Is pay-to-pray a sustainable model for shuls?

Vancouver’s Congregation Beth Israel

Harris (not his real name) had made his children’s bar and bat mitzvahs at what he thought of as his synagogue. But when divorce and a business downturn forced him to ask for a reduction on his shul dues, he was rebuffed.

“They gave me such a hard time. They made me feel so belittled,” he recalls.

“Most synagogues say pay what you can, but to get to that point, you’re already humbled and embarrassed.”

He left and has never again joined a synagogue.

Harris’ story is a cautionary tale for synagogues as they try to find creative ways to keep the lights turned on and the rabbi paid. Increasingly, they are finding members are unwilling or unable to pay dues or even join in the first place. 

Even discussing the issue is delicate. Many synagogues do not post their fee schedules on their websites and do not relish talking about dues. Some synagogues are even moving away from calling the annual payments dues.

“Dues implies fee for service,” said Paul Leszner, president of the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism. For Jews who may only attend over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they may feel they’re “not getting value for their money.”

Instead Reform congregations are referring to an “annual commitment” or use the biblical word trumah.

“You’re making a commitment to the work a synagogue is going to do. You’re belonging to a community. You can participate as you like,” Leszner said.

In some dues-averse Chabad shuls, fees may be called partnerships or memberships, said Rabbi Levi Gansburg, who leads Toronto’s Chabad of York Mills.

“We don’t want it [paying dues] to have that stigma,” he said.

With dues for two-parent families starting at more than $1,000 and rising steeply, it is apparent why the fees are a touchy issue. 

“In general, people are feeling the pinch. It’s difficult to find it [money for dues] in your household budget, and joining a synagogue isn’t a given anymore,” said Cindy Joseph, chair of the membership committee at Beth Radom Congregation, a Toronto Conservative synagogue. 

“We find we’re having to sell people on what value they’re going to get.”

Beth Radom recently introduced a 25 per cent discount for new members who also have children in Jewish day school.

Synagogues, facing a growing gap between what they bring in and what they spend, are re-thinking the way they fund themselves, said Barry Mael, the New York-based director of kehilla operations and finance for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The most common method of charging a flat rate, often based on age, with deep discounts for new members, doesn’t offer the flexibility and discretion needed, Mael said. 

“Someone wants to start a relationship [with a synagogue] and you’re already having to cut a deal,” Mael said, referring to complicated fee structures.

Some shuls have found it easier, and more equitable, to use what is called a fair-share model, in which members pay based on their income.

Vancouver’s Congregation Beth Israel has done this for years, suggesting members donate two per cent of their pre-tax income, with a ceiling of $4,800, says executive director Shannon Etkin. While some synagogues ask for verification of incomes, Beth Israel does not. 

“We’re trying to be welcome and open to people if they want to be part of this congregation. Finances shouldn’t be a part of that,” he said.

Other synagogues are investigating what they call a sustaining or voluntary model. The synagogue calculates its annual budget, figures out the per capita cost to members and then suggests they pay that amount. 

The beauty is that not only does it lead to greater transparency about synagogue finances, it also gives potential members the flexibility they need without the embarrassment of pleading their case before a committee. The overwhelming fear, of course, is that not enough money will be raised.

So far, Mael says, the few North American synagogues that have tried this have brought in about the same revenues as with the traditional model. In some cases, nervous administrators and presidents have asked a few deep-pocketed members to guarantee that if not enough is raised, they will make up the difference.

Toronto’s Beth David Synagogue has embarked on a hybrid approach, said president Barry Levine. In addition to its regular fees of $2,200 for a family, last year it told members that the full cost of running the Conservative shul is $2,900 per family and let them choose which amount to pay.

Last year, 31 families paid the higher amount, and Levine expects that with some promotion of the new undertaking, more will do so this year.

“This is based upon pulling on people’s heartstrings as opposed to making a business case. You don’t get more, it’s about the ‘why’ – why you belong to the shul,” Levine said.

Then there are shuls that have no dues at all, although they may charge for High Holiday tickets. Chabad congregations are well known for not charging dues, preferring instead to empower their rabbis to aggressively fundraise to support themselves and their communities. However, in areas where the Jewish community is well established, individual rabbis may act differently, said Rabbi Levi Gansburg, who runs the Chabad congregation in Toronto’s affluent York Mills neighbourhood.

“Most Chabads do not have dues, but in cities where it’s customary to have dues, they put it out there,” he said.

Rabbi Gansburg did not take a salary for two years while he established himself. Now, about half the 600 or so people in his synagogue pay a membership fee, a move that was suggested by congregants who were accustomed to paying dues at other synagogues and preferred to pay once a year rather than have the rabbi “knocking at their door,” Rabbi Gansburg said.

Others give more, but don’t want a membership, while many young professionals want to be involved but don’t want to pay traditional dues, he said.

“We cannot think we’re going to attract the next generation of people and [run a shul like] a business,” Rabbi Gansburg said. “At the end of the day, the rabbi has to take responsibility for the community. The rabbi says our primary concern is the next generation, and we will make it work.”

In other words, Chabad’s model requires rabbis to build relationships, so that ultimately, patrons will write a cheque. 

“It takes a tremendous commitment of time and energy,” Mael said of this option, and it likely isn’t optimal for most synagogues.

On the other end of the spectrum, Makom, an unaffiliated “grassroots community” in downtown Toronto, has not charged membership fees, instead relying on donations, program fees and grants from Canadian and American foundations.

Makom has a broad array of offerings, including prayers, as well as arts-based programming and environmental activism, and a membership base that ranges from secular to modern Orthodox, said Rabbi Aaron Levy.

“I should spend more time fundraising. We operate on a shoestring budget and make the most of what we have,” Rabbi Levy said.

The congregation, which rents space for its programs, is considering moving to some sort of membership fee to give it a more stable funding base. 

If Makom were to charge dues, it would offer a sliding scale and there would be no dreaded membership committee. “It’s a really important value that everyone feels welcome, and that includes across class issues,” Rabbi Levy said.

But the harsh reality is that synagogue dues generally only cover a portion of the budget – Mael estimates that it’s between 50 to 60 per cent of the costs.

For many communities that find themselves trapped by dues that can go no higher, along with large and aging buildings that need maintenance and an aging membership base, the only solution is to look at endowment funds to cover the gaps.

“We’ve got to get away from the cycle of ‘our costs are going up so we’ve got to raise dues by three per cent,’” Levine said. “We’ve got to get creative about approaching families that can pay more.”

At Beth David, the synagogue has begun the conversation with members about planned giving, but “it’s not a part-time gig. You need a development officer,” Levine said.

Leszner says Reform congregations are also looking at legacy funds and other ways to boost the bottom line, without raising dues.

 “Looking at the future, if synagogue life is going to continue, we have to look at alternative sources of income,” he said.