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A Jewish Approach to Obligatory Giving

(Reprinted from Congregations Magazine, The Alban Institute, Nov/Dec 2001.)

The rabbi squirms in his seat when a leader suggests that he engage in fundraising. Perennially vocal board members grow silent when it is time to follow up with congregants about their financial obligations. The topic of money makes us uncomfortable. But no organized religion has ever been without a need for resources or an expectation of offerings, dues, or taxes to support its institutions.

Jewish tradition views money as an expression of values and a commitment to godly action in the world. Money is a reflection of our priorities, which in turn reflect the values articulated by a communal mission statement. Although they may seem to be mutually exclusive, money and spirituality are in a dynamic relationship in congregations.1

Exploring Polarities

One way to frame the relationship between money and spirituality is through the lens of polarity theory. In Polarity Management, Barry Johnson writes:
Polarities to manage are sets of opposites which can't function well independently: Because the two sides of a polarity are interdependent, you cannot choose one as a solution and neglect the other. The objective of the "Polarity Management" perspective is to get the best of both opposites while avoiding the limits of each.2
In this article we will explore the tensions between autonomy and obligation, between encouraging reflection and demanding action (or 'doing"), and between focusing on members and preaching to them.

Traditional Jewish thinking would seem compatible with the concept of polarities. We speak of "elu v’elu" - that both "this and this" are true. Judaism believes that principled debate and exploration lead to truth. When we "struggle," we are changed.

Past to Present

At the very birth of the Jewish people in the exodus from Egypt, Jews traditionally paid a minimum tax to support the establishment and maintenance of their ritual, sacred center, their leadership, and later the temples where the priests made their sacrifices. They also provided a share of their tribal allocation to the Levites so that they could focus on the needs of the sacrificial cult. Thus Jews had an obligatory contribution to support the Avodah, or sacred service. The Jewish spirit of practicality is expressed in the rabbinic saying, "Where there is no bread, there can be no Torah. Where there is no Torah, there will be no bread" (Pirket Avot 3:17).

As Rabbinic Judaism developed from 200 B.C.E. onward, the rabbis helped systematize the flow and allocation of resources with holiness, community building, compassionate action, and service to God as core values. This extended, in the Middle Ages, to the collection of a "Jewish tax," or tzedekah, to support the widows, orphans, and others in need.

But today's synagogue has taken on tasks that never could have been envisioned in the Middle Ages, and it requires great financial resources. The synagogue functions as a beit midrash (a school), a beit Knesset (community center), a social hall or center for life-cycle events, a political center where current issues are considered, a social service center for pastoral counseling and day care, and a youth center. The costs for infrastructure needed to meet these diverse needs arc substantial.

Jewish communal leaders have expressed alarm about Jewish continuity. From a systems point of view, stresses on the Jewish community are increasing. The leadership is accorded less legitimacy and the professional staff's workload has grown. Less time is available for voluntarism, and leaders face the individual expectations of members who have been enculturated to demand high levels of "customer satisfaction." Many commentators have questioned whether mediocre programs can compete for membership loyalty. In short, the needs of synagogues have accelerated, but the ideological and faith traditions of financial resource development have not kept up.

In addition, as the twenty-first century begins, organized religion has lost much of its traditional authority with Americans. The democratization of American congregational life-which encourages individuals to seek a direct path to a moral life and challenges the power of seminaries, intellectuals and denominational leadership-has generated a bias toward individualism and autonomy.3 So how should Jewish synagogue leadership make the appeal for responsible (obligatory) financial resource development? How does one speak of traditional obligations in the land of individual autonomy?

Polarity 1: Autonomy and Obligation

An old saying by Rabbi Hillel found in the Torah (Mishnah) expresses polarity thinking: "If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?" (Pirket Avot 1:14). Many American Jews perceive that their personal material needs are increasing today, and their focus on the needs of the Jewish community is declining relatively. Like other Americans, Jews are becoming less involved than in previous eras in all forms of association and voluntarism (Putnam,4 Fukyuama 5). Their attitudes have changed, perhaps as a function of both American cultural priorities and the natural decline in ethnic identity in fourth- and fifth-generation Americans.

In the Torah, a community focus is central. We are told to leave a portion of our field unharvested (Dent. 14:22). We are told not to glean the field or vineyards (Lev. 19:9). In a traditional sense, a person is in a living, dynamic covenant that should reflect generous giving. Even a recipient of tzedekah (giving justly) must give to those with less. Jewish communal service leaders argue that this process of Jewish financial resource development engages the solicitor and the giver in the building of a Torah community.

The process of exploring our traditional sense of mutual obligation builds shared meaning, but some observers have cautioned that Jewish giving may be becoming less community-oriented and more concentrated in a "committed core" of supporters. According to Donald Kent and Jack Wertheimer, the number of Jewish Federation contributors declined by 180,000 over 10 years even though the total amount of giving increased.6

In advocating dialogue related to giving, leaders face several challenges. Leaders may look at financial resource development as a tool for building sacred community and reflecting community values. As individuals, they have their own emotional attitudes toward the role of money in their lives. They may reflect the American inclination toward privatism (Bellah,7 Eisen8) which suggests that we not engage our neighbors in this type of dialogue. Internalized feelings about money derive from centuries of being attacked and stereotyped. These issues of class, status, envy; shame, and competition must be overcome by open and respectful learning and dialogue.

Polarity 2: Reflecting and Doing

In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge speaks of the "wheel of management."9 There is a time for reflecting, connecting, deciding, and doing. Leaders need to reflect on Jewish values, explore their traditions, and understand their missions. These are all part of the pole of reflection. As boards have become more corporate, they have often failed to incorporate enough Jewish traditional learning in their processes. At the other pole is "doing." It is not enough to review texts and to listen to scholars-in-residence. Leaders must act. They must set an example for giving, and must be role models of committee leadership. The Jewish Reconstructionist Federation recently completed its third year of programs and resources to help lay leaders integrate values and financial resource development; this was in response to congregational leaders' recognition that too often discussions about values were not linked to issues of financial matters, budgets, and fair-share dues.

Polarity 3: Member Focus and Preaching

When leaders communicate with members about obligations, they need to have the capacity to move between a focus on the member's own perceived needs and a prophetic focus on the community's traditional obligations. In marketing theory one can charge a price equal to the perceived value of the product. If leaders have succeeded in increasing the perceived value of membership, they can raise prices (dues). If the value of membership is perceived to have diminished, they will, in theory; either have to reduce prices or risk a decline in demand (declining membership). Perceived value is a complex formulation.

Some Jewish communal leaders have suggested that we should not think about marketing in relation to congregational membership. They decry the contemporary fee-for-service consumer mentality of some members. They preach that members should seek to be members of a "caring community," not consumers. What seems clear is that synagogue membership is a complex mix of specific service needs (religious school, life-cycle events, cemetery rights), self-esteem needs (participation, fellowship), and transcendent existential needs (spirituality, yearning for community).

Judaism does have a strong prophetic tradition. The prophet is often a lonely person who receives a vision from God and challenges the people to resist the temptations of popular culture (idolatries) and return to God and Torah.

When congregants are surveyed, they say the two most important things they expect from a religious leader are authenticity and integrity. If a religious leader is completely dominated by a member focus (or marketing pole), he or she may fail to take principled stands and challenge the congregation to increase its commitments. A congregation must be more than a set of autonomous consumer profiles. It must have leaders who can articulate (or preach) a prophetic vision of community consensual obligations.

Developing and Harvesting Dues

According to recent surveys, dues represent from 45 percent to 65 percent of the revenue for most Jewish congregations. Dues require broad-based congregational support and legitimacy and so reflect a community's sense of obligation in a way that capital campaigns, with concentrated major gifts, may not. A classic case of harvesting dues before developing relationships is the typical membership dues process. A new prospect comes to the synagogue and expresses interest in membership (its perceived value is probably low). Because leaders believe that the congregation is important, they assume that the perceived value is high and begin to make demands (obligations) of the prospect. They preach from the beginning about the prospects obligations.

But some congregations are reversing this process. They have a skilled representative of the membership committee follow up with prospects and get to know them. They show concern. They encourage prospects to tell how they have progressed on their "Jewish journey" and gradually suggest ways in which the synagogue community might relate to them. In one Maryland congregation leaders were able to increase the requirements (obligations) of membership by creating a participatory warm, and inclusive environment. By respecting the prospect's unique life history (autonomy) they were able to build a relationship and develop greater commitments (obligation) to contribute to potlucks, volunteer on committees, and show tip in great numbers for programming and services. Other congregations have also developed creative solutions to dues.

From Autonomy to Obligation

Flat-rate and family dues structures may not reflect the Judaic principle of tithing.

Solution: An Oklahoma synagogue challenges member autonomy and American privatism by using an honor code. Members fill out their "fair share" as a graduated percentage of their annual income, and dues are adjusted up or down as income changes. One Massachusetts synagogue spent an entire year of self-study to address these very same issues en route to establishing a new fair-share cities system with communal approval.

From Doing to Reflecting

Congregations often develop large funds for capital campaigns but neglect reflection in "all their doing." They lose the focus of the connection between the capital campaign and the community's mission.

Solution: A Pennsylvania congregation moved toward reflection by educating its community: Members decided to use three percent of their capital campaign to provide matching funds for housing for the homeless. An Oregon congregation reflected on its banking needs and decided to hold its own mortgage rather than bank at an institution that did not reflect their members' Jewish values.

From Preaching to Member Focus

Judaism is a voluntary choice for most American Jews. Young families may have limited Jewish education and not see the perceived benefits of expensive memberships when they are just "getting started."

Solution: Two congregations moved from preaching to member focus and found innovative ways to reduce "barriers to entry". A New Jersey synagogue offered complimentary first-year dues to families that were unaffiliated. A Texas synagogue suspended building-campaign assessments for two years.

From Member Focus to Preaching

Some congregations resist raising dues or increasing enforcement of norms out of concern for those without capacity to pay more.

Solution: One Oklahoma synagogue challenges member autonomy by requesting that everyone pay an extra $28 to cover the costs of members who pay less. This approach both provides empathy for those in need and keeps the community focused on the needs of the congregation.

Managing Polarities

Synagogue leaders will have to manage these polarities as they develop strategies and tactics for development in the areas of dues, fundraising, and capital campaigns. Polarity management can help develop new forms of dialogue around the issues of autonomy and obligation between leaders and congregants, denominational leadership and congregations, and Jewish social welfare agencies and communities. We have reviewed how selected synagogues explored new options. They responded to the challenge that is placed before us at every Passover seder, when the seder leaders are challenged to explain "the Exodus story" so that all types of learners can understand.

By learning to move flexibly between polarities, leaders can promote innovative conversations (reflection) and develop critical solutions (action) for fair and equitable dues and financial resource development.


  1. Rabbi Shawn Zevit. A Torah of Money (Philadelphia: Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. 2000).
  2. Barry Johnson. Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems (Amherst, Mass.: Human Resource Development Press. 1997).
  3. Nathan O. Hatch. The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1991).
  4. Robert Putnam. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York. Simon & Schuster. 2000).
  5. Francis Fukuyuama, Trust (New York: Free Press. 1995).
  6. Donald Kent and Jack Wertheimer, "The Implications of New Funding Systems for the Federation System," Journal of Jewish Communal Service 76:1/2 (Fall/Winter 1999). p.70.
  7. Robert Bellah, ed. Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1985).
  8. Arnold M. Eisen and Steven M. Cohen. The Jew Within (Bloomingtom: Indiana University Press. 2000).
  9. Peter Senge. The Fifth Discipline: The Practice and Art of the Learning Organization (New York: Doubleday. 1994).
Type: Article

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