Brandeis study finds benefits in free synagogue membership

NEW YORK, Nov. 13 (JTA) – A Brandeis University researcher is maintaining that synagogues can increase their membership by offering free membership. Joel Streiker bases his thesis largely on a recent study he conducted for San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El, which began last year to offer new members free membership for one year. Between July 1996 and June 1997, 220 people joined the Reform congregation. Usually, 50 new members join every year. In his survey, Streiker found that 78 percent of the new members said the dues policy was important in their decision to join the synagogue. About 73 percent of those surveyed had never belonged to a synagogue as an adult. After one year of free membership, nearly half of the new members decided to pay the annual dues and become regular members of the congregation. “There is a perception in the Jewish community that Jewish living is expensive,” said Gary Cohn, executive director of Temple Emanu-El. He said the congregation wanted to tell prospective members that “the most important thing is to get connected.” Although members who could not afford dues were never turned away from the temple, “people are embarrassed to ask,” said Cohn. The no-dues policy eliminated this embarrassment. Temple Emanu-El’s membership dues are $1400 for families and $800 for single adults. Different rates are available for young adults and senior citizens. A similar program is now being tested at congregation Shearith Israel in San Francisco, said Streiker, but such programs require considerable financial risk by the congregation. “Emanu-El has a lot of financial resources. Any synagogue that tried this would have to have deep pockets,” he said. Temple Emanu-El did not lose money because nearly half of the new members decided to begin paying dues, he added. Streiker was enthusiastic about the potential success of such programs, but warned, “If synagogues don’t have anything to offer, after a year, new members will drop off.” According to the study, the cost of membership is often a deterrent to potential members for financial and psychological reasons. New members were “reluctant to make large payments for benefits they didn’t know about or didn’t appreciate,” said Streiker. Emanu-El has been inundated with questions from other congregations about the program, said Cohn, who estimates that as many as 20 congregations across the country will adopt similar programs within the next year.

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