Years ago, I briefly served on a synagogue board and did some research into membership dues. Some congregations had flat rates. Others had scales according to income or age. Others had no set dues, members gave according to what they felt they could give, with the congregation merely offering suggested amounts. There are plenty of articles on this topic, and even a book by rabbis Kerry Olitzky and Ari Olitzky. Synagogues cost money to run: salaries, buildings and activities are expensive. If we want Jewish life to continue, we need to consider this because synagogues offer us education, community, lifecycle events and more. However, there is no one size fits all when it comes to membership models.
Just as there are many models for dues, there are different ideas about new members. Some congregations post their membership application forms online and indicate where to submit the finished paperwork. Others offer membership information via email or post when it’s requested. Still others insist that the potential congregant meet with the executive director to gain access to the paperwork or the requirements for membership.
My husband and I have moved a lot in nearly 25 years of marriage. That has included “shul hopping” within communities sometimes. We’ve formally belonged to seven congregations, and attended services at many other places. Our experience hasn’t been limited to one North American movement. Due to our families’ diverse affiliations, geographic limitations and shifting needs, we’ve been members at Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and unaffiliated congregations. We joke, when asked, that “we get around.”
All this resurfaced while I read about Toronto Congregation Beth Tzedec’s recent experiment with membership. This congregation saw that members under age 40 paid only 5% of their total operating income. By waiving dues for members under 40, Beth Tzedec gained 900 members in eight months, according to a recent JTA article. This remarkable leap in membership shows just how much of an obstacle membership dues are for many younger Jewish people in Canada.
For years, when I joined a congregation in a new place, I was asked to join committees, lead services, teach, volunteer or provide other services. Only very rarely did any of these congregations ask first, “What can we do to meet your needs?” or “What are you hoping to gain from this experience?” While it sounds crass to see this as a solely “transactional” experience, it can be painful to spend a lot of money to support a place that sees no obligation to create a relationship or a meaningful experience with its new and/or younger members.
Few congregations have new members start by meeting with a rabbi or cantor or other engagement professional. The first interaction is almost always with an executive director who is essentially asking, “How much can you pay us?” While congregations almost always state that they don’t turn down anyone due to lack of funds for membership, in practice, many people are turned away. They’re turned away or turned off because they don’t even make the embarrassing first appointment where they must admit they cannot afford the full costs of membership.
We just signed on the dotted line at a big, established congregation because our twins are nearing b’nai mitzvah age. We’ve been regular synagogue attendees for years. We had asked about membership when I was pregnant and, at the meeting with the executive director, we felt as though we were being interviewed to join a country club. As older first-time parents, we saw the membership cost was delineated by age and we fell into a more expensive category. Our roof was leaking, we were expecting twins. Our decision was easy – we fixed the roof. Synagogue membership could wait.
Over the years, we briefly joined two other congregations to access their educational opportunities or community events. In the end, though, we faced the same process over a decade later, with a different executive director. He told us that no one was turned away. However, the paperwork indicated that, unless we paid the building fee plus membership dues plus b’nai mitzvah charge, we couldn’t have a lifecycle event at the congregation. That upfront cost was about 4% of our gross annual income, which is a large chunk of change. That’s before paying for a Kiddush luncheon or family celebration.
There’s no one answer to this challenge. Here are some ideas based on our anecdotal experience.
Make synagogue membership paperwork and financial information easily available on a website or via email. It shouldn’t be a secret, offered only in a face-to-face meeting with the executive director. This isn’t a good first impression. Potential members might also want to meet with a rabbi, cantor or other professional rather than the executive director.
Second, consider a membership model that provides multiple options based on income rather than age or a flat fee. There will always be older members who earn less income and younger people who can afford more.
Third, create an environment where members will not begrudge further donations. If the membership fee is a suggestion, and is affordable enough so that people can manage it, then a happy member may want to donate more money in the future. A supportive congregation and positive community experience is worth a lot! Members who sense that level of support are willing to pay for it.
Finally, recognize that many “middle-class” incomes don’t cover the cost of living the way they used to. Due to inflation, a professional who, for instance, works as a teacher or at a nonprofit may not have much expendable income. Find ways in which professionals might volunteer hours in lieu of part of their membership fees. Despite education and experience, these professionals have often been asked to volunteer for work in a Jewish context that one would have paid for elsewhere. They pay for membership that they perhaps couldn’t afford – for the privilege of also volunteering expertise.
We need each other for many reasons. Membership dues are not just for a minyan but also for the building where the minyan meets. Our tradition teaches us that every person is valuable, that embarrassment should be avoided at all cost, and that Jewish communities are essential. Synagogue membership models should reflect those teachings, too.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.