Due You Feel Like I Due

In a few weeks’ (two? three? it’s close) time, I’ll be in Michigan for another week-long, in-residence course with IISHJ for the rabbinical program (this in addition to the numerous regular, weekly live interactive sessions, etc.). This one is on congregational leadership, so it covers things like organizational dynamics, roles of the rabbi and other leaders, etc.

A stack of $100 bills, bundled together with a strip of paper.

Bills, bills, bill. From 401kcalculator.org.

It also addresses synagogue membership and dues models. This is an issue that gets a lot of attention and a lot of press–not the least of which is a result of the negative feelings of many about the notion of dues payment to begin with. I’ve written about this before, and I’m obviously far from the only one to have done so. I claim no particularly special insight on this topic.

But something about the discussion concerns me, and it’s the overlap of reading a book on alternative dues models, seeing yesterday a Kveller article making “The Case for Pay-What-You-Can Synagogue Dues,” and reading various other items that prompted me to express the concern.

It is this: synagogues and synagogue-supporting think tanks are latching onto changing dues structures in response to financial pressures associated with reduced membership, on the thinking that much of the reduction in membership is related to dues structures. No doubt some of this is true; some synagogues have seen a rebound in membership numbers and in dues-derived revenue after leaving the fixed-price dues structure and adopting a different model.

The most widely used alternative, called “voluntary dues” by Rabbi Kerry Olitzky (among others), is a kind of set-your-price model with suggested giving levels. It’s accompanied by financial transparency on the part of the synagogue’s leadership, so that members can see what it costs to run things. They are, depending on your perspective, encouraged or empowered to give accordingly. Numerous synagogues have tried this model. Setting aside the not-exactly-voluntary nature of the dues for membership (you have to give something–you’re given options of giving levels or expectations are expressed, and you don’t get membership for free), it does seem to leave things relatively stable, if not better, from a total-dollars-taken perspective. (Olitzky and his son, Rabbi Avi Olitzky, cover this in some depth in their recent book, New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue.)

But talking about dues strikes me as something of a problem, because the dues conversation might be the tail wagging the dog.

Another, earlier Kveller article gets at the problem. Quoting a conversation with Kerry Olitzky, the author writes:

“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.

So what’s the dog, and what’s the tail? The tail is the dues model. The dog is the congregation itself. And too many articles focus on the dues model as though the dues model is the congregational model.

Yet it doesn’t matter how little you charge; you could charge nothing at all, and expect nothing at all. If you aren’t offering things people want or need, you’re not going to get very many people to pay you.

The question then becomes: what is the synagogue doing? Is it creating community? Is it a top-down, status-based institution, serving 95% of its members only as far as they perceive the need for childhood education and bnei mitzvah ceremonies, but not much else other than an occasional wedding or shiva call? Is its leadership okay with that? What does the synagogue aspire to? What is the congregation about?

I think the dues model discussion is useful, but its real importance is limited. Changing the dues structure in many communities is really nibbling at the edges. It may result in marginal improvements in finance and membership, but it will catch largely the people who already want to be synagogue members but just can’t afford it under an existing dues structure. You might even be able to lower the dues price, explain where the money really goes, and pick up some of these members.

In other words, it might just be clawing back money that congregations would leave on the table. One could see congregations beginning to compete merely on price, particularly if one isn’t much better than the other.

Where the dues discussion gets interesting is when 1) it shows that a congregation is substantively different from others around it, or 2) it gets harnessed to broader discussions of what a congregation really hopes to accomplish, how it defines itself, and how that vision should be carried out.

The problem, of course, is that neither of these are really about synagogue dues at all–they’re about congregational life in a much bigger way, and the dues model reflects the underlying differences of those communities from others. Kerry Olitzky recognizes this issue, and there is some–not a lot, but some–literature on making congregations that really do more than Hebrew School and bnei mizvah programming.

Too much of the conversation focuses not on creating community, but on price issues–no doubt because those problems seem easier to solve.

But until the conversation changes, I think there’s still lots to worry about–on the dues front, and on the Jewish communal front generally. Because, pace Bill Clinton, sometimes it’s not about the economy, stupid.