What Does the Torah Say About Paying Dues?

By Barry Mael

For several years now synagogue dues and membership models have been the focus of spirited discussion in the Jewish world. The question about dues speaks to the heart of the post-World War II North American Jewish model, since the system has become so ingrained in our collective psyche. Jewish leaders have been discussing the pros and cons of alternative models at conferences, on blogs and in the Jewish press. Some congregations have reported astounding success after switching to alternative membership models, while others have continued to struggle with finances and membership numbers.

The spotlight on the issue grew much brighter recently when The New York Times published the lengthy feature, “The Pay What You Want” Experiment at Synagogues.” The piece offered considerable history, context and anecdotes, sharing an internal Jewish debate with a wide audience.

We will be looking at the topics of financial sustainability, dues models and revenue sources at November’s USCJ Convention 2015 in Schaumburg, Illinois. We plan not only to continue this conversation, but to add to it, deepen it and move the agenda forward. We will also focus on what until this point has been a neglected aspect of the discussion: Just what does Torah – taken in its widest and most expansive meaning – have to teach us about membership, funding and the meaning of community?

Here is a d’var Torah to get our juices flowing for November. And here is a spoiler: These issues are not new. In fact, they are timeless.

The Torah portion of Terumah contains the first call for the “congregation” to hold a capital campaign. In this portion, Moses is told to approach the people for help building the Mishkan, or Tabernacle:

Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for me from every person whose heart so moves him. (Exodus 25:2)

The verses go on to describe all the different kinds of materials that are needed and wanted as gifts, allowing the people to give according to their interests, abilities and strengths. Notably, there was no requirement for everyone to give. One’s affiliation to the community was not based on financial or other material contributions.

This “campaign” took place during the journey through the desert, in order to build the portable Mishkan. The people had left Egypt, experienced the crisis of the golden calf and received the Ten Commandments. The Israelites were becoming connected to the Torah and the concept of being a unified people who served God. The people also had plenty of money and materials which they had removed from Egypt. The population was inspired and primed for this voluntary giving opportunity and they certainly gave freely.

They gave and gave – in fact, to the point where the builders and craftsmen finally came to Moses and asked him to have the people stop because there was too much material (Exodus 36:3-7)! In addition to giving materials for the bricks and mortar, the Torah also tells us that people who had skills to build or sew or were expert at certain crafts were recruited to make all the utensils, pieces and elements of the Mishkan.

And every wise hearted person among you shall come and make everything that the Lord has commanded (Exodus 35:10).

A wonderful concept is stated here regarding Terumah and the building of the Mishkan. Specifically, whether a person gives his or her discretionary money or their discretionary time as a skilled volunteer, each and every gift is needed and appreciated. We also see that in the case of this “capital campaign,” with respect to building the Mishkan, those who chose not to give at all were in no way excluded from the community.The entire, one-time capital campaign project was voluntary (though, perhaps, encountering God’s awesome power at Mount Sinai convinced many to say yes when Moses came asking).

The Torah makes reference to two other models for community support: the half-shekel and tithing. These were not voluntary models. In the one case, everyone gave a half-shekel as a participant in the census, to literally be counted amongst the people. In the other, the people were required to tithe, which meant the more you had, the more you gave. In this case, in order to be part of the community, one was required to give their mandated share. Supporting the community was expressly stated and understood to be everyone’s responsibility and therefore not voluntary. These funding streams were necessary for maintaining the “operational budget” of the mobile Jewish people.

In the context of our current discussion, what does it mean that the Torah gives us alternative models to fund community? Is it as simple as saying that special campaigns should be voluntary, but community members must support the community on an annual basis? Is it more complicated than that? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Giving of one’s discretionary money or time is both needed and appreciated.
  2. The Torah did not rely on or mandate that voluntary giving is the way to support the community in an ongoing, consistent manner.
  3. It was much more frowned upon and difficult to exclude oneself from the community than it is today.
  4. When people feel inspired and care about a project they will support it with a full hand and a full heart.
  5. Having a mapped-out process and goal in mind will allow you to know when you have truly met your goal. The builders and their head “contractor,” Bezalel, knew when to tell Moes that they had everything they needed and the campaign was done.
  6. Voluntary pledging was used for specific events or projects, but not as the main revenue stream for the support of the community.
  7. Voluntary pledging was not connected in any way to affiliation in the community.
  8. Voluntary pledging seemed to relate to volunteer time and not only financial support.
  9. Consistent annual revenue streams such as the half-shekel and/or tithing still have important roles in helping the community remain sustainable.
  10. There is a significant element of a successful campaign that relies on the communal/relational element of belonging. At the time of building the Mishkan, it was the only game in town.

Now, I don’t believe it is a coincidence that a centerpiece case statement of the Mishkan capital campaign is the famous line: Make for me a Mishkan and I will dwell in them (Exodus 25:8). The famous question is this: Why does it say B’tocham (in them) instead of B’tocho (in it), which would be logical? If we build a house for God to dwell in our midst then the emphasis would be on the actual building, the bricks & mortar. The message being sent here, quite clearly, is that the emphasis needs to be on the people, the community and what is happening in the building, not on the building itself.

If the success of this campaign was based on gifts made only from whoever’s heart was moved, then how do we create a community or environment in our kehillot that will inspire our members to give and volunteer? What will inspire all of their hearts and spirit?

I can’t wait for the discussion in Chicagoland in November. Consult our sources, the media, or wherever you look for ideas and inspirations. Come prepared to learn, to share and to teach.

Barry S. Mael is Director of Kehilla Operations & finance at United Synagogue.