From Purchase to Partnership: Removing the Price-Tag from Synagogue Membership

by Michael Wasserman

In the American synagogue, dissatisfaction with the standard dues-for-membership financial model is growing more widespread. Dan Judson (“Scrapping Synagogue Dues: A Case Study,” eJewishPhilanthropy, Jan. 12, 2012) has written about one synagogue in the Boston area that eliminated membership dues. More recently, Beth Cousens and Adina Frydman (“Connected Congregations: Moving from Courageous Conversations to Courageous Actions,” eJewishPhilanthropy, June 10, 2013) have written about the New York Federation’s efforts to help local synagogues develop alternatives to the dues-for-membership model.

As a contribution to that conversation, we offer the example of our synagogue, The New Shul in Scottsdale Arizona. The New Shul is an independent (traditional-egalitarian) synagogue of approximately 150 families, which supports itself entirely on voluntary contributions. My wife Elana Kanter and I, both of us Conservative rabbis, founded The New Shul in 2002, and have co-led it for the past eleven years. Our goal in founding the shul was to create a deeper, more authentic sense of community than we had experienced in mainstream synagogues, in part by re-defining the meaning of money in the member-synagogue relationship.

It has become the norm in American synagogues to take the dues-for-membership model literally, to think of membership as something that one buys, much like a health-club membership. When paying dues, congregants ask themselves what they are getting for their money, and synagogues try to make their services and programs worth the price. The implicit paradigm – and sometimes the explicit one – is the consumer market.

But the consumer model, even at its best, is incompatible with true spiritual community. To conceptualize the synagogue as vendor and the congregant as customer erodes the sense of shared responsibility on which all true community depends. Consumerism is a very poor foundation on which to build a sense of meaning.

Our intention in founding The New Shul was to use structural change to generate a different kind of synagogue culture, in which members would see themselves not as customers but as partners in the work of community building. One of the shul’s founding principles was that membership would not be for sale. We would break with the consumer model by removing the price tag from membership.

How does voluntary giving work in practice? Every August, the shul sends a letter to all those who have defined themselves as members. The letter outlines the shul’s financial position, explains how much money the shul will need to operate for the coming year, and asks everyone to do their part. Each family responds by pledging an amount of their own choosing. Attendance on the holidays, for those who have not defined themselves as members, is similarly based on voluntary contributions. There are no tickets, only a request on the shul’s website that those who are not members send a contribution.

Giving, both by members and non-members, is broad-based and supports an operating budget of approximately $250,000 per year. That includes debt service on a building that the congregation purchased in 2007.

The effect of The New Shul’s financial structure is a profound shift in psychology. Its members do not see themselves as buying anything. They do not ask what they are getting for their money, because no one ever told them what to give. The spiritual consumerism that takes such a toll on mainstream synagogues is absent. As a result, the path is clear to build a deeper sense of community based on shared responsibility. As one member put it, “there is no ‘they’ here, only ‘us.’
Criticism of the dues-for-membership model tends to focus on the issue of affordability.

Frequently, the challenge is defined as bringing down the cost of membership. But there is a more fundamental critique: that selling membership regardless of the price degrades the meaning of belonging. As long as synagogues are willing to define themselves as spiritual vendors – no matter how affordable their wares – they will find it difficult to generate the sense of meaning and belonging that contemporary Jews are seeking. Removing the price-tag from membership is not just a matter of increasing access – though it is that too – but a matter of transforming what we offer access to. By breaking with the consumer model, treating members as true partners rather than as customers, synagogues have the potential to attract and cultivate new energy, creativity, and commitment.

Michael Wasserman, a graduate of Harvard University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, is a founder and co-rabbi of The New Shul in Scottsdale Arizona.