Synagogues In NYC Too Big To Lose Dues


At the beginning of January, board members of Temple Beth Abraham, a Reform synagogue in Tarrytown, met in the president’s living room to discuss a hot topic these days: synagogue dues.

Previously, the 400-family Westchester synagogue had operated under the conventional system of mandatory annual dues: congregants were required to pay a certain amount each year in order to retain their membership. Different membership categories — families, singles, seniors — dictated different rates, and those who couldn’t pay the full amount petitioned for dues relief.

But the board started to sense that the method was outdated.

“Inflexible membership doesn’t feel good to millennials,” said Allison Fine, past president and trustee of Beth Abraham, referring to the demographic prize of luring 20- and 30-somethings into the synagogue. “The older generation might consider synagogue membership a part of life, but the younger generation doesn’t operate under those assumptions. Younger congregants want the freedom to come and go as they please,” she said.

So, beginning in June, Beth Abraham will for the first time implement a flexible dues model; it will suggest an annual membership fee of $3,300, but the synagogue won’t enforce payment. Congregants will be encouraged to pay more “according to their means,” but will not be turned away for declining, said Fine. The “dues relief process” protocol for congregants who can’t afford full membership will be eliminated completely.

“The new model taps into the fundamental desire to feel good about synagogue life,” she said. “This is less of a spreadsheet issue and more of an emotional issue.”

Beth Abraham’s decision to switch dues models follows on the heels of UJA-Federation of New York’s first comprehensive study of voluntary pledging, released last month. The study, which collected data from 26 small- to medium-sized Reform, Conservative and Independent synagogues across the U.S. — but none in New York City, Long Island or Westchester — questioned the importance of a formal dues model (see box).

Flexible dues represents “a cultural shift,” said Rabbi Dan Judson, one of the co-authors of the study, “Are Voluntary Dues Right For Your Synagogue?”

“People will be more engaged in their synagogue if they feel a sense of ownership and responsibility,” he said. Those who don’t or can’t pay won’t feel like “lesser members,” the rabbi said.

The move by some synagogues to an alternative dues model is the latest in a series of steps taken by mostly non-Orthodox congregations to try to stay relevant in a changing demographic landscape. Some have merged with nearby congregations, some have added Zumba, yoga or other exercise-related programming, and still others, in the teeth of the Great Recession, have brought in social workers and employment counselors to meet congregants’ changing needs.

While Beth Abraham has high hopes for the new model, other New York synagogues are wary of making dues voluntary.

The Community Synagogue, a large Reform congregation in Port Washington on Long Island, adopted a voluntary dues system in 2006 called a “fair share model,” in which congregants are asked to pay a base fee of $2,950 after which additional giving depends upon income. However, the synagogue is considering a return to the mandatory dues model because revenue has plateaued since 2008.

“Voluntary dues assume that people’s goodwill sustains the community — it won’t,” said Rabbi Irwin Zeplowitz, senior rabbi of the Community Synagogue. Though the congregation is expanding rapidly, surpassing 710 families last year and housing a Hebrew school that is “bursting at the seams,” the experiment is paying fewer dividends than anticipated.

“People are preoccupied with a ‘what will I get out of it,’ attitude,” said Rabbi Zeplowitz. Orthodox Jews consider membership dues to be part of the mitzvah, the religious commandment, to support one’s congregation, he said. “In the non-Orthodox, non-mitzvah oriented world, it’s very difficult to create a sense of mutual responsibility.”

The synagogue’s large size might play a role in the voluntary model’s failure, suggested Judson, who said the “sweet spot” for congregations using this model is 400 member households.

“Communication is simply easier in a smaller congregation,” said Judson, adding that diffused sense of financial responsibility is much more likely to develop in a large synagogue.

The feeling that “we can always go somewhere else” exacerbated the problem at Community, said Rabbi Zeplowitz. “Sense of loyalty in New York is a tricky thing,” he said. “Why should members commit themselves to one synagogue when there’s another a few blocks over?”

Beth Abraham’s Fine expressed concern about the competition factor, even as her synagogue gears up for the change. However, she’s hoping the new voluntary model will give Beth Abraham the necessary edge.

“It’s not like we’re in Vermont, where’s there’s no competition,” she said. “The new model will allow us to reimagine our relationship with congregants.”

Still, size and competition aren’t the only factors that influence the collection of dues.

Congregation Ohel Yitzhack, a small Orthodox congregation in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, has relied on a voluntary dues system since 1973. According to the congregation’s rabbi, the expectation of commitment among Orthodox congregants makes all the difference.

“In a more rigidly Orthodox group, there’s an immutable sense of responsibility,” said Rabbi Leib Kelman, leader of the congregation. “There needs to be a minyan all year round, so people do what they have to — no compromises,” he said.

During the High Holidays, the synagogue, located in a rapidly gentrifying area of Brooklyn, opens its doors to newcomers and non-Orthodox Jews looking for services.

“Jews who only visit the synagogue once or twice a year have no interest in paying for the privilege,” said Rabbi Kelman. “The voluntary model works for us because our congregants can’t go a week without shul.”

In the UJA-Federation study, no Orthodox synagogues were included. Judson agreed that Orthodox congregants expect to pay dues in a way other denominations do not.

“In many interfaith and Reform families, people aren’t used to fees,” he said, explaining that they are more accustomed to the “voluntary commitment system” found in Christian churches. For Orthodox congregations, dues remain a “living” idea, and since the voluntary system seems to work, there’s no impetus for change, he said.

Temple Beth-El, a small Reform congregation in Jersey City that was part of the UJA-Federation study, felt an acute need for change when people started to leave the community a few years back. The synagogue has since adopted a system in which members are asked to make an annual pledge of $1,900, but people are not turned away if they can’t commit. Since the model’s implementation in 2011, the 165-member congregation has seen a growth of five to 10 members a year.

“There are no lines you have to cross to be part of our community,” said Rabbi Debby Hachen, the synagogue’s leader. “We needed people to feel welcome because our numbers were hurting.”

Though Beth-El’s community remains “porous” in nature, the attitude that the synagogue is there for all of it, and not just for card-carrying members, has revitalized the congregation.

“We’ll accept you as you are — that’s the message we want to send,” said Rabbi Hachen. “If the temple is filled, dues will follow.”

Paying Their Dues, Only Less So

Below are the key findings in UJA-Federation’s study of alternative synagogue dues. Eighty-eight percent of the synagogues using the voluntary commitment model are in or around large cities, and 81 percent have fewer than 500 members.

Among synagogues that changed to the new model:

♦The average annual membership increase was 4 percent. Two synagogues saw the dramatic increases of 25 percent and 15 percent.

♦The level of membership engagement and involvement increased: on a 1-5 scale, level of engagement increased from an average of 3.5 to an average of 4.1.

♦The average total revenue increased by 4.4 percent.

♦Perceived value of membership on a 1-5 scale went from an average of 3.3 to 4.1.

♦None of the synagogues reported “free rider” problems.