Synagogues go against tradition, try voluntary dues plans

It’s a revolutionary approach, at least in the American Jewish community: A synagogue that depends on goodwill, instead of mandatory payments, to keep the congregation financially sound.

Two South Florida synagogues are experimenting with new ways to approach dues, essential to pay the rabbi, the mortgage and the electric bill, but a source of angst for Jews who resent what they see as a tax to stay connected to their faith.

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The synagogues, both members of the Reform movement of Judaism, say they hope their less-stressful gateways to membership will grow their small congregations. Temple Beth Orr in Coral Springs is asking new congregants for $180 plus any monthly payment they can afford. In Boca Raton, Temple Beth Shira is offering free membership for a year to anyone who pays $99 for High Holy Day tickets; the second year, they will ask for $200, and the third year, $300.

Although these donations can add up, they are minuscule compared to the standard amount some South Florida synagogues ask families to pay annually — as much as $2,000 — which may not include religious school, congregational events, family ceremonies or many other fees and donations that are requested or volunteered during the year.

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The system can be a turn-off to many potential members, who question why they should have to pay to be considered part of a Jewish community. Some say it has contributed to the plummeting synagogue affiliation rate of American Jews: A 2013 Pew survey showed less than one-third of American Jews belong to synagogues. In South Florida, the percentage is similar, and drops to 16 percent for those 35 and younger, according to a survey by Palm Beach County‘s Jewish federations.

In response, some American synagogues have begun experimenting with a voluntary-dues structure: Pay what you can, with guidance from the synagogue’s leaders, and pray for the budget to balance.

The system depends on a substantial chunk of congregants giving more than the recommended amount synagogue leaders say most families should donate, said Rabbi Dan Judson, of Hebrew College in Boston. He is an author of the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York report published this year, “Synergy: Are Voluntary Dues Right for Your Synagogue?”

More than 30 Jewish congregations in the United States have been using this model, most in the past few years, Judson said. The study found an average 4 percent growth in membership and revenue for pay-what-you-can synagogues.

“It’s engendered a better feeling around money,” Judson said.

The model is simple: Take the annual budget, and divide by the number of congregants. The result is the “sustaining amount,” or average cost per family, that each family is requested, but not required, to pay. Some families give less, some donate more; the formula inserts uncertainty into the budgeting process, but synagogue leaders say they want to take this risk because the old structure was not attracting new members.

Temple Beth Orr will use the formula to calculate next year’s requested payments, President Steve Feinstein said. The Coral Springs Reform congregation had 225 members last year, down from about 900 in the 1980s, he said.

Beth Orr is asking its current members to continue with the old dues structure of $1,950 per family for the next year; these families will transition into the new payment system the following year. New members are paying $180 as an “administrative fee,” plus whatever they can afford in a monthly payment.

The new system has already attracted 80 new families in the past couple of months, Feinstein said.

Among them is Courtney Froman, her husband, Sam, and two sons. She said the family thought synagogue membership was unaffordable until they heard about Beth Orr’s offer.

Froman said her Coral Springs family lives on a tight budget and never had Jewish naming ceremonies for their children because a rabbi asked for $500 to perform the rite.

They recently met with a Beth Orr staffer, who asked them to pledge whatever they could afford.

“When we left there, my husband and I were so happy,” she said.

Copyright © 2015, Sun Sentinel

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