Factors that have changed Jewish life in the last decade — such as intermarriage, decreased affiliation with synagogues, and more options to practice Judaism outside of a temple — are forcing synagogues to create strategic plans to stay solvent.
Last month, Marblehead’s Temple Emanu-El became one of 15 traditionally affiliated synagogues nationwide, joining Temple Israel of Sharon and Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester, to scrap its longstanding annual dues policy and institute a voluntary membership pledge.
Instead of receiving a dues bill this summer, congregants of the Reform temple in Marblehead will be sent letters with a suggested sustainable pledge of $1,200 for individuals to $2,000 for families. Temple officials say there is no minimum gift to pay, and all who want to belong will be welcomed.
“I think it just makes it easier for people to feel good about their gift when we don’t tell them what the proper number is. We give them guidance but they have to make their decision,” said Rabbi David Meyer, who has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El for 22 years.
Until now, Temple Emanu-El has had a multitiered annual dues system, in which first-year families pay $180; families aged 30 and under pay $325; families headed by adults 35 to 69 pay $2,045; and singles 25 to 69 pay $1,700. High-holiday seats are included in the dues.
The decision comes six years after Sharon’s Temple Israel and Gloucester’s Temple Ahavat Achim — both part of the Conservative movement —
“It worked,” said Robert Carver, a former president of Temple Israel in Sharon, who helped institute the change at the height of the recession.
He said the idea emerged after several meetings with congregants. “It was a leap of faith, but people paid what they said they would pay.”
Carver, like temple leaders in Marblehead and Gloucester, said the change in Jewish culture contributed to the shift from putting a price on praying.
“At some point you price too many people out of the market, and higher prices lead to lower total revenue,” he said.
Carver said people give what they can afford to donate, and no longer have to go through an abatement process to receive a dues discount.
Also since the change, Carver said, the Sharon temple’s membership has stabilized and now has 620 households. In recent years, the temple also has raised $3 million for its endowment fund.
According to Temple Israel, the suggested sustaining annual commitment membership is $3,000 for two-adult households and $2,175 for one-adult households. High-holiday seats are also included in the membership.
Rabbi Dan Judson of Hebrew College in Newton said he believes the shift toward voluntary giving will continue as congregations struggle to find ways to stay open. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center Study, just 31 percent of American Jews belonged to a synagogue, down from 46 percent in 2001, as reported in the National Jewish Population Survey.
“In the contemporary milieu, people don’t want to feel like they’re being obligated to pay for their synagogue the same way they pay dues to a health club,” said Judson.
“They want to feel like they are giving freely and of their heart to a community that means something to them.”
Judson, who has studied the move toward voluntary giving, said each synagogue that has shifted away from the traditional dues model has been able to meet its budget needs.
“It actually creates more revenue than previously, precisely because people feel better about the financial system of their religious community,” he said.
Marilyn Schlein-Kramer, president of Gloucester’s Temple Ahavat Achim, said her congregation moved toward a voluntary membership payment seven years ago to respond to a changing congregation.
She said many intermarried couples did not understand the concept of dues, which is not a widespread practice in Christian churches. She said when people give freely, a congregation can grow.
“Over the years we’ve collected more and we’ve seen people’s contributions go up. It’s been a great way to build community,” she said.
At the Gloucester temple, suggested membership payments for families range from $1,400 to $1,800.
The shift toward voluntary contributions also follows a trend instituted by Chabad, a worldwide Hasidic organization that has established more than 20 branches in Massachusetts in the last 20 years, building synagogues, Hebrew schools, and camps while also serving as an outreach center for Jews. Chabad accepts donations but does not set membership fees.
“Judaism belongs to all of us and is not merchandise,” said Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, who directs Chabad of the North Shore in Swampscott. “Judaism is the birthright of every single Jew and it’s not something that can be purchased. And that philosophy has created a warmth and a desire for everybody to participate. There’s not one person from all of the families that come here that doesn’t participate in some way — whether it’s by gifts or volunteering.”
Temple Emanu-El president Brad York said the shift away from mandatory dues sets a more inclusive tone to members.
He said about 450 families belong to the Marblehead temple, down from about 600 just a decade ago.
“You want to put the emphasis on the experience rather than the dues,” he said. “I think this lifts a psychological barrier.”
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