In a few months, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) will be celebrating its centennial celebration. As we plan our “Conversation of the Century,” an open and dynamic forum for sharing and seeding discourse about the future of synagogue-based Judaism, we anticipate that one of the compelling topics of conversation will concern the payment and collection of synagogue dues. Several questions will be addressed: Should synagogue dues be a prerequisite for attendance? Is the membership model of collecting dues sustainable or even desirable? If the current paradigm of dues collection were to be abolished, how would synagogues manage to keep their doors open? Does a voluntary dues payment model work?
This conversation neatly mirrors a wider discussion within the USCJ — and perhaps in movements generally— about the collection of annual dues from member kehillot (communities). On many levels, the questions are the same. Just as individual Jews are called upon to support their synagogues, so, too, synagogues have a responsibility to support the collective. This responsibility is akin to the civic duty to pay taxes to local and federal governments. And our tradition is clear about the obligation incumbent upon individuals to pay taxes according to their means.
Yet one of the features of contemporary life is that a religious movement must provide sufficient “bang for the buck” for its member synagogues in order to earn their support and loyalty. Kehillot that don’t experience the value of membership will not continue to pay dues. The value can be something tangible, such as services, or something difficult to define, such as a feeling of belonging or kinship.
After so many decades of functionality, the membership model that synagogues and Jewish institutions have relied upon to collect a large portion of their revenue from individuals and families has suddenly been rendered creaky, if not outright broken. While this issue is not pressing for all communities (for any number of reasons, such as an affluent membership or an innovative management), the problem is timely and transcends denomination; indeed, it afflicts the institutions of our sister religions as well.
In a recent essay in ejewishphilanthropy.com, Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC), detailed how the decision to close the Reconstructionist Jewish Federation was based on the acknowledgement that “Jewish organizations that let people choose how to participate and that leverage their members’ diversity for creative results will be the leaders in this environment.”
Consolidating the branches of the movement under the roof of the RRC arose from the decision to “shape a denominational structure on the same principle.”
Our colleagues in the Reconstructionist world are surely responding to the Zeitgeist. Making such a dramatic change is more difficult, however, when dealing with an organization as large as the USCJ, and with longer historical identities and relationships among the organizations that make up Conservative Judaism.
Still, we would be fooling ourselves if we were to deny the fact that affiliation has taken a hit. Attitudes toward membership have shifted radically as we’ve become integrated into secular society and become secure in our American rootedness. For generations, people viewed synagogue sponsorship as an obligation that was part of their identity. From the 1920s through the 1960s, the American synagogue was the focal point of the religious and social life of the Jewish community.
But clannishness is out. “Inclusivity,” “fusion,” and “mashups”(hybrid Web applications that combine two or more sources) are the buzzwords of the day. In this new social landscape, the function of the 21st-century synagogue is as a repository of meaning and purpose, a place where life is elevated from the mundane to the sacred. What will inspire people to attend and support their synagogue now is an organic feeling of connection and loyalty for the institution that has infused their lives with purpose and meaning.
And just as synagogues must adjust, so must centralized denominational institutions like the USCJ. Tapping into the Zeitgeist, the USCJ has been trying to imagine a different revenue model, one that gradually reduces its dependency on member dues from 49 percent to about 41 percent or 43 percent. At the same time, we’ll increase our philanthropic investment to about 17 percent or 20 percent of the budget, and look to book and media services, direct mail programs, and other program fees for additional revenue. Our leadership has endorsed our intention— articulated in our strategic plan (available on uscj.org) — to reduce our dependency on dues.
In many ways, the evolution of institutional dues as taxes is already occurring. Many communities that feel they cannot afford to pay have become disaffiliated. But, more significant, those that are struggling but that want to remain affiliated are receiving assistance. Some of the most innovative of our programs have been supported by our microgrants, which focus on nurturing Jews, learning Torah, and building community. Labels are not important; we are taking a long view into the future.
As Ehrenkrantz’s essay demonstrates, colleagues at organizations that serve as an “umbrella” are all challenged in the same way. It is bracing to hear their stories.
One of the challenges today is to provide choice and flexibility as we strive to be the epicenter of purpose, meaning, and communal ingathering — to balance independence and affiliation, and to recognize the fiscal responsibilities at both ends. As we look toward our second century, we see ourselves in spirited conversation and relationship with our kehillot, jointly committed to revitalizing synagogue-based Judaism for the 21st century.