What the Shekel Teaches: Ten Commandments for Synagogue Fundraising

Parshat Pekudei/Shekalim 5771
by Rabbi Mark Greenspan
(With special recognition to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner)

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about fund raising. It is, of course, a necessity of synagogue life. We can’t open the doors of our congregation without the necessary funds to pay the electric and heating bills, to make sure that we have a staff, and to provide the services and programs that people expect from a religious institution. But in these difficult times, finding the funds to make the synagogue work can be, at best, challenging.

For months now, maybe even years, I’ve listened to the board bemoan the problems of balancing the budget. There always seems to be a deficit, and the only thing that they can agree on is what other people should be giving to the synagogue. It’s not just our synagogue; congregational leaders all imagine that somewhere out there, there is a magic bullet that’s going to solve their budgetary woes – some scheme or idea for a program or donor which will help pay off the growing debt. Yet with a shrinking membership and a growing deficit, there is an understandable level of anxiety in most congregations.

But let me add another dimension to this discussion of communal giving. With all the discussions of dollars and cents, we often fail to ask whether there is a ‘Jewish dimension’ to how we give and how congregations raise funds. Synagogues may be a business, in the sense that they have revenues and expenses as well as a detailed budget, but synagogues are more than businesses: they’re religious institutions, founded on fundamental religious values and ideals. How we raise funds and what we do with them once we get them is as important as the bottom line.

The two Torah portions this morning address the issue of fundraising. Pekudei is an accounting of all the funds and materials which Moses collected for the building of the Tabernacle. And Shekalim, after which this Shabbat is named, contains the command for every Israelite over the age of twenty to donate one half shekel to the Tabernacle.

Shabbat Shekalim is the first of four special Sabbaths which precede Passover. It always occurs on the Sabbath before Rosh Hodesh Adar (or in leap years, Adar Bet). Since the month of Nisan marked the beginning of the fiscal year for the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, the community began collecting this annual tax for the maintenance of the daily sacrifices, one month earlier in Adar. Thus, on the Shabbat before Adar, the custom arose of reading about the half shekel tax to remind the people of their obligation.

The half shekel was a poll tax – it was a way of collecting communal funds and counting the members of the community. Every male of drafting age was obligated to pay this tax: he-ashir lo yarbeh v’ha- dal lo yamit, “The rich could not give more nor the poor less.” In this practice, the half shekel emphasized the equality of the entire community and the obligation of every person to maintain the daily sacrifices.

Ever since the time of Moses Jews have been trying to maintain a balanced budget. Whether we like it or not, financial resources are a necessity of religious life. To paraphrase the Torah, “Man does not live by bread alone.” The sages of the Talmud had a saying for this: Im ein kemach ein Torah, literally, “Without dough there is no Jewish life.” But the question remains: how do we do this jewishly and according to the highest standards of the Torah? Is there a right way to give and collect funds? Is there a religious and a righteous way for congregations to meet their fiscal needs? What higher values ought to inform the way we go about raising funds and maintaining a congregation?

Based on the Torah portions this Shabbat, I’d like to suggest that there are some basic values we can learn for congregational fundraising from the Torah. Here are the “Ten Commandments of Synagogue Fundraising.” I’d like you to think of these “commandments” as a work in progress. They’re meant to challenge us and to be just a bit provocative. I hope that they’ll inspire you to think about what we need to do it not only to maintain the bottom line but to preserve the integrity and authenticity of a religious institution.

First Commandment: Thou shalt give! Supporting a congregation is not charity, any more than providing for your household is charity. Charity is what we do for others; we contribute to synagogues because it is important to us to have a religious institution to which we belong and which we can attend. Therefore, synagogue membership, like the half shekel, is an obligation for anyone who values Jewish communal life.

Second Commandment: Synagogue members should support their own congregation. Synagogue leaders are often frantic about finding new sources of revenue. But raising money from outside the synagogue often cheapens the value of the synagogue for the people who belong. Bingo, for instance, helps congregations raise money from the people who least can afford it. I’m not opposed to bingo, in principle – but I am opposed to getting people outside the synagogue to support the institutions that are important to us. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, in his article “The Tent Peg Business: Some Truths about Congregational Life,” writes: “The way a congregation gets its money may be more important than how much it gets. Consider the religious impact, for instance, between congregations getting say, half their operating budgets from (a) bingo, (b) a few wealthy members, or (c) dues. There is a widespread misconception that because the congregation is nonprofit and tax-exempt, it is therefore a charity. Actually, even though the analogy makes us uncomfortable, a congregation is precisely like a country club. And like all such clubs, you get what you pay for.”

Third Commandment: Thou shall collect congregational funds with equity. This may be the most challenging commandment of all. How do we balance the ability to contribute with the basic equality of Jewish life? In ancient times everyone was obligated to pay the half shekel; it didn’t matter whether one was rich or poor. There was a minimum tax everyone had to pay. So what happened if a person couldn’t afford the half shekel? Richer members of the community could not give the tax for him. They could help out by providing him with the half shekel as a loan or a gift; but he had to have the pleasure of giving the tax for himself. As a congregation we need to find a way to make sure everyone can contribute comfortably to the synagogue. That is what members of family do. Congregations need to develop a fair system of taxation for all involved. Ideally the budget of the congregation should be divided among the members and shared with equity among all the members. The problem of course is that this would be beyond the ability of some members to participate. Another way of dealing with “dues” is to come up with a base line system of dues, a proverbial “half shekel” that everyone would have to pay based on the most basic needs of the congregation and then base additional fundraising on programmatic needs of the congregation

Fourth Commandment: You shall meet your obligation; beyond that everything else is discretionary. We find two kinds of giving in the Torah: the obligatory half shekel and terumah which was voluntary gift. When Moses set out to build the Tabernacle he invited the people to contribute to this project. Kol eesh asher yidaven libo, each person whose heart is so moved. This was not an obligation. Congregations, then, need to think in terms of priorities; what are the necessary funds for maintaining the congregation and what should be considered discretionary giving?

Fifth Commandment: Fundraising shall be driven by vision, not by need. Dues should be a tax placed on every person in the congregation – it’s how we keep the synagogue going. Each synagogue finds its own way to spread this tax fairly among the members. Beyond dues however, there is not a synagogue in the world that does not need to do extra fundraising. This is not so much a commandment as it is logic. Congregational leaders go to their members and ask them to pay dues. One presumes that dues will cover the expenses of the congregation. How can we then go back to the same members and ask them to pay more money toward the up keeping of the congregation? For fundraising to work, then, it must be driven by something more than bottom line. Members need to feel that there is vision and purpose in giving beyond basic necessities. They should ask: what am I giving for? How will this extra money in some way make this a better congregation and a better world? A corollary of this is that gimmicks will not raise funds for a congregation. After collecting dues there is the hard work of going to members and convincing them to support activities, programs and goals that the dues cannot bear.

Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not demand recognition. No one who contributed to the building of the Tabernacle received public recognition. There were no plaques in the Tabernacle or in the Temple. In fact, at the risk of offending people, I would argue that plagues are detrimental to the wellbeing of the congregation. In his article, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes: “If people selfishly seek their own Jewish growth (in synagogue) and do what they do because they want to, then there is no longer any need for the ritualized public displays of gratitude which threaten to suffocate virtually every arena of congregational life. Such obeisance at services and banquets, in print and on the walls, invariably degenerates into a system in which people give gifts of time, money, and skill to the congregation not for the joy of giving but for the communal recognition. If everyone is thanked, the only noteworthy events are the invariable omissions.

Seventh Commandment: There shall be no strings attached to the funds that are donated. Synagogue leaders need to think carefully about the gifts they receive. The synagogue belongs to all of us, not just to the person who gives the largest gift. That means, that there should not be any conditions or demands attached to the gifts we receive. People have a right to ask that their financial resources be used in a particular area of synagogue life; they have no right to have personal conditions placed on their giving.

Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt contribute honestly. The money which comes to a synagogue must meet the highest ethical and legal standards. Buying scrip, for instance, doesn’t mean that the entire amount can be taken as a tax write-off because the check was addressed to the synagogue. We, of course, don’t have control over what people choose to do once they contribute to the synagogue. But I would argue that we must not be enablers either. We need to remind people that the check they wrote to the synagogue may or may not be tax deductible.

Ninth Commandment: Synagogues Boards shall conduct financial matters with transparency. Because they are dealing in public funds, a board has an obligation to make sure its dealings are not only honest but open to the community. Moses may have been the overseer of the Tabernacle but he still had an obligation to give a full accounting of every resource he received for this project.

Tenth Commandment: Volunteering is as important as giving but it doesn’t pay the bills! Finally, we need to acknowledge that not everyone can afford to give as much as they would like. We need to honor those who give other resources: time, talent, and skills. Remember that the only people who are acknowledged by names in the building of the Tabernacle are Betzalel and Ohaliab, the two master craftsmen. Rabbi Kushner has something to say about the quality of our volunteering. The issue here is giving time for meaningful activities. He writes: “In order to maintain their congregations, Jews must do many other things which are not inherently Jewish. These secondary acts include building, raising money, and perhaps forming a board of directors. Congregations, unfortunately, often get so caught up in doing secondary acts that they actually begin to think that the building, raising money, or the board of directors is the reason for the existence of the congregation. Their members are busy at work, but because they have forgotten why they are at work, their efforts are hollow and come to naught.”

Last but not least, we need to remember that giving is a religious act. How we give and why we give is as important as what we give. In speaking of the half shekel, the Torah says: “When you take a census of the Israelites, shall give (v’natnu) to the Lord. The word, ‘give,’ v’natnu is a palindrome – it’s a word that is spelled the same way forward and backwards. From this word we learn that when we give with holiness, we gain as much as we give. I would add that we need to look, not only at where the money is going but where it is coming from, as well.

Giving is a necessity of congregational life, but we must beware that our giving doesn’t demean the very purpose of our existence. We may be a business but we are in the business of creating Jewish souls and building a holy community for ourselves and for others. Congregational giving must reflect the loftiness of our mission.

Shabbat Shalom.

This sermon was inspired by three things: my observations and experiences in my congregation, some thoughts on the parashah, and by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s article, “The Tent Peg Business: Some Truths About Congregational Life.” I first became aware of the article when it was published in 1988 and have returned to it many times. It can be found online here. It can also be found in Rabbi Kushner’s newest book: I’m God, You’re Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego. I have quoted freely from it in the sermon. This is also a first step at developing these ideas more fully.
Rabbi Mark Greenspan

Rabbi Mark Greenspan is the Rabbi of Oceanside Jewish Center, Oceanside, New York.