Connected Congregations: Moving from Courageous Conversations to Courageous Actions

The deeper we delved and the further we peeled back the layers, the more we began to understand that the issues facing synagogues at this time were more complex than financial sustainability – including, critically, the downward trend in congregational affiliation and membership.

by Dr. Beth Cousens and Cantor Adina Frydman

Questions about synagogue dues have been in the Jewish press for several years now. Perhaps this came to light with the start of the economic downturn in 2008, when discretionary dollars began to decrease, discretionary spending began to decrease, and synagogue membership was revealed to be discretionary to many. Perhaps this is because synagogue membership in its current form is counter to the “non-joiner” trend. Rabbi Dan Judson, author of “Scrapping Synagogue Dues” has reminded us that synagogue membership is not from Sinai but, instead, was invented in the 20th century as an answer to a problem; as such, he suggested, it can be reinvented and reinvented again. Something contemporary ought be constructed that can help synagogues thrive and Jews connect in the 21st century.

Within this context, UJA Federation of New York set out to explore a set of intersecting questions related to synagogue membership and dues, which resulted in Connected Congregations: From Dues and Membership to Sustaining Communities of Purpose. The first question we asked was, Why has there been a decrease in the payment of synagogue dues? Knowing the potential that synagogue life can reach, we suspected this question hid others: How can it become more meaningful to be a synagogue member? Has the perceived value of membership changed and, if so, why? The deeper we delved and the further we peeled back the layers, the more we began to understand that the issues facing synagogues at this time were more complex than financial sustainability – including, critically, the downward trend in congregational affiliation and membership. We discerned that this trend was not solely a result of affordability; rather, it revealed changes in attitudes toward membership and belonging, a new prevailing narrative about the lack of relevance of today’s synagogues, and a shift toward a more transactional relationship between a synagogue and its congregants, where the focus is often on dues, program fees, and abatements. We began with the problem of membership attrition and we came to ideas about synagogue purpose, values, and vision.

These ideas about purpose, values, and vision are readily apparent in conversations about dues and membership. In a survey we sent out using social media, non-members and members of Jewish congregations, when questioned about their synagogue practices, each explained that even if they pay synagogue dues, they are, for the most part, not sure why. It costs too much, it supports services that they do not understand, and it seems to be an obligation that they resent. These statements reflect the extent to which Jews are not sure what value or meaning the synagogue holds for them. Some are connected to their synagogue in deep ways, through relationships, sacred involvement, and by offering their talents and creativity, but most have lost this connection.

Moving from dues and membership to sustaining communities of purpose, we developed the connected congregations model, because we believe that while the membership model needs revision, the synagogue itself is as relevant and even imperative to Jewish life and to life itself as it ever has been.

Jewish life has always been focused on such spaces where we are recognized and valued for our gifts, where we give and receive support, and where we go from one to many, moving from individuals to a community, working collaboratively and interdependently to strengthen the world, our families, and our lives. Synagogues can achieve each of these goals, reminding American Jews that they are part of a larger, sacred whole. They can and do bring us joy, connection, responsibility, and support. They deliver us from the mundane to the holy and bring us into the outside world through Jewish tradition, helping us to face and act on the world’s challenges. Ultimately, synagogues act as a mandatory, true, and sacred third space, a place where, in our busy, on-the-go lives, we can stop and connect to other people, our own sense of purpose, and God.

Allison Fine, current president of Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, NY and co-author of The Networked Nonprofit, said as part of this research, “Every complaint I get about Temple, regardless of what the presenting problem is … Everything is about ‘I don’t matter here; I thought I mattered, I thought you cared for me, and you don’t. I am just a faceless, nameless congregant … and the only time you care about me is when I’m late paying my dues.’ ” Our research revealed that when individuals connect with the larger synagogue community, when they have friends in the congregation, when they feel valued, and, ultimately, when the synagogue helps them access life’s meaning in some way, then they invest financially in the community – and, more significantly, they participate actively in the community. They contribute to the congregation, and Judaism engages them.

To revitalize this potential of the synagogue, to connect more individuals to its sense of connectedness and purpose, and align all aspects of the synagogue in service of this, in the report we have identified three models which reflect new realities about synagogues.

  1. The mishkan model
  2. The Jewish journey model
  3. The hybrid model

Our research also revealed aspects of congregational life that contribute to the success of these models:

  • Be transparent about money
  • Create safe conversations about money
  • Practice radical hospitality
  • Be purpose driven
  • Be relational

These success factors are core to a connected congregation.

We find ourselves at a pivotal moment that calls for courageous conversations to be turned to courageous actions. We are recreating the modern synagogue for new times. This involves reinventing current synagogue dues models and even building new means of synagogue revenue. It involves a focus on what individuals need to help them engage in Jewish life and in Jewish community, lowering barriers to synagogue engagement and helping individuals see and be involved in fulfilling the potential of Jewish community.

Alongside the full version of the research discussed here, UJA Federation has published a synagogue discussion guide, meant to help congregants and synagogue leaders explore these issues more deeply. We are only just beginning this work and are all experimenting and learning together, inventing and reinventing together. In the coming year, UJA-Federation will be launching Connected Congregations: An initiative of UJA-Federation with Darim Online, which will involve six congregations in New York, Westchester, and Long Island as they try on different aspects of becoming a Connected Congregation. We will document and share our lessons learned as we support these courageous congregations. Follow them at #connectcongs and learn and experiment alongside. We look forward to hearing from you.