Abraham’s Tent: How a Voluntary Contribution Model Creates a More Open Synagogue

duesBy Charles Cohen

Last week I had the chance to hear leadership from Temple Beth Am, in Jupiter, Florida, and from Temple Beit HaYam, in Stuart, Florida, share their experiences about switching to a “voluntary contribution” membership model. In this dues structure families and individuals are informed about the membership donation amount that would cover expenses, but are invited to simply pay what they feel they can afford, or what they want to contribute. The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County’s Synagogue Institute organized the event so other local congregations had a chance to learn about how this transition was going, and ask any questions they had about the financial implications, the response from donors and the community, and evaluation. Both synagogues used these initiatives to be more open about how much each family had to contribute for the synagogue to be sustainable – a key driver for member satisfaction, according to research compiled by Measuring Success. Temple Beth Am’s Rabbi Alon Lefkowitz was quick to point out that his synagogue was “very early in the process,” but each speaker had a lot of knowledge to share with their colleagues.

Much has been written about the voluntary contribution model in the past couple of years, particularly by Rabbi Dan Judson, from Hebrew College. In his recent Reform Judaism article, “When Jews Choose their Dues,” Judson shares Rabbi Stephen Wise’s belief that “cultivating voluntary gifts reinforces the value of community.”

The question is: Did the conversation last night prove Wise correct? Indeed it did. A few conclusions jumped out at me from the discussion that directly relate to this critical learning.

  • Beit HaYam’s board president spoke about how they have attracted several new young families through the program.
  • Rabbi Lefkowitz said that his synagogue now looks at membership and members in an entirely new way, both more expansive and more strategic.
  • Temple Beth Am’s board chair said that they are seeing more current members proactively bringing their friends to services to introduce them to the synagogue.
  • Both synagogues emphasized that, while it will take some time to truly understand the financial implications for their respective institutions, they each have seen membership increase by around 20%.

These points reflect a more systemic change that only begins with the new financial model. What these professionals and lay leaders are seeing is a whole new culture of welcoming and engagement, fostered by the voluntary contribution program. Now that cost has been removed as a barrier, people feel more comfortable dropping by, and members are more willing to introduce their peers to the synagogue. And while the synagogues still have to engage these new participants and build relationships, they now can reach many more people who might not otherwise have walked in the building.

The experience of these two synagogues is not unique. Rabbi Dan Goldblatt, in writing about his congregation’s experience with voluntary contributions, says that “[i]t involves a conceptual shift in congregational organizational culture from ‘top down’ to ‘bottom up.’” This culture change is critical in a community like ours, with affiliation rates below 20%.

These synagogues are rediscovering what Abraham learned: If you open all of your doors, and welcome everyone, people will show up. But both parts – the open doors and the active welcoming – are essential. You cannot succeed in creating an open community without each component. The fact that these programs are working simply reaffirms what we in the Jewish community already know: There is inherent meaning and value to be found in our institutions, and in our experiences. The more we do to facilitate access to that value, the more people we can engage. The more people we engage, the more open and welcoming our community will be, and the more our ecosystem will thrive.

Charles Cohen is the Executive Director of the Lorraine & Jack N. Friedman Commission for Jewish Education of the Palm Beaches (Friedman CJE). The Friedman CJE works with synagogues and other Jewish organizations to create a warm, welcoming culture for young families, children, teens and adults throughout Palm Beach County.