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The “pay-what-you-want” synagogue

The “pay-what-you-want” synagogue

Some synagogues are turning away from dues as their main source of funding and towards voluntary pledges. While this might not sound very radical to Episcopalians, who gave up pew-rents in the late 19th century, it is a big deal in American Judaism. With this change, we hear very familiar questions being asked; in particular, how do we live in faithful community in a secular society?

The New York Times:

For more than four decades, Temple Kol Ami financed its operations as most American synagogues do: it charged annual dues.

But as the synagogue here approached its 50th anniversary, leaders started noticing some troubling trends. The recession, which hit Michigan hard, had cost many of its members jobs and income. Younger adults seemed less interested in affiliating with institutions. And worshipers were increasingly uncomfortable with facing set payments to join a community of faith.

So three years ago, the congregation — with some trepidation — took a dramatic step. It eliminated mandatory dues and instead began sending its members an annual letter describing the synagogue’s costs, and asking them to pledge whatever they could.

Nina Badzin writing in Kveller thinks about the organizational and mission aspects of this trend:

Organizations don’t die because they provide no value; they die because they fail to provide enough value to enough people. As Rabbi Avi Olitzky, co-author with his father Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the forthcoming book “New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue,” told me, “There has to be harmony between the synagogue’s mission and its agenda. A synagogue cannot just be in the business of being in business.” I told him that so many of us want community, but don’t always know how to define it. I liked his description of community as a circle to which you feel you belong that will miss your presence; it reaches out to you when you’re absent, and you long for it when you’re not there.

The challenge for synagogues will be that members–and those not even considering joining–will find that community (and have found that community) in any number of places from yoga studios to the racquetball court to their careers, or their kids’ schools and sports teams. If we can’t give people a reason to infuse that circle with Judaism (not just with Jews, but with Judaism) then sadly I don’t see a future for synagogues whether they cost money to belong or not.

Posted by Andrew Gerns

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