PEABODY – Several years ago, Alan Pransky contemplated leaving his beloved Temple Ner Tamid of the North Shore, where he has been a member for 45 years.
He thought the white shul on the hill had “lost direction.”
Pransky, who grew up in Brookline, follows trends in Conservative Judaism closely, and noticed that some temples were moving away from dues toward a voluntary pledge model.
This means members pay according to their religious, social, and educational experience with the temple an amount based on what would sustain it if everyone paid the same. Some may choose to pay more, others less. Pransky said he quietly mentioned the idea to others, but he got nowhere.
So, Pransky stayed, but he told the temple: “I will pay you on the basis of what you earn, and it won’t necessarily be on the basis of dues.”
Turns out, Pransky was ahead of his time.
Starting in September 2021, Temple Ner Tamid will move to a voluntary commitment model instead of set dues in an attempt to attract young families and new members, and also retain older ones. The goal is embracing the idea that contributing to the temple’s needs is something that should come from the heart, rather than from a sense of obligation.
There is some evidence that having congregants give voluntarily works.
A 2017 report commissioned by the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York looked at dozens of congregations and found those that have switched are pleased with the pledge model and have no intention of going back.
The report noted that exploring the change came after the 2008 recession, which hurt members’ disposable incomes, and a drop in affiliation by both younger Jews and empty-nesters.
“For many synagogues that have moved away from the dues model, the voluntary commitment system is as much about cultural alignment as it is about finances,” the report states.
The congregations included in the study reported a 3.6 percent average annual increase in membership and a 1.8 percent growth in pledge revenues, with much of the increases coming in the second year of the new pledge system.
“At this point in the life of Temple Ner Tamid, this is the most logical thing for its future,” Pransky said. “I’m just so pleased that they did it.”
“How much do you value us, pay what’s in your heart,” said Peabody resident Barry Falkoff, the temple executive board’s financial secretary, who serves as chairman of a committee that researched the idea along with Frank Chmara, Dr. Jeff Newton, Maxine Rosenberg, and Roy Pincus.
“Our committee did a lot of research,” said temple president Adele Lubarsky. “They read articles, they talked to people, and they did a lot of homework before they talked to the congregation.” The temple held two virtual town halls and the new model was proposed to the congregation during Yom Kippur services.
“For some people, the cost of dues were prohibitive or they didn’t want to ask for financial help so they didn’t want to join,” Lubarsky said. Feedback has been positive. “A lot of congregants are excited about it and are stepping up to the plate and we are going to make it work,” she said.
To find out whether the “Sustaining Our Eternal Flame” pledge model would work, the committee did its homework over the course of about two years, said Chmara, who lives in West Peabody.
“What we are aiming for … is to make it more attractive for those unaffiliated younger families on the North Shore,” said Chmara, who has been a temple member since 1965. “We have a dynamic rabbi in Rabbi [Richard] Perlman and a lot of great programs.”
The committee interviewed or received written answers from six synagogues that have moved to the pledge model, including temples in New York and Rhode Island, Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester, Congregation Beth Israel in Andover, Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, and Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, which adopted the model last year.
Ner Tamid, which was founded in 1959, has about 200 member households with an average age of 70, though the temple has many younger families, Falkoff said.
Perlman said when he first came to the synagogue in 2016, he held parlor meetings with congregants and the one thing that stood out was members talking about paying at different rates.
“It’s the wave of the future,” said Perlman of voluntary dues. “I see more and more congregations doing it and I really think more people will try it out.”
The reopening of the Hebrew school and other Ner Tamid initiatives is something Stephen Goldberg likes. The Methuen resident, who formerly lived in Peabody and Marblehead and has been a member for 45 years, does not want to see the temple close. But he also understands that both temples and churches are losing members.
“To me, it’s very important to keep the temple flourishing,” said Goldberg, an early proponent of voluntary dues. “We want to see how it goes. I have committed to the temple, my wife [Lois] and I will give it as much support as they need.”
Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ 2015 study of the Greater Boston Jewish community showed that 37 percent of Jewish households reported belonging to a Jewish congregation, compared with 42 percent in 2005.
Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead moved to the voluntary pledge model in 2014.
“The real story is giving people choice creates a better congregation,” said Jaime Meyers, the temple’s executive director. Membership has blossomed from 450 households in 2015 to 575 today, an increase of nearly 28 percent. The increase in membership was mostly among the older generation.
Meyers said the model is a “flip of the mindset” for members, from having to pay a big bill to giving a donation. It also makes conversations around membership that much easier, whether it be with a prospective member or someone whose life situation has changed.
Meyers said the temple is in decent financial shape, but the voluntary commitment model does pose some challenges.
“Temples like us have to be more creative when it comes to fundraising,” she said. “The more transparent you are, the better.”
Shirat Hayam in Swampscott adopted its voluntary commitment model in May 2019, according to an email from Temple President Dr. Mark Messenger and Rabbi Michael Ragozin.
In the first year, 137 new families joined. The synagogue tripled the number of families with a head of household under 39, and school enrollment went up for the first time in five years. Total pledge revenue jumped 7 percent.
“Despite the impact of COVID on year two, we believe that the flexibility of the membership model, namely that each household can determine their contribution to the synagogue, has allowed many to both remain members and even join Shirat Hayam during the pandemic,” the temple leaders said.