When it comes to joining something new, the last thing you want is another bill to add to the stack.
As such, it’s evident why synagogue memberships have declined, or merged with others to lessen the blow — not to mention the decreasing interest in synagogue attendance among millennials.
But many synagogues across the country are responding to this issue by reducing membership costs or eliminating them altogether.
Ultimately, using the pay-as-you-go method is paying off.
Nationwide, non-Orthodox synagogues that have phased out mandatory dues have doubled in membership over the past two years, according to a recent study by the UJA-Federation of New York.
The study tracked 60 Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative synagogues that ultimately reported increases in both membership and revenue — which parallels the longtime voluntary payment method of Chabad-Lubavitch centers across North America.
As surmised by JTA, the study reported that the voluntary model came into effect after the 2008 recession.
“Dues are eliminated and replaced by a ‘sustaining level,’” read the study. The synagogues observed disclosed average increases of 3.6 percent in membership and 1.8 percent in dues.
Congregations using this method for three-plus years reported positive growth, the most significant of which during the second year.
Eliminating mandatory dues allows more families to become members of the community without financial constraints.
However, this study represents less than 5 percent of the country’s Conservative and Reform shuls. Like most synagogues, they would never turn away a person or persons who cannot fulfill financial obligations.
Jill Cooper, executive director of Beth David Reform Congregation, explained that they were one of the first congregations in the Philadelphia area in 2011 to offer gift memberships, of which congregants sponsored new members.
More than 50 families joined — Beth David currently has 322 total — so they continued to offer the no-fee policy for new members.
“You gotta engage folks before they want to marry you,” she reiterated of Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs. “I used to say, ‘We want you to fall in love with us, so we’ll engage you for the first year and then once you fall in love with us, we want you to marry us.’”
The program was successful, but retention was not.
As such, the shul now requires reduced dues: New members must pay a minimum 25 percent of the categorized dues the first year and 75 percent the second year.
“To date, I have not received one family who has told us that they’re not coming back,” Cooper said.
However, the policy only applies to people who are currently not affiliated with a congregation — “We don’t ever want to be accused of poaching,” Cooper said — and have not been affiliated within the past 12 months.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that being able to offer a reduced amount for your first year gives people an opportunity to … stick their toes in and decide if they love us and want to marry us,” she added.
Abbey Krain, executive director of Temple Sholom in Broomall, said while they, too, would not turn anyone away, it is expected that they pay something.
“We think it’s important to have a little bit of an investment,” she said. “It helps people get more involved in the community.”
The Reform congregation with 430 families provides discounted rates on a needs basis, via its financial review fund (religious and Hebrew school not included). There’s also a grant program that helps cover up to the first four years.
The grant is specifically for new members with children either in religious school or preschool, which does factor in schooling.
Depending on your status, the discount ranges from 33 to 50 percent off during the first year.
But Krain noted they are flexible.
“We have these dues levels because we think it’s important to have something that’s organized and formal,” she explained. “It makes people feel comfortable when they come here. … Even if they don’t need to utilize our relief or even if they don’t need to utilize it to the fullest, it’s important for them to know that we have this for them if they need it.
“We also take the whole picture and want people to be here even if they can’t afford what the dues are listed at,” she continued.
“We want people first and foremost to connect to our community and our clergy,” said Susan Kasper, executive director of Tiferet Bet Israel. The Conservative synagogue offers its first year free to new members. “Offering free dues is an incentive for people to feel unburdened by the financial issues and just to be able to relax and see what the real TBI is about.”
TBI is nearing five years serving this model and has received roughly a 50 percent retention rate. The congregation totals just under 400 families.
Removing the financial aspect and allowing new members to really embrace the community encourages them to spend the money the following year, Kasper noted.
“They feel like they belong,” she said, “and that’s really what we’re all about — building connections.”
Rabbi Julie Greenberg of Leyv Ha-Ir ~ Heart of the City said the Reconstructionist shul presents a range of dues for people. Although prices are “suggested,” everyone is expected to be both “a giver and a receiver in building Jewish community.”
“Jewish communities metabolize money,” she laughed, “and we turn money into ethical action and caring connections that cost money to do this holy work.”
In the course of a year, Leyv Ha-Ir serves about 400 people — who do make contributions — but the core membership stands around 50 households.
Leyv Ha-Ir holds services and events at the Philadelphia Ethical Society. Dues goes toward reserving the space, Greenberg’s salary and the two Torahs in their custody.
“We’re proud of our values. What we’re spending money on is a rabbi’s services and our Torah and prayer,” she reiterated.
“Money has been a sore spot, it’s been trauma for members of the Jewish community because people don’t like the feeling that they have to pay for their religion,” she continued. “The truer story is you’re being invited to co-create a community.
“You see it as an opportunity, not a burden.”
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