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Synagogue Dues with Less Blues

The high level of growth and change in Reconstructionist congregations and havurot over the past decade motivated the series of JRF leadership workshops and resource books created and presented since 1997: "Presidents’ Trainings," "The Challenge of Growth," "A Torah of Money (SM)," "A Sacred Trust: Governance and Leadership," and "Kehillah Builders: Inreach, Outreach and Community Building." During 2003/5763, as requested by a majority of our past workshop participants, our offerings returned to the topic of Jewish values-based Reconstructionist approaches to money in congregational life. This proved to be a particularly important subject against the backdrop of an ailing North American economy and a contraction of tzedakah in the Jewish community generally. The decision was also influenced by the ongoing growth in membership in many of our congregations, resulting in first and second capital campaigns and an increase in full-time rabbinic positions and additional staff. People expressed a strong desire to keep these developments aligned with Reconstructionist process and Jewish values.

There was considerable discussion in our workshops about synagogue dues structures and Jewish spiritual values. Most Reconstructionist communities operate with 65-80 percent of their budgets harvested from dues — higher than the ratios for most established Conservative and Reform congregations, for which 45-65 percent is standard. Clearly, JRF affiliates need to develop more creative and comprehensive approaches to fundraising, including endowments, grant writing and bequests.

Several JRF congregations have developed community-wide discussions about dues assessment and collection in an effort to align their money operations with their understanding of Reconstructionist values. Values such as b’tzelem elohim (human dignity), kehilla (community), accessibility and diversity, democracy, and tzedek (justice and fairness) were articulated as guides to financial decision- making. One common discussion is about differences between flat-dues structures (same amount per household) and "fair-share" structures (which take into account family incomes and other factors). Wendy Weingarten of Dorshei Tzedek (120 households in Newton, Massachusetts) describes a wonderful 18-month study and discussion process that included polling and parlor meetings, with over 40 percent of households participating. "We decided to present three different models," she writes, "a modified flat structure; an income-based structure; and a hybrid that we call the shekel/nadiv lev model, which takes its name from two passages in Exodus. The shekel was a census tax that every adult male was expected to pay, no matter the individual's wealth. The nadiv lev refers to the requirement that the Israelites give offerings to build the mishkan based on their individual heart’s desire."

Ultimately, a revised nadiv lev model was developed by Dorshei Tzedek consisting of a base-rate per adult member (the shekel) and "the remainder of dues based on a sliding scale and an understanding that without additional contributions, the congregation cannot meet its obligations. Whether it is a contribution or dues," Wendy adds, "the hope is that the money is now given in the spirit of nadiv lev."

Other congregations have experimented with their own innovations. For the first time this year, the Cleveland Reconstructionist Havurah (CRH, 110 households) has a dues-plus-voluntary-contribution structure, which was accepted wholeheartedly by the community. People opt for the category that best reflects their household structure. In addition to the base dues, CRH recommends a voluntary contribution of $500. In this first year, 70 percent of the members gave some contribution, many above the recommended amount.

At Oseh Shalom (over 300 households in Laurel, Maryland), people who need to modify their dues commitment must fill out a form that is confidentially reviewed by the executive director, financial secretary and financial vice-president. In addition, Oseh Shalom has a nadiv lev category above the regular dues, which compensates for those who are paying less. People who give nadiv lev are recognized in the congregational bulletin, and revenue from this category has exceeded initial projections. Similarly, at University Synagogue (over 500 households in Irvine, California), there are several categories above the regular dues structure, such as "Patrons" and "Sponsors," which help make up the revenue lost from those who cannot afford to pay full dues.

Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky of the Beth Samuel Jewish Center of Ambridge, Pennsylvania recently posed a number of questions about "fair share" dues systems to her colleagues in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. "Overall," she reports, "the rabbis of congregations who follow a fair share approach feel very positive about the results. Most congregations tie their adoption of the fair share system to a general reevaluation of the responsibilities and privileges of synagogue membership. In particular, members are encouraged to think of the payment of synagogue dues as holy work rather than as ‘expenses.’

"Interestingly enough," Shoshana continues, "even synagogue members whose fair share is a considerable sum are very enthusiastic about the program. They do not resent having to donate a large amount of money, because they know that everyone in their congregation is giving the same percentage of their income.

"In general," she concluded, "implementing a fair share dues system did not appear to harm the finances of synagogues in any way; in fact, synagogues that faithfully adhere to an income-based dues system tend to experience a higher degree of financial security."

At the same time, many JRF congregations maintain flat dues structures, but allow for a variety of categories that reflect the value of inclusion and offer compassionate relief to those in need. A few of our communities have done local and regional studies and found that they have been asking much less than other synagogues, yet being the "cheapest option in town’ does not necessarily lead to the commitment they desire. Some have redefined the meaning of membership beyond dues, creating a covenantal model that include responsibilities to the community. (The community covenant of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston, Illinois is one such model.)

Dues are a form of "Jewish citizenship tax" assessed annually. Different levels of comfort are associated with different policies and procedures, but if subject is treated as only monetary, we run the risk of splitting off dues from their roots as a Jewish communal tax within a covenantal framework. Clearly expression of a congregation’s mission, and clear definition of membership with-in the ongoing life of the community, are vital to ensuring a sacred Jewish context for paying dues.

According to the American Jewish Yearbook (1997), the combined annual budget of North American synagogues, congregational movements and other religious institutions now tops $1 billion. In part because of Jewish injunctions against "passing the plate" on Shabbat and other holy days, synagogues and their networks are dependent on "obligatory" payments such as dues, tuition, and fees for seats. As a result, says the Yearbook, "giving to Christian institutions is widely regarded as philanthropic," while synagogues suffer from the resentment, the resistance, and the consumerist mentality that can result from obligatory payments. Getting out from under that mentality takes a good deal of communication, study, and goodwill. With a successful Reconstructionist process at work, money can be viewed as a spiritual tool, exchanged as a sign of covenant with the Jewish community.

Resources for leaders of Reconstructionist affiliates

In our Congregations menu, you'll find valuable resources listed under the topics 'Capital Campaigns,' 'Fundraising,' and 'Money and Values.'

(NOTE: "Torah of Money" is a term developed by Jeffrey Dekro who was founder of The Shefa Fund and is a member of Congregation Mishkan Shalom.)

Type: RT Article

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