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Free-will dues model yields success in local experiment

Facing declining membership, Louisville synagogues are joining others nationwide in modifying their dues models, or at least considering it, to make themselves more appealing to younger members.
The Temple has been experimenting with “free-will” financial commitments, a pay-what-you-want model for families under 40, through which people in that age group simply declare their own dues level without explanation.
The four-year-old model, which the board will review this summer, has brought in 28 new families, according to The Temple.
Across town, Adath Jeshurun has suspended dues altogether for people ages 29 and under. Rabbi Robert Slosberg said the program has also attracted new families.
Other congregations have reviewed their dues models, though all the synagogues welcome worshippers regardless of their ability to pay.
Synagogues everywhere are exploring ways to remain sustainable by tweaking their dues models – for many, their principal source of revenue.
Corey Buckman, membership chair for The Temple, said the free-will model dispenses with the so-called “abatement” process in which families who can’t afford the stated dues meet with synagogue leaders to discuss their finances and what they can afford – a process that turns off many younger families.
“It always felt like an uncomfortable conversation,” the 32-year-old Buckman said. “The expectation was that you had to explain why you couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay the full amount, which is a deterrent for a lot of people, young and old.”
Abatement also can feel foreign to the non-Jewish spouse in an interfaith marriage.
“We have actually had a lot of non-Jewish spouses ask the question, especially when joining, ‘Why do I have to tell you I’m paying anything,’ because that’s just not the church model,” said Buckman, who is in an interfaith marriage. “They didn’t grow up that way, [so] they’re challenging a system that our tradition has always accepted.”
While the traditional dues model is still used by most congregations, cracks are appearing.
A 2015 story in The New York Times,reported that about 30 Reform, Conservative, and independent synagogues nationwide had eliminated mandatory dues – the backbone of synagogue sustainability for the past century.
Amy Asin, vice president, strengthening congregations for the Union for Reform Judaism, said the vast majority of Reform congregations (she guessed 80 percent), no longer have an abatement process, and she would encourage the rest to do the same.
“There’s a pretty large percentage of congregations that are allowing members a lot more leeway, without [vetting] what they are paying,” she said.
Conservative synagogues also are tweaking their dues systems, said Barry Mael, senior director of kehilla affiliations & operations at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
But he offered a couple of caveats for congregations considering tweaks. For one, don’t do it just to draw in young members; Jews of all ages need assistance.
“We tend to ask for the most money when people have the most financial commitments,” he said.
For another, dues-paying members ought to be treated like givers of tzedakah.
“Why don’t you send a thank-you note to members when they complete their dues payments?” he asked. “Simple, isn’t it? We have to appreciate all members and understand that all members are voluntary givers.”
Nationwide, synagogues are test driving several variations of the traditional dues model, including tiered (incorporating a flat standard rate with fundraising requests above and beyond), fair-share (a percentage of annual household income), sustaining (each member pays a portion of the annual operating expenses minus other projected revenue streams) and models geared toward “snowbirds” — retirees who live part of the year in the community.
Labelling these models is tricky since they can vary from synagogue to synagogue. But Asin sees all variations as part of a healthy process.
“What’s fantastic is congregations are really experimenting and trying to understand what their communities need,” she said.
At The Temple, Buckman sees another advantage to free-will: It’s bringing back people who grew up there.
“[They] never really intended on joining before because they saw their parents paying so much money and they just didn’t think that was for them,” she said. “Now they’re able to join for an amount that they feel comfortable with; they don’t have to justify it.”
Free-will has also driven more financial transparency and membership engagement into The Temple’s operation.
“When it comes to giving money, you want to see value from that,” Buckman said. “What we have found with young people, especially the 18-25 crowd, is that they almost don’t even want to give their money if they feel like it is just going to support the building; they really want to see us driving the Jewish mission out in the community.”
The free-will model is hardly a new idea. Rabbi Stephen Wise founded his Free Synagogue in New York City in 1907.
“He believed that only a voluntary giving system would promote the free exchange of ideas he saw as the synagogue’s highest ideal,” according to the writings of Rabbi Dan Judson, dean of Hebrew College Rabbinical School, who has studied the history of synagogues and fundraising.
Prior to that, synagogues supported themselves by selling honors and pews – ways that favored wealthier worshippers.
The dues models became widely used around the 1920s in what appeared to be a more equitable way to support synagogue operations.
Now, as Jews appear to affiliate less, the traditional dues model has become less attractive.
“The perception is that it is now out of step with contemporary Jewish culture and values,” Judson said in an interview with Reform Judaism magazine.
But Buckman rejects the notion that young adults won’t support synagogues. They just want proven value and a financial model that works for them.
One thing they won’t do is join just because that’s what their parents and grandparents did.
“Even as a young Jew, I still recognize the importance of a building, a physical structure to go to,” she said, “a place to call home essentially for your Judaism here in Louisville.”

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