OCTOBER 4, 2018, SWAMPSCOTT – On Rosh Hashanah, Shirat Hayam president Renée Sidman stood before her congregation with news she referred to as the “biggest transformation of Shirat Hayam since the merger 13 years ago.”
At the beginning of its next fiscal year in May, Shirat Hayam – which was formed in 2005 by a merger of Temple Israel and Temple Beth El – will join a growing number of congregations that have instituted a voluntary dues program.
“Many unaffiliated families, especially young families, see the cost of mandatory membership fees as a barrier to entry,” said Sidman. “Voluntary dues are an annual pledge that reflects both what you believe you are able to pay in relation to the value you get from the temple.”
Under the new model, congregants can donate an amount they feel will cover their annual membership. Currently, Shirat Hayam has 17 categories of membership, and each requires a different amount. Even though the synagogue is willing to make accommodations to ensure that everyone can afford membership, some still find the structure prohibitive, according to Rabbi Michael Ragozin.
“Despite our commitment to never turning a family away, what we’ve discovered is families have a lot of pride and dignity, and many people don’t want to ask for financial aid,” said Ragozin. “For other people, it’s as a consumer. [The experience] is not worth the sticker price.”
For Ragozin, the model results in a less transactional, more personal relationship between congregants and their shul. He cited a nationwide 2017 United Jewish Appeal study in which congregants rated the voluntary dues system a 4.1 out of a possible 5. When asked the main reason for their satisfaction, the majority cited the positive impact they felt it had on the congregational culture and values.
According to Rabbi Dan Judson, the dean of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College who co-authored the UJA study, these changes are indicative of a wider cultural shift. “The model of dues is that people are obligated to pay a kind of tax to their synagogue,” said Judson. “People do not respond well to that now. People want to feel like they’re giving from the heart, they want to feel like these are meaningful gifts.”
Representatives of other area temples that have instituted the model, including Temple Emanu-El of Marblehead and Temple Ahavat Achim of Gloucester, have echoed these sentiments.
“It definitely adds a more positive atmosphere,” said Jaime Friedman, executive director of Temple Emanu-El, which instituted a voluntary dues program in 2014. “It reflects a warmer, more joyful experience at the temple, because it’s not a transactional type of thing anymore where we tell you what you should give. It’s more about having any kind of donation and being thankful for it.”
Chabad of the North Shore, like most Chabad affiliates, has always had voluntary dues. Rabbi Yossi Lipsker has found that not only has the model made his shul more welcoming, it has also been good for the bottom line.
“It creates an entirely different interaction between a community and the Jewish services that are being provided,” said Lipsker. “Essentially now, you have people that are motivated to support a Jewish community entity that is meaningful to them, and so as opposed to suddenly becoming a business side of the spiritual experience, it becomes a partnership, and I think that it in many instances motivates to voluntarily contribute more than they would’ve contributed on a mandatory level.”
The data largely supports this theory. According to the UJA study, 58 percent of congregations have reported an increase in revenue since changing models, and congregations that have used the model for at least three years report a 2.2 percent annual increase. North Shore synagogues that have switched over have not reported financial difficulties.
Although she did not provide fiscal reports, Friedman said Temple Emanu-El’s budget has expanded since instituting the model. President Amy Farber of Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester, which instituted voluntary dues after rebuilding from a massive fire a decade ago, noted that the honor system her temple instituted has “worked quite well. We’ve been very successful at collecting the commitments.”
Synagogues first started switching to the model a decade ago, when a combination of declining or stagnant enrollment and the financial crisis led synagogues to search for creative new ways to bring in money and people. According to the UJA study, synagogues instituting the new model reported an average increase of 3.6 percent in annual membership, and 70 percent of synagogues reported attracting new members.
Friedman reported that Temple Emanu-El’s membership has grown by 20 percent since voluntary dues began. This should come as welcome news to Ragozin, who hopes that area temples can begin attracting the many unaffiliated Jews on the North Shore.
“Really, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to solve the participation challenge,” said Ragozin. “The [Combined Jewish Philanthropies’] report from 2015 indicates that 31 percent of the North Shore Jewish households are affiliated with a synagogue, and that means that 69 percent are not, but they’re willing to self-identify as Jewish. That’s really the population that we’re trying to reach with this model.”
For Shirat Hayam, several important details, like the fee structure for the Hebrew school, and the pricing of High Holiday tickets, still need to be ironed out, which is why the synagogue is holding town hall meetings on Oct. 24 at 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., and on Oct. 28 at 10 a.m. Whatever is ultimately decided, Ragozin is excited for the future of his congregation.
“We’re trying to make sure that people know that the doors to Jewish life, to feeling a sense of connectedness, welcome, and enrichment, are open to them.”