Synagogue Membership Dues: A Relic or Remedy?
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Synagogue Membership Dues: A Relic or Remedy?

Synagogues are increasingly considering alternatives to membership dues as a way to increase attendance.

Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs has over 240 members who pay no dues.
Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs has over 240 members who pay no dues.

This summer, over 240 of Temple Sinai’s younger members opened their dues statements ahead of the High Holy Days to find that there was nothing to pay. The members are part of a special program, which the temple calls Atid — Hebrew for “the future” — that began three years ago as a way to open the doors to a new generation of congregants under 32.

Temple Sinai’s Atid group works with Rabbi Samantha Shabman Trief, who describes the program as “hugely successful.” Rabbi Trief says the dues initiative is a way to reach out to those for whom the cost of synagogue membership might be prohibitive.

“The idea was that the barrier to entry for young adults might be intimidating financially. … So we wanted to really welcome people into our community and give them a taste of what we stand for and what we’re about by offering free membership.”

Although the Atid group doesn’t pay membership dues they may financially support the temple in other ways. The temple’s executive director, Jack Feldman sees it as an investment they’re making.

“They do pay the member rate for preschool, they pay the member rate for religious school, and they pay honorariums for any life cycle events that they engage the clergy for. So it’s just a way to gradually move them toward the more traditional values model when they hit the age of 32.”

The Sandy Springs synagogue, which is a leading congregation in the Reform movement, has a thriving pre-school, a large B’nai Mitzvah and childhood education program, three full time rabbis and a sizable professional staff. In recent years the congregation has had a yearly budget of over $4 million dollars.

For those congregants who can’t meet the high cost of membership, a reduction of their membership dues involves either further negotiation with the temple or, in some cases, they may decide to give up their affiliation.

But Feldman works hard to keep any member who might have difficulty meeting their membership obligation.

“I’ve been here at Temple Sinai for seven and a half years. I have never had a single member I’ve talked with leave because they couldn’t afford to be here, ever.”

In recent years, the discussion over synagogue dues in America has taken off rapidly. According to a 2017 study by the UJA-Federation in New York City, some 60 Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues and temples have stopped charging dues, twice the number of congregations as just two years before.

Additionally, the rapidly growing Chabad-Lubavitcher movement, which has institutions in over 400 communities in the United States, does not charge membership dues.

Senior Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal believes that some comments about synagogue financing are coming from an “embattled” place.

At Ahavath Achim, or AA Synagogue as it is known locally, Senior Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal says that during the last year the pandemic has added a note of urgency to the discussion: “It’s a huge conversation for everybody. Every denomination is talking about it.”

According to Rabbi Rosenthal, some of those comments are coming from what he calls an “embattled place.”

“By embattled I mean there are people who are really holding on to the dues model, the membership dues model, because they look at the projections and they say, well, if we were to get rid of that, it would mean that 50 percent of our revenue would disappear.”

But that’s not what happened at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis that has gotten rid of dues altogether. Four years ago, the congregation began a program they call a charitable giving model, which provides members the choice of giving whatever they feel is appropriate.

The senior rabbi of the congregation, Avi Olitzky, was a classmate of Rabbi Rosenthal’s at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Olitzky believes that the “dues model should be done away with” in general.

Today, giving is up “significantly” over the dues-paying model his congregation abandoned in 2017. Olitzky says he’s personally advised congregations across the country that dues only detract from the core mission of spiritual growth that synagogues should be focused on.

“Instead of being in the business of our mission, we find ourselves falling into the bad pattern of being in the business, of being a business. Our congregation has helped institutions return to their core mission and principles and values instead of focusing on simply doing a bagel and lox sale or a bake sale or if they don’t, just raise dues.”

Olitzky and his father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, have written a book, “New Membership Models and Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue,” which guides congregations through various alternatives to the dues-paying model.

Father and son, Rabbis Kerry and Avi Olitzky, have written a book about alternatives to a dues-based synagogue.

The senior Olitzky has been a prominent voice in American Jewish life for decades, first as an executive at Hebrew Union College, and later, as an innovative leader of national non-profit organizations. He is also a prolific writer on Jewish issues. He now serves as a consultant at Mersky, Jaffe and Associates, which advises Jewish communities on fundraising initiatives.

Olitzky sees a fundamental shift occurring in the way that American Jews relate to their synagogues.

“There is a cultural shift away from membership institutions and, therefore, Jewish community institutions have to respond differently to the issues of membership. We have to remember that the membership model in place in the American synagogue and other community institutions was an innovation over 100 years ago. It’s no longer an innovation and we have to respond to that change.”

His son, Avi, knows the direction he’s headed in. This February, after 14 years as a pulpit rabbi in Minneapolis, he’s stepping down to take a more direct role in the restructuring of American communal institutions. It is work that he feels has only gained in importance during this COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic has taught most synagogues to do outreach that we all should have been doing all along. Our institutions should be far greater than the walls, financial and otherwise, that we erect.”

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