In the early 20th century, there was a good deal of discussion about synagogue finances and what system should be used as the ideal way to fund a synagogue. A number of rabbis argued passionately to discontinue the system whereby members purchased seats, the better seats being bought by wealthier members.
Rabbi Leo Franklin, a leading Reform rabbi at Detroit’s Temple Beth El, argued, “In God’s house all must be equal; there must be no aristocracy and no snobocracy.” Franklin wanted to introduce what today would be called a “sliding scale” dues system, with each member paying a percentage of their income. But Rabbi Stephen Wise argued that we needed to get rid of all obligatory modes of payment for membership — giving should be completely voluntarily. In 1905, he founded the Free Synagogue in New York City on the premise that giving according to one’s heart, without any obligation, was the ideal system and was emblematic of the spiritual freedom that Wise intended his synagogue to foster.
It took 100-plus years, but it seems that Wise’s ideas, embodied in our biblical verse, have finally come to fruition. At last count, over 70 synagogues are now using a free synagogue model, where members inform the synagogue what they can afford. A recent survey of all the synagogues that have switched to a voluntary dues system showed that the vast majority of those synagogues had more revenue after they switched than before.* Top among the reasons for this finding is that this system attracts and retains members because it alleviates conversations associating money with membership. If congregations focus on engagement, financial transparency, and providing meaningful community, removing dues actually makes for more members and more resources.
As the executive director of Congregation Emanu-El, a 2,200-member synagogue in San Francisco, I hear my share of negative comments about mandatory dues. Funding a synagogue like a gym feels so tawdry! Why can’t people just give from the “heart”? Emanu-El experimented with voluntary dues in the early 2000s. While membership rose 20 percent in less than four years, income from dues rose less than 15 percent. Members neglected to adjust their dues rates for inflation, and new members, whose initial dues were set at a reduced premium, also failed to make appropriate increases. After several attempts to increase voluntary dues — reminding the community of the true cost of membership — in 2009, we decided to reintroduce mandatory dues. And, even though we were in a recession, membership stabilized after an initial drop, and revenue from dues rose by 20 percent in the first four years.
We do not conclude, from this experiment, that voluntary dues cannot support a synagogue. The failing was partially ours; we did not sufficiently inspire our members’ hearts. We learned that remaining financially viable with a system of voluntary dues would have required constant efforts to raise funds or implementing other sorts of fees that would have felt equally tawdry. My reflection is not a defense of mandatory dues. But we recognized that this was the system that worked as we navigated the thorny questions of synagogue sustainability. Finding another self-sustaining model that wins enough hearts will take much effort and creativity.
To some degree, I agree with Rabbi Dan Judson about the voluntary contribution model for synagogue giving, which is the model the synagogue that I serve recently adopted. Within our new model, however, everyone is expected to give some monetary amount, no matter how small. That expectation is also reflected in our texts. For example, though Exodus 35:5 invites voluntary contributions for building the Mishkan (desert sanctuary), there are also many obligatory expectations to contribute to the ongoing sustainability of the Mishkan — the half-shekel tax (Exodus 30:13), tithing a percentage of one’s earnings (Leviticus 27, Deuteronomy 18, Numbers 18 — variations abound!), and bringing one’s first fruits to the Temple (Deuteronomy 26). While a one- time project might excite us enough to give all that is needed, the maintenance of our institutions will require ongoing giving that may not correspond to how moved we are by day-to-day operational needs.
There is a difference between the Jewish notion of tzedakah , whose root in tzedek suggests that justice demands that we give, and the Latin-derived word “charity,” whose root in “caring” suggests that giving be motivated by our hearts. Like Rabbi Judson, I suggest we encourage voluntary giving while also engaging in robust — and perhaps difficult — conversations about how we sustain our institutions through embracing the concept of obligation.