Being a member will no longer requires synagogue dues at one local congregation. Per the recommendations of a Temple Sinai task force and mirroring a trend taking shape in communities across the country, in lieu of mandated annual charges, members of the Reform temple will now be asked for voluntary pledges.
“When we did our strategic plan back in 2013, one of the things that came out of the plan was looking at how we would sustain ourselves financially in the long term,” noted Nancy Gale, president of Temple Sinai.
It’s a struggle familiar to most American synagogues, and the response has typically been to raise membership dues. But a recent Pew Research study identified a diminishing percentage of Americans with religious affiliations. Equally waning was the number of individuals who identified a financial benefit of belonging to a synagogue, said Jessica Levine, communications, marketing and events coordinator at Temple Sinai.
Recognizing that such trends don’t bode well for a declining population with continuous building maintenance, education and clergy costs, the board of Temple Sinai created a task force for exploring alternative financial models.
For 18 months the group worked with a consultant and investigated other congregations from various denominational streams before determining that a voluntary dues-based model was the optimal approach.
“We did a lot of research [and spoke] with nine or 10 congregations that had moved to this model,” said Gale.
As the idea spread throughout Temple Sinai, the philosophy changed.
“We started this out as a financial model thing, and as we got into it we understood the importance of it more as reflecting the values and goals and mission of what our congregation is trying to do, which is be inclusive and welcoming and be a community,” said Jerry Katz, assistant treasurer of Temple Sinai.
So while entry in the congregational club is no longer based on a fixed annual charge, membership in the community still carries fiscal obligations.
“We are a sacred community, and we are asking people to contribute to the benefit of that community,” said Gale.
“We are trying to get people to think differently than ‘this is your bill.’ We want them to realize how much they are involved and what they mean to us,” added Katz.
With this team oriented mindset, a financial path to the future is possible, said the lay leaders. However, as a 2015 New York Times article on the subject noted, “the shift to voluntary pledging brings a variety of challenges and cultural adjustments,” including, budget unpredictability and increased demands from members for congregational fiscal clarity.
Gale is ready and willing to inform Temple Sinai’s members where their dollars are going.
“We want to be very transparent with the congregation [on] what it takes to run the congregation. Professionals cost money, we have a building, we have a school. All of those things come with costs,” said Gale.
As members begin to better comprehend their dollars’ doings as well as the collective and essential role that each participant plays in the overall health of the congregation, the entire temple will thrive, said Katz. “In the aggregate, maybe we’ll be better off, because people are going to be a part of something they want to be a part of and they’ll find meaning in what they do.”
As radical as the change may seem — and Temple Sinai is among the first non-Chabad congregations in Western Pennsylvania to go such a route — the move to dismantling dues is not that new.
According to a 2015 guide from the UJA-Federation of New York, in recent years at least 26 congregations throughout the United States — representing the Reform, independent and Conservative streams — have elected to use a voluntary commitment model.
But while 16 of the 26 congregations identified as Reform, the report was unable to locate a single Orthodox congregation that had adopted such financial tactics, a result it attributed to an explanation from Rabbi Judah Isaacs of the Orthodox Union: “The synagogue is a central part of [Orthodox Jews’] daily or weekly lives, and they feel a deep connection and financial responsibility to the institution,” he was quoted as saying.
As for why a “preponderance” of Reform temples were identified among the 26 congregations as adopting a voluntary commitment model, the guide posited that “Reform synagogues, by their very nature, believe that religious identity and practice are not fixed and unchanging, and this may, perhaps, predispose them to the idea that synagogue finance is, likewise, not fixed and unchanging.” Additionally, the presence of interfaith families, who are already familiar with voluntary donations in other contexts, “may be a significant factor in regard to the voluntary commitment model.”
For now, the Temple Sinai task force’s plan is to have the new funding model in place by July 1 of this year, said Gale.
“We pride ourselves on being an innovative congregation … and we’re proud that we are doing this,” she said.
“We believe in our congregation, that’s what we believe in,” echoed Katz. “I come to the conclusion that if we believe in our values and we believe in our community that this is the only way to proceed.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.