The 75 Percent

October 2, 2012
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Ari Y. Kelman

Here’s just one example of how strange synagogue culture is: Synagogue members pay dues. On any given weekend, approximately 25 percent of those members avail themselves of some services: worship, study, volunteering, school. Rabbis and communal professionals regularly bemoan this fact, searching for the other 75 percent who pay but don’t play. But here’s the weird thing: Synagogues need that 75 percent not to show up. If they did, the synagogue could not provide for them. Imagine if the crowd at the average Shabbat service looked like that of the High Holidays.

Here is my point: Synagogue and movement leaders talk about membership, community, commitment, and ‘sacred purpose,’ but the congregational business model relies on people who pay their dues but show up only once or twice a year.

Mormons tithe. Protestants and Catholics, for the most part, do not, making their offerings instead by “passing the plate” or now, via credit-card-accepting kiosks.1 Jews paying dues have long been the convention at American synagogues. But such an arrangement, which predicates membership on a financial agreement, seems to place synagogues on a par with country clubs or gyms or fraternities — places that survive on the logic that everyone pays the same amount, no matter how heavy their usage is.

This relationship — between the ways in which synagogues talk about community and the way they structure membership — represents a contradiction at the heart of Jewish communal life in the United States today. The issue is not dues assistance or abatements.  It’s not about tying dues to a percentage of income; nor is it about making synagogues “free.”2 The issue reflects a fundamental tension between synagogues as open conveners of community gatherings and congregations as organizations with financial demands and limited resources.

The tension cannot be resolved. It is fundamental to American synagogues at this moment in history. And it’s problematic that so few congregations are trying to address how best to live with this tension.

One way that organizations have begun experimenting with the dues-for-membership model has been to adjust how they frame the dues they solicit. For example, Temple Israel of Sharon in Sharon, Mass. recently experimented with its dues model, shifting it from a set structure to a voluntary one based on each family’s share of the overall synagogue budget. An article that reported on the experiment identified some successes — both in the larger amounts that people gave and how they felt about giving more.3 But when it comes to evaluating religious giving, there is no available data on whether voluntary or mandatory giving generates more investment, be it emotional or financial.

Another model of experimentation adapts the “voluntary” model to an a la carte menu of opportunities for engagement.  San Francisco’s new Jewish group “The Kitchen” offers five different options for monthly membership with different prices keyed to different levels of need and interest.4 Just visiting San Francisco? Showing up to its regular worship services is always free and anyone can buy tickets to its catered community dinner at any time, but members receive personalized consultations with the Kitchen staff, priority registration for events, and other benefits.  You can also pay your membership dues by the month.  This is a different model — not quite “pay what you want,” but rather “pay for what you want.”

These two experiments attempt to reconfigure the relationship between “member” and “institution.” They alter the dynamics around what people pay in an attempt to influence how people feel about what they pay. Both models also attempt to be transparent in their fee structures but they express that value quite differently: Temple Israel collectivizes costs while the Kitchen individualizes them.

While these experiments with membership models are welcome, they are relatively narrow. Both use the dues-for-membership model with small adjustments to how and what people pay, and both work according to an essentially transactional framework, creatively adjusting their dues structures in an attempt to recalibrate the notion of communal membership but not fundamentally change it.

But maybe we need to reconsider these reconsiderations. Maybe the dues-based model isn’t broken. Maybe the 75 percent of those who pay dues but only show up on the High Holidays like it that way. Maybe that’s all they want and they are willing to pay for it.  If this is the case, and minimal participation at full fare is what most synagogue members want, then the problem cannot be traced to the dues.  Maintaining the status quo might well serve the majority of synagogue members, which is fine, but then synagogues should come clean about whom and how they serve, and how that service is monetized.

This approach — one that most synagogues are currently pursuing without any intention — is less radical than its counterpart, but it provokes a much more penetrating question: If the central institutional model of American Jewish life encourages, privileges, and even relies on payment but not participation, what does that say about our communities?

1“Tithing, Dues, Pledges and Your House of Worship,” Ron Lieber, New York Times, August 10, 2012

2As David Bryfman has convincingly argued, “free” has a cost.

3 “Scrapping Synagogue Dues: A Case Study,” Dan Judson,
January 12, 2012

4 See “joining” on

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Ari Y. Kelman is the Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. His research focuses on the intersection of education, religon, and popular culture.

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