Young Jews rebelling against paying dues

January 18, 2013

Traditionally, when an American Jew couldn’t manage to pay his annual synagogue dues, he had to apply for relief. This often meant a shameful conversation with the temple’s financial secretary, a plea for mercy and sometimes even a revealing of personal financial documents. It’s not surprising that many people in such circumstances would rather walk away than submit to judgment.

So in 2010, at Temple Brith Achim in King of Prussia, Pa., the board decided to eliminate dues. “It was the middle of the recession,” says Matt Shapiro, president of the Reform congregation. “People were having significant financial difficulties. We were looking for ways to help families without having to close our doors. We thought: ‘People will pay what they can. If they walk away, we’re not going to get their money. If they’re forced to pay more than they can afford, they’re not going to stay very long.’ ”

The experiment also had a larger purpose. Across the country, young Jews are rebelling against the old, dues-paying model of synagogue membership. Their parents might have written the membership check without a second thought, but these folks don’t part with their money so easily. Not when there are so many other bills to pay. Not when Jewish identity has become as much about what you eat (or don’t eat) and who you marry (or don’t marry) as where you worship – or, in the old vernacular, “belong.”

And there’s a third problem. Young Jews viscerally rebel against the money culture of the American synagogue, where dunning and giving are explicit transactions. Dollars separate not just insiders from outsiders — who gets tickets to High Holy Days services and who doesn’t. Cash donations also sort members into tiers on the basis of who gives the most. In Reform and Conservative Judaism, money talk has become a barrier to the kind of spiritual belonging that young people crave.

“The focus is on power, money and a lot of alienating stances,” says Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a wide-ranging conversation recently. A growing number of Americans of all faiths – 20 percent – are unaffiliated with religious institutions. Only a fraction of American Jews belong to a synagogue. “How do we do better if we don’t love them when they come in?” Jacobs asks.

I hear this all the time among my unaffiliated Jewish friends. Churches don’t charge dues to the tune of an average $2,400 a year. Instead, churches say: “Welcome. Come in. Have a seat. Do you want coffee?” Churches say – and it’s happened to me a dozen times – “How can I pray for you this week?”

Chabad — an Orthodox Jewish group that has had much success with outreach, especially on college campuses — doesn’t make “belonging” a matter of money. “Chabad gets that,” Jacobs says. “You have to get to know someone, ease into being a friend.” A study last year by the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring found that a million American Jews are unaffiliated with synagogues but seek (and often find) a Jewish spiritual experience elsewhere.

Jacobs, who has been the head of the URJ for almost two years, understands that the problem is urgent and that so is encouraging experimentation among his congregations. He was sitting next to Matt Shapiro at a lunch when he heard that the temple had done away with dues. “My eyes bugged out of my head,” he says. “I thought, ‘That’s really interesting.’ ”

Instead of dues, Shapiro says, he divides the synagogue’s budget by the number of families in the congregation and presents them with a number: in this case, $2,500. He’s very transparent, he says: “This is how much it costs to run the synagogue. Give what you can. And make sure you give of your time and your effort as well.” Shapiro has found that annual giving is “not worse, slightly better” than before the change. A handful of other Reform and Conservative synagogues are experimenting with the give-what-you-can model, but most continue to shy away. Shapiro describes his fellow presidents’ reaction this way: “Oh boy, I’m glad that works for you, but I would never try it. Too scary.”

What should be scarier, from the Jewish establishment’s point of view, is the number of people perfectly content to walk away.

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