In 2020, Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell introduced a pay-what-you-can model for synagogue dues, increased its congregation by 3.5% to 361 families and reversed “several years of decline,” as a Jewish Exponent article from that year described it. But then COVID-19 broke out, and TBI was not immune. A membership base of 361 plummeted to about 264.
Today though, as the synagogue reopens, its leaders and members have not given up on the model. They still call it Heshbon Lev, which is Hebrew for an invention of the heart. And congregants are still contributing. Executive Director Matan Silberstein said there is a 100% participation rate.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign, though, is that Heshbon Lev appears to be attracting new members again. TBI’s congregation has recovered from its pandemic low to include about 300 households. And since most of the new families are young, so is more than half of the congregation now, according to Silberstein.
“Congregants are always waiting for the next fundraising ask,” said TBI President Jeff Llewellyn, a member since 2008. “And each year, they’re pleasantly surprised when we’re less focused on money and more focused on engagement.”
Silberstein and Llewellyn explained that events at the Blue Bell shul are now about what people want to do. A gathering before 2020, for example, might have been built around how many people could pay $36 to get in. But an occasion today is just about getting a headcount so synagogue leaders know how much chicken to buy for dinner.
In December, 230 people showed up for a concert by Yonina, the Jewish musical duo. That same month, TikTok’s @challahprince, who has more than 142,000 followers from his challah-making videos, did a challah-braiding event at TBI and attracted 180 members and locals. And on Jan. 27, 200 congregants showed up for a third-grade consecration during Friday night services. There are also young family programs, special Shabbat dinners and lunches after Shabbat morning services on Saturdays.
Rachel Blum, 37, a congregant with her husband and young daughter, attended the challah-braiding event and said people talked about it afterward “for weeks.” They kept saying how good it felt to just be able to show up and braid challah.
“There’s no barrier to engagement,” Blum said. “You just get to be part of the community without worrying about, ‘Can we afford that this month?’”
Blum’s husband is a Realtor, so their family finances often depend on the housing market. Pre-Heshbon Lev, they might have had to make a difficult decision about their synagogue membership during a downturn. But now they do not have to worry about it.
“This helps you not make that decision. That decision of letting go of your community,” Blum said. “There’s always that option of increasing your pledge or decreasing your pledge.”
Pamela Kuperstein, 35, a member with her husband David and their two young kids, is an accountant who discovered the pay-what-you-can model while serving as synagogue treasurer in the late-2010s. TBI’s old dues system was “doomed to failure,” she said, and other synagogues were already trying the pay-what-you-can approach.
Kuperstein believes the approach is working. When they joined TBI in 2016, they got a packet outlining different categories of dues-paying members. As a childless couple in their 20s, they could not check any of the boxes. So Pam reached out to synagogue leaders, who created a category for the Kupersteins. Today, though, there are no categories.
But there are still issues. TBI is attracting fewer people to regularly scheduled events than it was pre-COVID, according to David Kuperstein. And the education toward fundraising still needs to improve. Members think they pay once, and that’s the end of the conversation. But for a shul with its own building, financing needs to be an ongoing discussion.
TBI is getting by on preschool tuition payments, payments from a Hindu school that rents space, grants from public and private sources and larger donations from certain congregants. Combined with the “wide range of givers” in the membership base, as Silberstein describes them, it adds up to enough. At the same time, “It still needs some reinforcement,” David Kuperstein said.
The issues, though, do not outweigh a simple fact. Congregants used to have to pay $250 to sit close to the bimah during High Holiday services. Big crowds in the back and open seats near the front became an annual scene. But this past year, there was no option to pay $250 to reserve a good seat. People came in, sat together up front and filled the sanctuary.
“It felt really different and really great,” Pam Kuperstein said.
“Everybody was together, closer,” David Kuperstein concluded. ■