” Feldman said.

The change is part of a trend in the Reform movement, said Amy Asin, the Union for Reform Judaism’s vice president of strengthening congregations. A decade ago, most Reform congregations used either a fair share or a fixed-dues model. Both came into prominence after World War II, Asin said.

But in the past decade, synagogues have begun experimenting with new models, something Asin said is true of all membership-based institutions.

“Pretty much every organization is experimenting with dues models, right? Netflix is experimenting with dues models. Airlines are experimenting. So it’s not surprising that congregations would as well because the world that you and I live in is shifting,” Asin said. “It would be weird if congregations were the only thing that were staying the same.”

The two models that Asin has seen grow in popularity in recent years are Washington Hebrew Congregation’s tiered model and the voluntary dues model, where members can contribute any amount they desire to the congregation.

In the last decade, Columbia Jewish Congregation, Temple Solel in Bowie and Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria have adopted the voluntary dues model.

According to Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, more and more synagogues have adopted a voluntary model due to a shift in how Americans value paying for membership in an organization, be it a synagogue, church or social club.

“The membership model as we’ve known it for at least a few generations, and probably more, is no longer working in the majority of communities. And so synagogues are grappling with what works best,” said Olitzky, co-author of “New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue: From Traditional Dues to Fair Share to Gifts from the Heart.”

“We have moved, as an American public and particularly in the Jewish community, from paying for membership out of a sense of obligation to a sense personal benefit,” he added. “And so, synagogues have to grapple with not the cost of membership, which is what most of them think they’re doing, but the cost benefit of membership, which most synagogues still have not grappled with. In other words, how am I going to benefit or how is my family going to benefit from participating in belonging in this institution?”

Rabbi Avi Olitzky, Kerry’s son and co-author, said more and more synagogues are having conversations not just about their dues model, but what it means to be a member.

The traditional membership model equates paying dues with membership, usually based on income. He said synagogues like to envision these dues as a “charitable contribution,” but in reality, it acts as an access fee, or as he describes it, “pay to play.” So Avi Olitzky said synagogues are starting to distinguish revenue from membership and define it not by dues, but by engagement.

“Once you focus only on membership as a dues model, then people become commodities as opposed to congregants,” Avi Olitzky said. “We’ve viewed the term membership and dues interchangeably, but once synagogues begin to recognize that you could be part of an institution without necessarily paying to be part of that institution, then the barriers of entry are eliminated, and the conversation about sustainability can be amplified.”

That’s a realization Washington Hebrew Congregation has made.

“We’ve lowered the threshold. I think we’re showing that we’re accessible,” Feldman said. “We did it in anticipation, and in hopes that it would bring in new members and be appealing to current members.”

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@EricSchucht

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