Bet Shalom scraps mandatory dues for free-will model

Most synagogues in North America finance their operations by assessing dues from their members, with an annual notice outlining the required payment.

This year, Tucson’s Congregation Bet Shalom is doing things differently. Instead of mandatory dues, Bet Shalom is adopting a free-will, pay-what-you-like policy.
Administrators at the Conservative congregation are confident that voluntary contributions will meet or exceed the traditional dues model.

“This was a process” initiated by Cantor Avraham Alpert, Bet Shalom President Andy Kunsberg told the AJP. Alpert is the full-time spiritual leader at Bet Shalom. Rabbi David Ebstein, who lives in Israel, joins Bet Shalom for holidays and other special occasions.

The process of changing the dues system began with last year’s High Holiday services. In 2013, says Kunsberg, the synagogue’s budget, as usual, included High Holiday ticket sales. But instead of selling tickets, “The cantor said, ‘Let’s give them away.’” The board agreed.  “Donations were higher than what we would have gotten if we sold tickets,” says Kunsberg. He adds that “it was lovely to see people I’d never seen before.”

Alpert, who has been with Bet Shalom since July 2012, says that from the beginning, “I made it clear to the synagogue that [changing the dues structure] was part of my vision.

“My feeling is very strong that most Jews in this society are not anxious to become a part of a synagogue, and there’s a lot of things that synagogues do that make it even more discouraging,” says the cantor, including having a dues structure “similar to other clubs.”

“My concern is there’s a lot of people falling through the cracks that we’re not reaching,” says Alpert, calling mandatory dues a mikshol — in Hebrew, a “stumbling block” —  to place before people who are hesitant about joining a synagogue, or perhaps not even considering it.

The basic idea now guiding Bet Shalom is that you cannot put a price on spirituality.

Kunsberg wrote in Bet Shalom’s April newsletter that as a retired businessman, he used to believe a synagogue should be run like a business. But after last year’s success with free High Holiday tickets, he began reading articles about synagogues nationwide that have gone to pay-what-you-will dues. In February, he and  Alpert visited the New Shul in Scottsdale, Ariz., founded in 2002 on the free-will model, and met with Rabbi Michael Wasserman, who started the New Shul with his wife, Rabbi Elana Kanter.

Now Kunsberg urges his fellow congregants to “give because you believe in our mission as a spiritual community.”

This doesn’t mean Bet Shalom isn’t actively seeking donations.

“The model we’ve used is to tell each and every member, ‘This is what you donated last year, can you donate the same or donate more?’“ explains Kunsberg. “So far this year, we’re doing OK. It’s coming in.”

Like many synagogues, Bet Shalom previously had several dues levels, taking into account factors such as whether members were single or married.
Bet Shalom always made accommodations for members who could not afford the full dues. In most synagogues, members have to prove financial hardship when seeking a dues reduction, and while Bet Shalom never required proof, says Alpert, “there was this stigma that people thought we were doing that kind of stuff.”

If people can’t afford to give what they contributed in the past, “they’re not going to donate it under any paradigm,” says Alpert. With free-will dues, “nobody has to feel embarrassed. I feel a lot of Jews leave synagogues temporarily when they’re having bad years financially, because they are too proud to reveal that to people — and they shouldn’t have to.”

The new dues structure may also encourage young adults who grew up in the synagogue to affiliate independently, which gives them dignity, says Alpert.
A number of Conservative synagogues have switched to free-will dues, and Kunsberg suggests it may help bring people back to the movement. But it’s also happening in Reform synagogues, he notes.

A cover story in the Spring 2014 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, “When Jews Choose Their Dues,” says that among nine Reform synagogues that moved to a free-will model in the past five years, all experienced either modest financial growth or stayed even.

Chabad has always operated under a similar system, without fixed dues, notes Alpert.

Bet Shalom’s board and membership voted unanimously for the new dues system. Alpert was surprised by the lack of dissent.

“It’s kind of the will of the people. My desire, and I shared this with the people of our synagogue, is that I don’t want this to become [just] a Bet Shalom thing. We’re not just interested in our own synagogue. We care very deeply about the entire Jewish community. I would like to see all the synagogues in this region transition to this, on their terms and at their time,” says Alpert.

There are many unaffiliated Jews in Tucson who might respond to such an approach, says Kunsberg, who notes in Bet Shalom’s newsletter that the congregation has grown from 59 to 105 families since Alpert’s arrival.

“We want people to give from their hearts,” says the cantor, pointing out that free-will dues also place no limit on the upper end. “When you’re putting a price tag on it, you’re really discouraging people when they may have the means to pitch in more because they believe in what we’re doing.”

As a “young and innovative” spiritual leader, Alpert is re-energizing Bet Shalom in many ways, says Kunsberg. The new dues process is “exciting,” he says. “I can’t wait to see the end result.”