Scrapping Synagogue Dues: A Case Study

Scrapping Synagogue Dues: A case study of one synagogue that radically altered their dues system and found more money, more members and more harmony

by Dan Judson

The synagogue dues structure has recently become the source of a lot of conversation – on web forums, at Federation events and at synagogue conventions, people are questioning the long-term sustainability of the membership dues structure. As a result of the recession and longer term demographic trends, many synagogues are facing fewer members as well as members who are hoping to pay less. In 2008, one large conservative synagogue in suburban Boston, Temple Israel of Sharon, was facing a significant problem of declining revenue from dues. “Each year we were raising dues to make our budget numbers, and we reached a point where we were actually losing money when we raised dues. We were on the wrong side of the demand curve,” said Rob Carver, a lay leader at Temple Israel and a professor of statistics, “we had reached a price point where families decided they would rather not belong to the synagogue at all, than pay higher dues. Of course families could come to us for an abatement, but everyone finds the abatement process onerous, so some families just leave. And raising dues again, particularly at the height of the recession, just seemed to sow ill will amongst the congregation.” As a result of this situation, the congregation began a search to replace their dues structure.

At first they investigated “fair share” dues, whereby synagogues peg the amount of dues to the adjusted gross income of the family – usually synagogues ask between 1% and 1.5%. But this turned out to be a non-starter in the congregation, as members did not feel comfortable with this approach. So the synagogue was in a bind – it wanted to change the dues structure, but folks were not willing to utilize a fair share system. So Temple Israel did something somewhat radical: they scrapped the dues system altogether. They went to an entirely voluntary system where families simply told the synagogue how much they were going to pay that year. No fixed dues.

Rob Carver put it this way, “Of course some folks were very worried that this was not going to work. How could a voluntary system work, particularly at the height of the recession? People will simply pledge a low number and we will not raise our revenue. So we developed what we call a sustaining amount. This is the amount that each family would need to pay in order for us to meet our budget. At the membership renewal time, we send a letter saying this is the sustaining amount we need – if you can do this great, if you can go above this, even better – but you tell us how much you are going to pay, and that’s what you will pay.”

The synagogue adopted the revised system three years ago in 2008, and the first two years saw revenues decline, but at a lower rate (4%) than they had declined the previous year under the old system, and this past year, the downward trend has reversed itself and revenue was up 2% from the previous year. The fact that the synagogue made this change at the height of the recession and the still lingering bad economy makes the upward revenue shift all the more remarkable. More significantly, perhaps, than the revenue change was the membership change.

This year, the synagogue saw a net increase of over twenty new families into the congregation, reversing a long trend of downward numbers. The synagogue’s financial team noted, “The new commitment structure has completely transformed the conversation about why members choose to affiliate with the Temple or not. Because the commitment amount is presented as a personal financial decision that is not questioned by the Temple administrative or finance staff, it is no longer a hurdle to affiliation.” Temple Israel’s leadership doesn’t presume that the membership increase is solely due to the new dues structure, but it is undoubtedly a primary factor in this economically sensitive environment. “We continue to fight the demographic challenges in our own town and, of course, the new dues structure isn’t a panacea. Yet we have seen several members who had chosen to disaffiliate in the last few years decide to return this year.”

Debbie Astor, the Executive Director of Temple Israel, added that the change in financing structure has created, “a whole new world of better feelings around money in the synagogue. It has changed the story of what a synagogue expects. It isn’t a board of directors that no one knows, determining that dues are going up x%, it is a completely positive decision each household makes. They are making a choice that can vary from year to year based on personal circumstances. And I have noticed an almost complete absence of any resentment, anger or feeling under the gun.”

One of the beneficial consequences of the new system is that the synagogue no longer has to chase people down who have not fulfilled their pledges. “Because of the voluntary nature of the system,” Astor said, “there is just a miniscule number of people who do not fulfill their financial commitment. It is very different from the way things used to be.” In one fell swoop the synagogue got rid of the time they spent trying to get dues paid, and perhaps even more importantly, they got rid of the abatement system. The old abatement system at Temple Israel, like most synagogues, was intended to help people, but inevitably led to rancor. “People were coming to meetings very defensively and congregants who were on the dues abatement committee did not like having to be the arbiter of people’s financial situation,” said Astor.

Other benefits to the synagogue as a result of the new structure can be seen in yearly write-offs and cash flow. Because congregants almost universally give their pledge amount, and do it on a regular basis, the synagogue only has to write off a few thousand dollars each year as uncollectable, a much smaller number than what was previously written off, which allows for better budget projections. Congregants also pay on a more regular basis so the cash flow for the synagogue is improved, obviating the need to borrow at the end of the year to make up for any shortages.

One of the surprising discoveries of the dues change was the number of people who ended up giving more to the synagogue than they had under the old system. Specifically, the synagogue was surprised to see that a number of families who under the old system had gone through abatement and were asked to pay a minimum amount of $500, under the new voluntary system are committing to a higher amount. Ironically, the synagogue was being more generous than it needed to be under the old system.

The synagogue was also surprised by the number of people who are giving over the sustaining amount. One of the worries of moving to a fair share system is that congregants at the higher end of a fair share system tend to have inflated costs for synagogue membership. If they are not heavy users of the synagogue, there is some incentive for them to leave if they feel overburdened and join another synagogue to pay more typical fees. Temple Israel has had no one at the high end of the financial spectrum leave, and has seen just the opposite. High end users as a group have increased the total amount they have given to the synagogue each of the past three years.

Another effect of the change is on donor recognition. The synagogue publishes a list for those families who give more than the sustaining number. But the synagogue also recognizes anyone who gives more than in the previous year. “All of a sudden,” said Rob Carver, “some people who had been members of the synagogue for years, but never able to give significantly and thus never given recognition, can give an extra bit and we will highlight them, and thank them. People love this opportunity.”

One downside which the synagogue is just beginning to strategize about is that there has been a significant dip in its High Holiday appeal. Some people are committing to a membership amount above the sustaining number, but they consider that additional amount a pure gift and so they don’t contribute to the High Holiday appeal. This is an important development, but the bottom line for the synagogue is that the revenue remains the same, it is just coming in a slightly different form – dues commitment as opposed to High Holiday donation.

Rob Carver suggests that there is nothing really special about Temple Israel that makes it uniquely situated to be able to make this radical change. They don’t have a few big givers who can just make all of their financial troubles go away. They were just responding with some creativity and some boldness to the risk which so many synagogues face.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the voluntary system is that it fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship between members and the synagogue. “I hear complaints all the time from synagogue leaders that people treat synagogues like a fee for service business. But in fact synagogues don’t do anything to counteract this mentality other than complain. We have done something proactive here; we have said that we care about you, that we want you to have a true stake in what we do here.”

Dan Judson teaches at The Hebrew College Rabbinical School and is a doctoral candidate in Jewish history at Brandeis University where he studies the history of synagogues and money. He can be reached at

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  1. says

    Dan, what an interesting area of expertise you have: the study of synagogues and money! Thank you for sharing Temple Israel’s experience with us.

    While the fact that this new approach to dues has begun to reap financial stability for the congregation is wonderful, what I find most commendable is the vision and courage of the community’s lay leadership. Making change in any nonprofit, let alone a synagogue or other membership-based organization, is an enormous challenge. Often, synagogues are stuck in decades of inertia and are way too slow to react to shifting demographics and adapt new ways of doing things. Leaders must be creative, bold and persuasive. Moreover, they cannot be stifled by the fear of failure. Interestingly, you do point out that there were some unanticipated downsides to this decision (the dip in High Holiday appeal dollars) but by examining the numbers, this may not be as big a negative as initially perceived.

    Additionally, what this congregation has succeeded in doing is changing its culture, which will likely have broad, extended positive consequences as members feel better about their community. Happy members are the best ambassadors for getting out positive messages about their synagogue, thus attracting new members who will help to bring in the income that the synagogue needs.

    Hats off for this creative thinking.

  2. Jonathan Levine says

    Mr. Judson left out the most important factor: how was the “sustaining amount” determined? Is it the same for every family? Is there some sort of a sliding scale?
    Obviously, the voluntary giving factor trumps any perceived inequities that may have been involved in determining the sustaining amount, but it nevertheless would be good to know what criteria were used in coming up with that number.
    That said, the approach clearly shows great promise.

  3. Interested shulboardmember says

    This is such an intriguing idea. It turns emphases the synagogue as co-op rather than business. However, it is certainly a risk. Speaking as a board member of a large shul with high dues, I wonder if our board would find it appropriate to take such a risk. Although the results are certainly desireable – if the project went south, we could irreparably harm our congregation. I am not sure it would be prudent for us to take that risk.

  4. says

    I’m so glad that you are getting the message out about changing synagogue funding structures. There already are a number of congregations that have a similar approach. (I know of a Reconstructionist congregation in Bennington, Vermont, that has been doing something like this for years.) Similarly, many congregations are getting rid of tickets for the High Holy Days and only accepting voluntary donations. In both cases, income increases when people are asked to give gifts of the heart instead of mandatory donations.

    The message is clear. In this era, many find it hypocritical to be asked to “pay to pray.” By letting people make their own choices about what their synagogue is worth to them, we encourage them to become “owners” and not “consumers” of Jewish community. That is good for our communities in so many ways, not just financially.

  5. Treefrognc says

    What I find interesting, is that this has been what churches have been doing from the beginning. Maybe it is time to go to our Christian neighbors for some financial help.

  6. says

    I think this model shows incredible promise, especially for young adults (20s/30s) who see cost as an extremely-high barrier to synagogue membership. With few synagogues offering significant program offerings to young people, those without children in particular, there’s no religious/life cycle reason for people to join a congregation. Personally, I’m very involved with the Jewish community in my professional life but I have no synagogue to call my own because the local congregations’ dues structures are beyond prohibitive.

    I know it’s a risk, but I hope more synagogues realize they risk losing more members and not replacing them with the younger generation unless they embrace change and new ways of thinking of belonging.

  7. Maxine Robbins says

    I have been unsuccessful in enrolling my congregational board in engaging in this conversation. Any suggestions about getting others on board to even consider this issue?

  8. shulboardmember says

    Churches do this but their clergy take a vow of poverty reducing expense. They also pass a plate at services and the peer pressure element is huge. We can’t pass a plate at services!

  9. Brisketboy says

    Interested shulboardmember says: “I am not sure it would be prudent for us to take that risk.”

    I would suggest that it will be suicidal NOT to. The concept of “dues” in an opt-in, on-demand, user-defined world is an anachronism that will doom your congregation to oblivion. Consider the cable TV industry which is rapidly heading the way of the buggy whip. Soon people will laugh at anyone who actually paid for 150 stations they never watched in order to get 10 that they did. You can preach “obligation” until you’re hoarse. But your future’s based on what they are buying, not what you’re selling.

  10. Interested shulboardmember says

    Although I don’t love my cable company, I don’t see it going to a voluntary pay system anytime soon. I also don’t see it going away anytime soon. I don’t deny we are in for some rocky seas in the future. I just caution that going to voluntary dues, while a laudable goal on many levels, risks financial collapse and should not be a step taken lightly.

  11. says

    “Rob Carver suggests that there is nothing really special about Temple Israel that makes it uniquely situated to be able to make this radical change…They were just responding with some creativity and some boldness to the risk which so many synagogues face.”

    I would suggest that it was more than creativity and boldness, though. They also needed to have a vision and a goal, understand the lay of the land and the potential risks and benefits of their strategy, communicate their vision, move forward together to implement it, and then evaluate its impacts. It takes leaders who are capable of this kind of strategic thinking and action to make this happen. That is an ongoing challenge and responsibility for many of our boards.

    United Synagogue recently brought Bob Leventhal onto their staff from the Alban Institute, a leading research and consultation organization that works with congregations of all denominations and faith traditions. He has helped United Synagogue expand the Sulam leadership program precisely so that leaders can develop the habit of strategic thinking and action. As a member of the team working on this, I can say that hundreds of our leaders in Conservative congregations have moved this year towards using these resources, with a goal of 5,000 trained through Sulam in the next five years. We hope that we’ll see many more leaders like Temple Israel’s creating models of affiliation and connection that build sacred communities in the future.

  12. Maxine Robbins says

    @ Jonathan Levine – I think Dan did state how they determined the sustaing levels, via determining their expenses and dividing it by the number of members and that is what they need to keep going.
    @interested shulboardmember – If your synagogue is in the black, that’s a great situation and this type of examination could be irrelevant for you. HOWEVER, my experience as a member of the executive committee as well as numerous other lay leadership positions and a brief stint as a professional at a reform shul is that very few leaders are willing to have a serious conversation about how we do things, including but not limited to dues. “A revolutionary power once established becomes reacttonary.” I have often had to take a look at where I was coming from in my reactions to what was going on…it takes a great deal of energy to even have discussions that we need to have, so to initiate new ones, deliberately, while it is the responsibiltiy of the leadership, is daunting. Attempting to be visionary seems almost ridiculous when we are all so busy putting out fires and trying to survive. Unfortunately, my shul seems to always be jumping from one fire to another, for decades, so I figure we have to begin entirely different conversations than the ones we have repeatedly. Cash flow covers a multitude of sins. Fewer resources might require bold initiatives to create….I dunno, just sayin’.

  13. says

    I agree with Brisketboy that it may be suicidal for congregations not to rethink the way they structure dues. However, I would use a different analogy to illustrate the problem with staying with the tried and true dues system.

    It used to be that American synagogues raised a substantial amount of money each year by auctioning off the honor of the aliyot for the High Holy Days and for Simchat Torah. They literally awarded those honors to the highest bidder. Today, nobody does that, and the reason is clear. Any congregation that did that today would be derided as a crass, anachronistic place that cares more about money that Jewish values.

    That is what the American Jewish community may think about set dues in another generation. A majority segment of the American Jewish population may soon find it offensive to put a price tag on participating in Jewish community. (A large segment already do). When that day comes, the congregations that are late in changing their dues policies will seem like dinosaurs and will suffer the same fate as our late Jurassic friends.

  14. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom All,

    Measurably successful non-denominational megachurches, e.g., Willow Creek Community Church in So. Barrington, IL, Saddleback in lake Forest CA., and Northpoint Church in Alpharetta, GA, to name a few, don’t have dues structures and yet are able to raise literally millions of dollars to fund their communities’ visions and missions. And that’s the key here: It’s not about programming; it is about a God and community honoring heart thumping, passion producing, picture of a preferred future i.e., a clear, crisp, concise, and compelling vision statement that is a part of the DNA of their churches’ communities. This is what they have that most Jewish congregations are sorely lacking.


  15. Dan Judson says

    These comments are very illuminating and helpful. I am glad that this piece has inspired so much conversation, i think it is testimony to the hunger for our religious institutions to be taking a different tack around money. I would certainly concur with those of you who said that synagogues cannot afford to be simply stuck with the old model and presume anything new is too risky. I am not sure i would go so far as brisketboy to say that dues are suicidal in our on-demand world, they are still working for many institutions as Maxine points out, but for all of those shuls struggling with finances it makes sense to be thinking in new paradigms. Rabbi Jeff is right on the money when he points out that shuls used to cover some of their revenue by auctioning off Torah honors, and this means fundamentally that synagogue funding can evolve, like so many other aspects of our tradition. [the practice stopped interestingly enough in part because Jewish communities were concerned about how they appeared to their Christian neighbors – but this is another story].
    One of the recurring comments is the issue of whether what Temple Israel is doing is simply the Christian model. Jordan’s comment that large evangelical churches raise millions in this way should point to the feasability of the voluntary model. You may be familiar with a study done last year by a reporter in the Forward, Josh Nathan Kazis which compared the amount of money raised by churches and synagogues in similarly sized congregations, where he discovered that in the end, churches and synagogues raised about the same money and people pledged roughly the same amount – it was just a difference of how it was raised – voluntary pledge or dues:
    Jordan suggests that the reason for the success of this model in churches is the passion and vision of evangelical churches. I would point to something else. Protestant America has spent the past 100+ years developing a concept which they call “stewardship” which provides a theological understanding for people to give to their church. We don’t have that. My sense is that if the voluntaristic notion approach to giving becomes an important paradigm for synagogues it will have to develop its own comparable Jewish language. much more to be said about this topic….

  16. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom Dan,

    You wrote: “Jordan suggests that the reason for the success of this model in churches is the passion and vision of evangelical churches. I would point to something else. Protestant America has spent the past 100+ years developing a concept which they call “stewardship” which provides a theological understanding for people to give to their church.”

    Actually the concept of stewardship predates this as far back as our own “T’nach.” That many Christians believe in and take the teachings of our Hebrew Bible more seriously than the vast majority of non-orthodox Jews, makes a huge difference in the the culture and DNA of their communities.
    They believe that they are commanded, and thus obligated. There is no such belief for most non- Orthodox Jews. For “evolved” non-Orthodox Judaism, the idea of a “theological understanding” is irrelevant to meaningless, thus the idea of commandments has been supplanted by the idea of suggestions and the concept of obligation…well, that’s typically met by a form of the question, “who are you to tell me what to do?” It’s also true that Habad has no dues structures and yet they too are able to raise large sums of money. The similarities here of Habad and measurably successful megachurches are that they both take Jewish teaching seriously. Dan continued:

    “We don’t have that (a concept of stewardship).”

    Yes we do!! And we’ve had it for at least 2500-3000 years. It’s just being ignored. Dan continued:

    “My sense is that if the voluntaristic notion approach to giving becomes an important paradigm for synagogues it will have to develop its own comparable Jewish language. much more to be said about this topic….”

    Below is an abstract from a larger piece of mine about the obligations of synagogue membership
    that is modeled after those found in the mega-churches I mentioned in my previous post. It shows what Jewish teaching about money and the obligations that surround it have been for a very long time.


    Resources- We must all realize the need to be responsible caretakers of the material resources with which we’ve been entrusted. Torah talks about “tithing” as the bedrock of our financial giving to our community. We’re instructed to take care of the poor within our community and in the larger world. Examples of building the mishkan (the sanctuary in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt) and the Temple in Jerusalem teach us of additional financial expectations. In short, our sacred texts teach us to “honor Adonai with our wealth.”

    The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants
    Psalm 24:1

    Every person shall give as he is able according to the blessing that Adonai your God has bestowed upon you.
    Deuteronomy 16:17

    Honor Adonai with your wealth, with the best of all your income
    Proverbs 3:9

    Rabbi Ishmael said, “ One who wishes to acquire wisdom, should study the way that money works, for there is no greater area of Torah study than this. It is like an ever-flowing stream.”
    Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 175b

  17. nancy tanzer says

    Dan, Great article. I have often thought that synagogues would do better using voluntary donations, similar to the way churches are run. I think people would give, and give more, if they were not told what to do, but simply given the option. It is just simple human nature. And this way the synagogue functions less like a “business” and more like a community, as you have so rightly pointed out in your case study. Thanks for giving the synagogues something to think about ….

  18. Pam Bloch says

    Human nature is not to pay unless you feel direct or peer pressure… The churches pass a plate… or give a long sermon literally begging for money. Fortunately the former never happens at a shul and the latter almost never happens (only on HHDs). Turn on the TV and watch the big churches. Most of the sermon ends up aiming at raising money. Is that what you want? I think you can’t use the church model unless you are ready for direct appeals during services. I think the idea is not to think about money when praying.

    Also, those who support the shul will likely start to resent those that don’t. Human nature. Remember, socialism is the fairest form of government. Problem is.. typically human nature makes it fail… Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone just did their part. I think it is a tall order.

  19. says

    1. Regarding human nature and money, there is significant data indicating that people are more generous and philantropic than the cynics would believe. Temple Israel of Sharon Mass. is demonstrating this in real time.
    Regarding comparisons between the way USCJ synagogues structure their finances and the way
    2. Christian churches structure their finances, exclusive of the TV Mega-churches, these congregations face similar challenges to the Jewish congregations, including the board politics. Christian outreach and conversion practices help them to attract more, newer congregants whereas the Jewish faith doesn’t encourage evangelical activitiy. But the similarities regarding how to pay for what they want to do are very similar to non-Orthodox synagogues.
    3. As a people, I am confident that we can create whatever we can envision and imagine. In the face of daily miracles that abound and to which we as a people stand in testimony, we must resist the urge to be cynical and to avoid change. We are required by our beliefs to remain in conversation and be open to possibility.

  20. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom Pam and All,

    Human nature is often self-centered and selfish. A primary function/goal of religious teaching (Judeo-Christian teaching for sure) is to combat this egocentrism and promote (among many other things) altruism and generosity as a better way to live one’s life. But first one must actually seek to evolve from the default of human nature, and then acknowledge that religious insight does offer a successful way to do so.

    Pam wrote: “Turn on the TV and watch the big churches. Most of the sermon ends up aiming at raising money.”

    The megachurches I cited above (Willow Creek, Saddleback and Northpoint) as well as others I could cite, are nothing like the church caricatures found on TV. The challenge is to seek to understand and discern why and how they are the measurably successful religious communities have come to be (not to be confused with the “mainline” Protestant churches which indeed do experience the same difficulties that most synagogues encounter) and be open enough to learn from their experience. As we learn from Pirkei Avot 4:1 “Ben (the son of) Zoma said: Who is wise? (S)He who learns from all people.”


    PS There is no room naming, or naming of any sort for donations given in the three churches I cited. Indeed, Rambam would be proud that they understand the mitzvah of anonymous giving. How different that is from the naming and recognition of donors in most synagogues as well as other Jewish institutions.

  21. Adam Arens says

    Well thought out and well written, as were the comments. From my perspective, this is a must. I relate the stories of Facebook, Yahoo, Google and Craigslist as well as the various “congregations” mentioned. The key is to create fiercely loyal, well served “members”.

    The best way to do this is to remove financial barriers. While this requires a leap, can we all imagine times when the buildings we support are full, when people turn to others and say “their” synagogue with pride. Happy well served congregants beget more congregants.

    One of the only growing areas of Judaism in the US is the one without dues (Chabad). You and your congregants are adults, they understand that there is a financial responsibility that we have as it relates to things we provide. If they are not willingly contributing it says something about our congregations not providing what they are looking for.

    To not make this move as a congregation will surely lead to a time when we can not support the services we provide to our congregants and communities.

    Bravo to Temple Isreal for boldly making a decision to make a stand, in spite of the risk. I know that their change will bring more congregants, and those congregants will speak with pride when they speak of their synagogue.

  22. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom Adam and All,

    Well said Adam! The further removed in time a non Orthodox Jew in America is from their family’s immigrant experience, the less meaningful ethnic/peoplehood definitions of Judaism will be in her/his daily life. All that’s left of Judaism for most who identify as Jews in America is a trivial to nearly meaningless Jewishness, that manifests as lifecycle fixes (b’not/b’nei mitzva births weddings and funerals), the occasional perceived need for a worship service e.g., high holidays (yet another guilt fix for ever fewer Jews). And all of these things are available ala carte or online for a fraction of the cost of synagogue membership. Other aspects of Jewishness that are losing their ability to attract are the Holocaust/anti semitism, Israel, and let’s not forget an occasional trip to the Jewish deli/restaurant. This residual Jewishness will go the way of borscht belt humor and the Catskills. As the older generations pass, nostalgia will have less and less of a pull. It (nostalgia) already holds little or no sway with my two sons, one a Gen X’er and one a Millennial. And the same can be said of their peers.

    People do things for two reasons: because they want to or because they have to. For the vast majority who identify as Jews (probably close to 2 out of 3) who are unaffiliated as well as the majority of the non Orthodox affiliated, Judaism, the synagogue and supporting the State of Israel are not in the “have to (read obligatory)” category and no amount of handwringing or ostrich-like desire to turn the clock back to the good old days (read the 1950?s and 60?s) will change that fact. What’s left is the great opportunity to persuade those Jews to “convert” to the “want to” group.

    In today’s consumerist world, Judaism/the synagogue/Israel must compete in the arena of ideas and leisure time/discretionary income choices. As Adam pointed out above, and as Temple Israel has discovered, people will give of their time, talents and tithes to that which is perceived to have value. Synagogues, Judaism and Israel are perceived by the masses of Jews as having at best marginal value and thus the result is at best marginal commitment. Most non Orthodox Jews see no meaningful value in Judaism or Jewishness.

    An answer is to rediscover a meaningful contemporary, serious non-Orthodox Judaism whose teaching has the power to inspire the kishke level convictions that are the bedrock of the measurable success of the megachurches I cited as well as that of Habad. And to quote Hillel, the rest is commentary. And to paraphrase Hillel, so who wants to go study how to do this?

    Shabbat Shalom/Shavu’a Tov,