A synagogue in Toronto rethinking the role of membership fees is part of a larger trend

How it works at Beth El Synagogue in Minneapolis.

When the Beth Tzedec Congregation decided to eliminate membership dues for everyone under 40, the Toronto synagogue knew it was taking a bold step.

But it was not as bold as some might have believed, because the Conservative synagogue was inspired by a number of shuls that had already undertaken similar initiatives.

One of them was Beth El Synagogue, in the St. Louis Park suburb of Minneapolis.

Beth El was facing a scenario familiar to many contemporary religious institutions: its revenues were declining. It was 2017, and the Conservative synagogue was utilizing the traditional dues-based model, in which membership at the shul is contingent upon paying a set fee.

Instead of trying to double down on a failing approach, however, Beth El saw the potential crisis as a chance to bring their financial and administrative practices in line with their core values.

The shul did away with dues altogether—and moved to an entirely philanthropy-based model.

“It was a value-based decision around what does it mean to be a synagogue, and how do we make sure that we are in the business of being a synagogue and not in the business of running a business?” said Beth El managing director Matt Walzer.

The revenue declines “provided an opportunity for us to have that values conversation and decide, how do we align those values with a model that is hopefully going to better support the congregation than the financial support we have now.”

The separation of membership from money leads to two main outcomes.

First, it means that Beth El relies on charitable gifts and program fees. Second, it means that anyone who wants to be a member can be one.

And the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

It has been a financial boon, with people responding positively and generously, Walzer said. And in terms of community involvement and engagement, he said it has also changed the conversation for the better.

“A lot of engagement starts at points in life cycles… people looking to get married or looking to have children in our preschool or looking to have a b’nai mitzvah for a member of their family. Those tend to be younger family engagements to start with, and they’ve responded very positively to it,” he said. “Generally speaking, (new members) are delightfully surprised when it’s not a financial conversation and it’s about engagement.”

Beth Tzedec is betting on similar results. The change is not just about removing the financial barriers that can prevent young people from joining a synagogue, but also about signalling a new kind of relationship between synagogue and congregation.

“This says… we see ourselves about people and the engagement of people in their Jewish journeys,” said Beth Tzedec’s Rabbi Steve Wernick.

“Our vision statement is, ‘We seek to inspire and enable our community to live a meaningful Jewish life.’ It doesn’t say only those people that are members of Beth Tzedec. It doesn’t say we seek to provide people with space for their life cycle events and so forth. We’re about meaning. And so this is, I think, an important step to align ourselves to do that seriously.”

As part of that process, Beth Tzedec worked with Ron Wolfson, a professor of education at American Jewish University, and a frequent consultant for synagogues. He is perhaps best known for his 2013 book Relational Judaism, and for his Synagogue 2000 project, which he started in 1995 with Rabbi Larry Hoffman. (It was renamed Synagogue 3000 for the current millennium.)

Wolfson sees his work as changing the way Jewish organizations relate to their members. He believes the old paradigms from the 20th century, which he calls transactional, are beginning to crumble.

“I pay dues to a synagogue and what do I get back? I get High Holiday seats, I get a religious school, bar mitzvah for my kids, I get a rabbi on call when I need the rabbi. But when I don’t need the rabbi, or I don’t need the religious school, or I don’t need the bar and bat mitzvah… what’s the value of my engagement as a member of a congregation if it’s just that? If it’s just ‘dues equals engagement.’

“Well, guess what? Dues does not equal engagement.  Relationships equals engagement. So my tagline in that work is, ‘it’s all about relationships.’”

Surprisingly for a professor of Jewish education, Wolfson has focused a lot of his research on megachurches. To him, they excel in all the areas where the traditional transactional paradigm is weakest. They have no membership dues, yet thrive experientially—and, more importantly, they thrive financially.

Wolfson identified three main points of strength for megachurches that he believes synagogues can learn from. The first is radical hospitality; when Wolfson would take his students to visit megachurches, they would be immediately and actively welcomed by whomever they happened to be sitting near that day.

The second is a membership induction process for all new members, which guides everyone to find the role in which they can be most helpful and feel most fulfilled.

The third is the belief in the power of the church to transform lives, and to speak openly about this power. Wolfson contrasted this last point with synagogues, which are generally more much modest in their claims and, in his eyes, underselling their potential relevance to all aspects of life.

Beth Tzedec’s removal of dues for a portion of their membership is just the beginning of the reformation process. Integral to the vision is the reimagining of the synagogue-to-member relationship, as well as the member-to-member relationship with an added emphasis on engagement, connection, meaning and spiritual fulfillment—in total alignment with Wolfson’s philosophy.

“This effort that Beth Tzedec is doing, I think, is fantastic because it takes away the transactional nature of the engagement. It’s saying, ‘we’re not going to charge you money to join our community.’

“But more than that, once you join our community, we’re going to do everything we can to engage you with our clergy, our staff, and most importantly, with each other so that you find a chevre, a group of people who will be your friends and will be there for you in good times and bad.

“That, in a nutshell, is the kind of work of relational engagement.”