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The Voluntary Dues Model: Evolving with the Times (Rosh Hashanah – Day Two – 10/01/19)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

The Voluntary Dues Model:  Evolving with the Times
Father Valentine, Pastor Eric and I were once discussing how we get paid from the weekly contributions made by our congregants. Father Valentine said, “I draw a line on the ground and throw the funds in the air. What falls to one side of the line is God’s. What falls to the other is mine.” Pastor Eric said, “I do sort of the same. I draw a circle. What falls inside the circle is God’s, outside is mine.” I told them I do something similar, “I throw the money in the air, too. What God wants, God takes. What falls to the ground is mine.”
For good or for bad, we don’t support the synagogue through a weekly charity plate, but then again, perhaps it’s time we revisit how we fund our synagogue.
About twenty years ago, I heard the following story about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the famed musician and spiritual guide.
When I first heard the story, I was amazed by Reb Shlomo’s incredible love for his fellow Jew. Now, my focus is on a different aspect of this story.
It was September of 1994, the last year R’ Shlomo would lead the Yom Kippur services, as he would pass two months later.
Anyone who ever had the privilege of hearing R’ Shlomo daven would attest to the enormous concentration and intensity he poured into each word, his remarkable ability to shut out the world, engaged in rapturous prayer, and above all, his fervor as he transported both himself and his congregants on an exhilarating spiritual journey.
It therefore came as a complete shock to everyone when R’ Shlomo suddenly stepped down from the pulpit in the middle of chanting a prayer, signaled for someone to take over the service, and walked out the door.
To say this was irregular behavior is an understatement—it was downright odd, abnormal, unheard of!
People attending Shlomo’s services for years had never seen such a thing.
Everyone exchanged worried glances, what was going on?
Somebody, whose curiosity got the best of him, got up and peeked out the door. This is what he observed:
Shlomo stood outside on the shul’s steps with an air of expectancy, looking about him right and left, scanning faces anxiously, almost as if he were waiting for somebody. About a minute later, the figure of a young woman appeared down the street. Her pace was brisk, and she was about to pass by the shul when Shlomo stopped her. “Gut Yom Tov!” he boomed in his hearty voice. She faltered, turned around, and looked at him uncertainly. “How did you know I was Jewish?” she asked. “Ah, you have such a holy Jewish face,” answered Shlomo. “So tell me, holy sister, where are you davening today?”
She grimaced. “Tell you the truth,” she said, blinking back tears, “I’ve just about had it. I hadn’t come to a synagogue in years, but today I felt an overwhelming need to reconnect with my heritage. I guess it sounds a little corny, but lately, I’ve been feeling a deep hunger for something more in my life. I’ve been to four synagogues so far this morning and not one would let me in because I didn’t have a ticket. I just want to pray, not buy a synagogue membership. Is that what Judaism is about, paying to pray? I was so stupid, I swear I’m never going to another synagogue again. I give up; I’m going home.”
Shlomo spoke to her gently and convinced her to give his shul a try.
Everybody in the shul turned around to stare as he came back into the building with the young woman in tow. He found a place for her upfront next to a nurturing soul, and returned to the pulpit.
After services, many of them approached her, and wished her “Gut Yom Tov!” She told them she had been greatly moved by Shlomo’s davening, and that it was precisely what she had been looking for. “Imagine,” she exclaimed happily. “I’ve been searching for G-d all day, and found Him in the Carlebach Synagogue!”[1]
When I first heard this story, I was amazed at how fine were Reb Shlomo’s spiritual antennae. He picked up the distress signal from this woman when she was blocks away from his synagogue. He abandoned leading the services of his congregation in order to save a soul. When you have true love for people, as Reb Shlomo was famous for, then miraculous things can happen.
Now, though, in the year 2019, I see the woman’s complaint even more poignantly. How come a person who wants to pray can’t just enter a synagogue on Yom Kippur?
Would a seeking Christian be denied entry to a Church on Christmas or Easter?
In fact, last year, on Rosh Hashanah, my neighbor had something important to tell me, because my sprinkler system had gone awry. She heard that I’d be at the Y, so she came to inform me of the problem. The usher told her she needed a ticket to enter. She explained that she only needed to enter for a minute to tell me something and then she’d leave. The usher says, “Okay, but don’t let me catch you praying.”
Now I understand that we have a different revenue model than churches. We can throw the pushke in the air night and day and we still won’t have enough funds to make ends meet. We charge for the seats on the High Holidays in order to pay for the costs of running a synagogue all year long.
I believe it’s time to rethink this model.
As with many other aspects of Judaism, the means for synagogue upkeep have varied throughout the ages. In fact, charging membership dues only came on the scene about 100 years ago.
In 2007 and 2008, when the county was in the grips of recession, a number of synagogues moved to a new model of funding called Voluntary Dues.
The yearly budget of the synagogue is divided by the number of families, and a sustaining amount is calculated. New members are invited to donate the sustaining level, but whatever they want to contribute is accepted.
Now you might say that this is insane; if we allow people to pay what they want, everybody will give $18 dollars and the synagogue will be closed in no time.
But it’s not true. In 2017, the UJA made a detailed study of 57 congregations that switched to the Voluntary dues model.
It notes, “Many congregations fear that if there is no oversight
of member pledges, congregants will take advantage of the system and pay little or nothing to be a member…not one congregation reported this as an issue, despite initial worries.”
In most congregations, some portion of the congregation paid less than the sustaining amount and some smaller portion of the congregation paid above it, but all congregations accepted this situation as a reality of the system.
In fact, what it showed is just the opposite, that on average, the 57 synagogues grew membership and their income.
We had an Executive Board meeting recently where we brought in the treasurer of Temple Beth Am of Merrick and Bellmore.
Year after year they had been losing on average thirty families. From 800 families in their heyday, they were down to 300.
Last year they switched from standard dues to the Voluntary Dues Model. They increased their membership by 60 families in one year.
Why am I mentioning this? Why am I advocating for this change? Because I hear that woman’s cry all the time now, for we’ve associated going to synagogue with paying to pray, and people are sick of it.
Millennials, in general, are resistant to the idea of membership.
Generation X post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah families are reluctant to pay full membership just to come to synagogue 2 or 3 times a year.
Even many Baby Boomer Empty Nesters are feeling the same way.
For those going through an expensive divorce or unemployment issues, it’s embarrassing to have to go to the financial aid committee to be able to attend synagogue.
Years ago, when big synagogues were in vogue, membership dues worked. Nowadays, they’re a deterrent.
Of the 57 synagogues that switched, not one said it wanted to go back to the old dues model.
One synagogue using this model advertises themselves as “Open Doors Judaism”
Temple Beth Am’s membership card reads as follows:
“The sustaining amount is the average amount the temple needs from each congregant family to operate within a balanced budget. This year’s sustaining amount is $1,900.
Every meaningful membership pledge, no matter the amount, is appreciated.
If you can donate more, please share your blessings.
Doesn’t that message sound nice?
As times change, by force we must change as well.
I recently watched a documentary called Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills resort. I’m sure some of you frequented the Borscht Belt hotels, such as Kutsher’s, Grossinger’s, the Concord and others.
In the late nineteenth century in Sullivan County, New York, the famed Jewish philanthropist, Baron Hirsch, bought thousands of acres of land for Jews to farm. He thought farming could be the Jewish future. When Jews living in squalor of the Lower East Side needed some fresh air, they’d rent rooms from these farmers.
Eventually, the Jewish farmers realized they could make more money renting rooms than raising chickens, and the farms turned into hotels.
Someone then came up with the idea to entertain these guests, and behold, a new industry developed.
They had a niche market, for in the ’40s and 50’s air conditioning was still not common in the city, so families had no other choice but to go up to the county. Antisemitism was still going strong and the non-Jewish country clubs were restricted. So, the Borscht Belt boomed and it became the cutting edge of American pop culture in the comedy, sports, and music industries.
But by the 1980s the Catskills’ popularity started to decline. The restricted clubs were no longer restricted. Air conditioning was available to all, and air and sea travel became much more affordable. The next generation of Jews, better educated and more cosmopolitan, didn’t want to travel by car for 2-3 hours to live in hotels that hadn’t been upgraded since the 50’s and 60’s.
What was once an integral part of tristate Jewish life came to an end with the closing of Kutsher’s in 2014.
The Kutsher’s property though was bought. It’s now a Yoga retreat center.
Tucked among 1,300 acres of lakes and pine forests in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, YO1 is a state-of-the-art wellness resort and spa promoting holistic Indian healing therapies through Ayurveda, Naturopathy, and Yoga. With the guidance of a Wellness Counselor, you will embark on a personalized pathway to better your health and discover a more natural way of living through a deep examination of your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
It sounds like the perfect place for a rabbi to go after the holidays!
The Kutcher property flourishes, but as a Yoga center now.
Times change, and we all need to evolve along with them.
How does this message relate to us personally?
After each set of shofar blasts during Musaf we say “Hayom Harat Olam”, today is the birthday of the world.  Rosh Hashanah commemorates the birth of the world. It’s a day designated for new initiatives.
Times are changing, perhaps faster now than ever before.
Are we advancing with them?
Now I’m not saying we should throw out everything precious to us out with the bath water, but I think we live in a time when rethinking our positions on many of the things we hold dear may be necessary.
I just read a leading Orthodox rabbi’s Rosh Hashanah sermon. At age 75, he’s changing his stance on three significant issues.
He used to be more internally focused on anti-Semitism and Jewish causes, and indifferent to the plight of African Americans in his neighborhood. Now he sees he can’t turn his back on issues that are in his own backyard, and he’s started doing joint programming with a local Baptist minister.
He used to distinguish between intermarried families and in-married families in his congregation in the way he dealt with them during Bar and Bat mitzvahs. The non-Jewish spouse couldn’t come up near the bimah, etc, etc. He now feels that since the non-Jewish spouse is paying dues and driving their kids to Hebrew school, they should be honored, not discriminated against.
Thirdly, he used to refuse to perform a wedding where the reception was non-kosher. Now as long as the bride and groom are Jewish, he’s happy to perform the wedding no matter what they’re serving.
At age 75, this rabbi is seeing the impetus to change. I’m sure many of us are seeing the writing on the wall as well, that perhaps this year is the year we have the courage to tread a new path.
We’re going to sing a song soon called “Return” by Joe Buchanan. The chorus is:
It’s going to be a brave new year
Starting right now, right here
And I will be strong and stand up tall
Reach out for others when they fall
And I will rejoice in my faith
And remember that love is why we’re made
Be the very best that I can be
For the world and for me
As we begin a new year together. I hope you too will appreciate the need to change our revenue model and support the transition to Voluntary Dues in the upcoming year.
One synagogue even eliminated their Rosh Hashanah appeal because of the benefits of this change!
Times and needs change, so I hope you’ll be supportive of the many initiatives we’re taking at MHJC.
Most of all, I hope we’ll be supportive of ourselves. Whether it’s taking on new, unfamiliar, uncomfortable initiatives to make our country safer and healthier as we spoke about yesterday, or to make changes in our personal lives, the ones we’ve been pushing off or were afraid to make.
May we live a brave new year
Where we’ll be strong and stand up tall
Reach out for others when they fall
Be the very best that we can be
For the world and for ourselves
Shana Tova
[1] Mandelbaum, Yitta Halberstam. Holy Brother: Inspiring Stories and Enchanted Tales about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (pp. 169-170). Jason Aronson, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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