Do synagogues have more flexible fee structures? I feel like membership is just for rich folks since the fees are so high. The cost for a family of four to join a synagogue plus Hebrew School is pushing thousands of families away as it is often cost-prohibitive to a middle class family like mine. Is there any movement underway to shake up the system?
There are few synagogues that would not welcome membership from anyone, even if the family cannot pay the full tilt. Indeed it is expensive to run an institution, and the system of dues reflects the cost not only for building needs such as lights, heat, and maintenance, but staffing costs including clergy and education staff. The system of fixed dues allows the institution to prepare and manage a significant budget and still serve the community as a spiritual home with programs and educational opportunities. The community expects synagogues to be there when they need it, and that costs money. But I know that many synagogues, recognizing the escalating costs that turn some people away, are willing to work with families to make membership possible. And please remember that there is never anything keeping any Jew from attending a synagogue for worship. Synagogues and their staff are always there to support any Jew at any time regardless of means. In order for this to happen, synagogues need the support of their members which often means dues.
At Temple Israel, recognizing that synagogue membership is about communal support, we have instituted a new system of voluntary commitments. There are no dues any longer. Each family receives a form on which they fill out whatever amount of money works for them. There are no committees before whom one must plead one’s case, there are no requirements to submit tax forms or any other substantiation. Whatever amount the family deems appropriate is the amount the synagogue accepts as the commitment for that year. All we do is provide some guidelines based on what our budget is for that year and what amount we would need from each family to realize that budgeted amount.
This system, which has caught the attention of the Jewish world, has resulted in our members feeling positive about their commitments and recognizing that their generosity is what allows the synagogue to serve the community and the Jewish people. Our members feel more in control of what they pay and, having voluntarily chosen to pay a specific amount, they are less likely to feel put upon by the financial burdens of membership. We are blessed that the more affluent of our members, recognizing that the system requires each member to adequately assess his or her means, have stepped up to increase their commitments and thus helped us to meet our budget goals. Indeed this system has resulted in a positive attitude in the congregation about the institution itself and has even allowed some members who had previously disaffiliated for financial reasons to return and feel comfortable with their commitment. I truly see this as the way of the future for synagogues as they try to balance the institutions needs with the ability of the membership to pay. It is our hope that this system will catch on and be duplicated in other communities.
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