What We Talk About When We Talk About Voluntary Dues

People respond generously to the voluntary model because it implicitly redefines what membership is.

By Michael Wasserman

An increasing number of American synagogues are replacing conventional dues with voluntary dues – that is free-will giving. As of last winter, roughly 30 synagogues had taken that step, and many more are considering it.[1] In most cases, they have done so because of growing resistance to the conventional dues model.

Skeptics often fear that changing to a voluntary system will give license to free-riders, that people will not support a synagogue if they can get its benefits for free. For the most part, that fear has proven to be unwarranted. In their important study, “New Membership and Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue,” Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Rabbi Avi Olitzky report that “the total … collected through a voluntary system is generally consistent with what was collected prior to the policy change. It may even grow, as has been the case in some synagogues…”[2]

Why do people respond so generously to the voluntary model, while conventional dues creates resistance? Rabbis Kerry and Avi Olitzky propose a theory: “Today an increasing number of people don’t want to feel obligated to give to the synagogue. They generally want the opportunity to give freely, from the heart, and not out of a sense of duty.”[3]

In other words, obligation is the problem. As long as people feel that they are benefiting from the synagogue, most will willingly support it as a gesture of appreciation. But if we try to obligate them, they will resist.

That theory leads to a practical prescription. Since obligation is the problem, synagogues should eliminate it from their discourse. They should motivate their members to give voluntarily by making them aware of what the institution offers. “We have to move the conversation away from obligation and toward benefit.”[4] To motivate support, “synagogues must make explicit to members the personal benefits of their offerings.”[5]

But is the theory correct? Is the lesson to be learned from the resistance to conventional dues and the generous response to the voluntary model that people resent obligation, and that, therefore, we should speak less of it?

If the theory is correct, then we should be able to generalize it. It should be consistent with what we observe elsewhere.

But in other areas of life, we do not see that at all. In the consumer marketplace, people do not resist the idea that they are required to pay. Obligation per se is not the problem. If there is a sticking point, it is what they have to pay, not that they have to pay. That is the opposite of what the theory tells us the problem is in synagogues.

In the philanthropic world, we do not see that obligation is a problem either. To the contrary, it is the engine that makes the system work. Donors are required to reciprocate with contributions for the honors that they receive. They feel a social obligation to support each other’s causes. Eliminating obligation would shut the system down.

So why should we conclude that obligation is the problem in synagogues if that is not the case elsewhere? I believe that we need a different theory of why people resist conventional dues and yet respond generously to the voluntary model, a theory that is more consistent with what we know about the rest of the world.

Here is a theory that, I believe, stands up better: The reason why people resist conventional dues is not that it is premised on obligation but that it trivializes obligation. And the reason why people respond generously to the voluntary model is not that it eliminates obligation but that it deepens obligation.

Putting a price tag on membership cheapens it in that it reduces membership to a purchase and members to buyers. It defines belonging as a market transaction. By that logic, members have no obligation except to pay the bill. They are consumers of a product, not partners in the work of building community. People resist that model – they complain of having to “pay to pray” – because, if belonging can be bought, then belonging is not serious enough to justify the cost. If membership is no more than a purchase, then it is not worth the price.

On the other hand, people respond generously to the voluntary model because it implicitly redefines what membership is. If membership has no price tag, then it cannot be a purchase. It must be something else: a commitment to help build community. By removing the trivial obligation that comes with being a buyer, the voluntary model opens the door to a deeper kind of obligation, the obligation that comes with being a true partner. People respond favorably to the voluntary model not because it relieves them of obligation, but because it challenges them to take on a greater sense of obligation.

This theory also leads to a practical prescription, but it is the opposite one. Instead of moving the discussion away from obligation toward personal benefit, we should re-emphasize obligation in a new, more serious way. We should say out loud what people already know at an unspoken level: that there is no meaning without obligation. To experience meaning is, by definition, to feel that something larger than us has a claim on us, that we are not in this world for our benefit alone. To the extent that synagogues offer meaning, it is by responding to the deepest human need of all: the need to be needed. Instead of eliminating obligation from our discourse, we ought to call for a more substantive, more meaningful sense of obligation.

The virtue of the voluntary model is that, implicitly, it does that. But we need to match words to the music, to make the implicit explicit. To speak of voluntary dues in the language of individual entitlement, as a release from obligation, is to undermine the power of the model. It is to re-enforce the same consumer mindset that makes conventional dues so problematic. Instead we should frame the voluntary model in a richer discourse that explains why it brings out the best in us. We should use it as an opportunity to speak the language of mitzvah in a new, more powerful way.

Michael Wasserman is co-rabbi of The New Shul in Scottsdale Arizona.

[1] Michael Paulson, “The ‘Pay What You Want’ Experiment at Synagogues,” The New York Times, Feb. 2, 2015.
[2] Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Rabbi Avi Olitzky, New Membership and Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue, Jewish Lights 2015, pp. 16-17
[3] Ibid. page 2
[4] Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, as quoted by Robert Evans and Bryan Schwartzman in “Alternative Dues Models and the Larger Paradigm Shift in Synagogue Life,” eJewishPhilanthropy, June 28, 2015
[5] New Membership and Financial Alternatives…, p. 30