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Debatable: Is the Traditional Membership Dues Model Still Viable?
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Mark R. Jacobson

When one mentions “dues” as it relates to the synagogue, many react with discomfort. But the reality is: In order to exist, congregations must uphold sound businesslike principles that prioritize a temple’s financial health.

At its core, the synagogue is a membership organization where dues are paid to belong. The steady stream of income generated from these annual contributions is the cornerstone that allows synagogues to be there for their members, day in and day out. If a dues system provides consistent financial support over time and serves as a reliable revenue and cash-flow planning tool, it is a system worth keeping.

Synagogues must acknowledge that for congregants, there is a difference between paying dues for membership and belonging. Congregations must work every day to genuinely express appreciation toward those who have exhibited generosity in voluntarily becoming a part of their community. This is particularly vital nowadays, when there are so many alternatives to live Jewishly.

For those synagogues that have captured this spirit of community, traditional dues systems such as fair share, straight dues, and family dues are viable. No one system can work for every congregation; which one is best will depend on the synagogue’s culture, history, and community at a given point in time.

An important principle is flexibility. Synagogue membership should never be denied to anyone because of an inability to pay dues. Since dues are but one component of the synagogue’s financial resource system, benefactors at higher dues levels, as well as members who fund special projects or create legacy gifts (a welcomed, emerging trend), can all facilitate providing congregational services to those with fewer resources.

By using a flexible annual giving system, the temple gains financial stability and the dues-paying member receives spiritual, educational, and social value in exchange for his/ her generosity. It is a win-win for everyone.

Mark Jacobson is executive director of The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia.

Judy Buckman

Synagogue affiliation should not be about dues, which connotes a “fee for services” mentality. It’s counterproductive: If you wish to communicate how warm and welcoming your community is to someone who calls to ask about your congregation, your very mention of “membership” or “dues” can leave the caller with a negative impression of your synagogue.

At Temple Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois, we have always used a pledging system. Whenever someone inquires about cost, we say: “We rely on voluntary contributions and ask everyone to support the congregation to the best of his/her ability.” When we leave it up to the integrity of the congregant to support the institution, people are drawn to the congregation, and tend to increase their giving when they are ready and able. We want to build loyalty to the synagogue, and have done so by creating a culture of tzedakah. When people relate to us as part of their tzedakah commitments, financial support usually follows.

We applied this same principle recently to a capital campaign that would allow us to purchase our own building. While upholding our core values, we broke many of the accepted rules of fundraising—peer pressure, donor recognition, public naming opportunities, etc.—and raised more than $3.5 million!

Because of our culture of tzedakah, when congregants experience personal financial difficulties, they do not have to furnish proof and fill out a form requesting “dues reduction,” which is not part of our vocabulary. Congregants appreciate this dignified approach. During the recent recession we made a concerted effort not to lose one member because of financial issues—and succeeded.

Perhaps this is why, in my 14 years at Sukkat Shalom, not one person has complained about our pledging system. Rather, I have heard members compare our model to that of their prior synagogues, lamenting that other places do not follow our approach.

I wish they would.

Judy Buckman is executive director of Temple Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois.

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