One of the largest Conservative synagogues in the world, which currently has over 4,000 members, recently announced it is offering free membership to Torontonians under 40 years of age.
Beth Tzedec Congregation’s initiative, which is called the Generations Membership, comes with a renewed commitment to outreach and engagement for members in that age group.
Rabbi Steve Wernick, senior rabbi at Beth Tzedec, said the enhanced focus on outreach and engagement is an integral part of the plan. While the free membership is needed to address the financial constraints that may limit potential under-40 members, it is not their only barrier to membership.
“The affordability issue is important. But addressing affordability issues without addressing content issues and excellence issues is not going to work,” Rabbi Wernick said. “That’s why the Generations Membership cannot be separated from the engagement initiative. The two are coming together… We’re saying first and foremost that you matter to us as a person; what we are most interested in is being your partner in your Jewish journey and bringing you into our community of like-minded people in that journey.”
Beth Tzedec is the first synagogue in Toronto to offer free membership to under-40s, Rabbi Wernick believes. Prior to this initiative, under-40 members paid a fixed rate depending on which one of eight age categories they fell into, with five for singles and three for couples. Singles paid anywhere from $50 to $750, while married couples paid from $500 to $1,400. However, there was always room for leeway if an individual or couple was unable to pay its fixed rate in a given year. This is in contrast to 40-and-over members, who pay a “fair share” depending on family income.
Along with the free membership, Beth Tzedec also plans to hire two full-time staff members devoted to engaging their under-40 members, including an additional rabbi. By rolling out the free membership before finding the new staff, Rabbi Wernick admitted the shul might “be putting the cart before the horse, but we wanted to come out of COVID with a bold statement of investment in the future.”
According to Patti Rotman, the shul’s president, the pandemic actually provided some of the impetus to create the initiative. The lockdowns exacerbated some of the fault lines in terms of connection and engagement that had already been developing among younger generations, she said.
“They wanted the engagement. They wanted in-person relationships, and it was hard to develop a community when everything was online.
“Especially the ones whose children were at school and doing Zoom school, it was enough. They didn’t want that anymore. They wanted a real space… and they wanted more meaning and community and fulfillment and they weren’t getting that being at home with their kids, especially the ones who are accustomed to being at synagogue on a weekly basis and having the relationships.”
Some skeptics might point to millennials’ declining rates of participation in organized religious institutions as evidence that Rotman is wrong when she says they want connection.
These beliefs are supported by both comprehensive research and their personal experiences that show the younger generations are just as interested in spirituality and religious community as their parents and grandparents—they just look for it in different ways.
Leah Mauer, 34, joined Beth Tzedec when she married her husband, who is a lifetime member at the shul. Although she felt deeply connected to her Judaism, she wasn’t sure what the value would be in joining such a large institution.
“I was very hesitant, seven years ago, to join the shul. I thought, like a lot of people in my cohort think, ‘it’s so big, I’ll get lost. What’s in it for me? Why do I need to be part of a synagogue when there’s other ways to do Jewish in Toronto? I can feel engaged by having dinner with my family and with my friends, and I can send my kids to summer camp and day school, and so why do I need a synagogue?’
“After joining, I very quickly saw the value in it, that there’s a community that just can’t be replicated in other spaces… there’s such a community of parents that I saw when my daughter, who is now three-and-a-half was just born. We would go to Shabbat and we would see kids running around and parents talking, and I was so excited to have her be part of that, and have her friends from shul and a community of parents who looked out for each other’s kids. It just felt like one big, giant family, and I don’t know of any other place where you can replicate that every week.”
Despite her early doubts, today Mauer is a member of the shul’s board of directors and sits on three other committees.
Early returns show that Mauer is not alone in her sentiments. Within the first week of its rollout, Rabbi Wernick said the shul signed up 60 new under-40 member units—which can be a couple, a family or a single person.
Beth Tzedec currently has around 800 under-40 member units, and Rabbi Wernick expects the membership offer and focus on outreach and engagement will add approximately 400 more under-40 member units over the next few years.
Although it may seem like a financial risk to forgo dues from 1,200 member units, which Rabbi Wernick estimates would amount to around 3,000 people, dues paid by current members in the under-40 demographic are not a substantial part of the shul’s revenue. About 30 percent of revenue comes from membership dues, and under-40 dues are only one percent of that portion, he said.
Even if free memberships did amount to a larger percentage of the total revenue, there is good reason to believe they will still represent a net-positive financially. Rabbi Wernick cited a study from the Jewish Federation in New York that said around 15 percent of American synagogues now offer similar initiatives, with some even offering free membership to all age groups. Although the transition is difficult, if the reduction in dues is matched with renewed outreach and engagement efforts, then these shuls see increases in both membership and revenue three years down the line, he said.
Although it is easy to assume that the appeal of the Generations Membership is primarily—if not purely—financial, Rabbi Wernick is adamant that the actual significance lies beneath the surface. It’s not that young people aren’t willing to spend money, just that they are less willing to spend simply because it’s expected.
“We’re going to change the conversation around money. It’s not a transaction. It’s not fee-for-service. We’re going to ask people to contribute, right? But we’re going to ask them to contribute as helping us to achieve our mission rather than join the synagogue to help us keep the lights on.
“We have to change the conversation around money from one of dues to one of philanthropy. Philanthropy comes when people understand a mission, can see how the mission plays out in the world and feel a personal connection to that mission.”