New financial model breaks barriers to community, engagement and education

In Short

We still want and need community, that will never change. What is changing is the mindset of how we are building community within our synagogues and how we meet members of our community where they are.

Do not separate yourself from the community, (Pirket-Avot 2:4). In my own experience with Judaism, I have noticed that Jewish texts teach us that community is not an option but an obligation, so it makes sense that when I was growing up in the 1980s, Jewish families joined synagogues. It is just what they did. This was how families built community and made lifelong friends. In addition to being a place of prayer, the synagogue is the place to celebrate lifecycle events and simchas, celebrations. The community that formed within the synagogue cared for its members and often took on the role of family, providing a sense of belonging, purpose, connection and security. Today, there is an assumption that people are only willing to join a synagogue when they have a life-cycle event and/or need the services of a spiritual leader, a rabbi and cantor. I believe this assumption is only an assumption. People, today more than ever, are craving meaningful experiences where they are accepted and cared for, they want to feel they belong. We still want and need community, that will never change. What is changing is the mindset of how we are building community within our synagogues and how we meet members of our community where they are. Choosing to join a synagogue, paying dues, like it was in the 1980’s when I was a child, isn’t the answer anymore. I would suggest that we start the process of connection and forming relationships to build community first by creating a sense of belonging, and the financial commitment to the synagogue community follows.

In Genesis 12:1 God speaks for the first time to Abram. “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Like Abram, our journey involves twists and turns, risk taking, creating change and like Abram, we need to leave our comfort zone to continue to grow. “Judaism calls upon us to understand that our individual life journeys are both reflected in and illuminated by the larger journeys of our people (and vice versa), and that our success in life depends as much upon the integrity with which we progress as it does upon reaching our goals.” (JCCs of North America Early Learning Framework, January, 2017).

Over the past 2 years of COVID, many people in our community remained highly engaged in worship, programming and education, even remotely, but that was not the case for all. Conversations around membership dues began to shift to discussions around fee for service, rather than abatements that were need based. While we offer a myriad of programs in addition to worship, the people define who we are as a community. In 2021, we shifted our mindset and culture to encourage engagement, create a feeling of belonging and promote growth and sustainability of the community. To do so, we changed our traditional dues model calling it Community Commitment, using intentional values-based language, putting the emphasis on support of the community. Each year, congregants of the Makom Solel Lakeside community are asked to make a values-based commitment to help financially sustain the community, the people, not the organization. The goal being that this will help to strengthen and grow community, while creating a greater sense and feeling of belonging. This yearly financial commitment to the community covers all that Makom Solel Lakeside offers, including high holy days and religious school, Lev Learning, which serves children from pre-k-12 grades.

Based on national and local trends, traditional dues models can be a barrier to entry and affiliation to a congregation. In the 2017 study and article, Connections, Cultivation and Commitment: New Insights on Voluntary Dues, the authors key findings included: “the positive cultural impact of the change is as important as the financial ramifications,” “congregations report an average 3.6% annual increase in membership,” and “congregations report an average 1.8% annual increase in pledge revenue.”

More relevant to Makom Solel Lakeside, the past dues model no longer reflected our values of transparency and empathy or goal for simplicity. By removing these barriers, we have seen an uprise in affiliation, in specific, younger families. During the first year, the inception of Makom Solel Lakeside’s community commitment model, 84 new member households joined the community in fiscal year 2021-2022 (July 1, 2021-June 30, 2022), with 52 of said households to be families with young children. While other congregations throughout North America and in the Chicago area have variations of voluntary dues model, what sets Makom Solel Lakeside apart is the elimination of separate school fees for Lev Learning. This was intentional as in Judaism we value the idea that it is the responsibility of the community to educate our youngest learners. 

Respecting and honoring families by asking them to make a values-based decision that is right for them, has shown to be successful in breaking barriers to entry, making affiliation affordable, removing judgment and allowing families with young children to become a part of the community, In the fall of 2021, pre-k -2nd grade has doubled in class size, while 3rd grade has tripled in size.  

Yesterday morning, I received the email we all love to get. “Shabbat services this past Friday reconfirmed why we chose Makom to be our community. I felt the love and the peace that filled the room. I looked around and saw people who truly cared about me and my family. It’s a place where I feel I belong…and where my family feels they belong. Max shared with me “I love going to Makom. All my friends are there.”  Eli said, “can we go back every week?” Life is hard…scary….and we’re all striving to find a place where we belong…Makom does that for me…and I hope for all of you.  Thank you for creating this amazing space where we can pray, laugh, cry, eat, love and so much more.” This says it all! 

Holly Krakow is executive director of Makom Solel Lakeside in Highland Park, Ill.