For the leaders of Temple Brith Achim, a 275-family Reform congregation in King of Prussia, scrapping membership dues two years ago in favor of a pay-what-you-wish approach was a bit like stepping off a cliff.
But after overhauling how members fund the entire synagogue operation — in part, by trading the word "dues" for the more altruistic-sounding term "gift" — Brith Achim is apparently still on solid ground.
The congregation operated at a slight loss before the change and is basically in the same fiscal shape today, according to Matt Shapiro, a vice president at Brith Achim.
"We could have ended up with much less money. There was a risk, and many of us were nervous," acknowledged Shapiro. "It was a very scary experiment. But I will tell you that we have collected no less than what we had under the old dues structure."
The step taken by Brith Achim and some other synagogues around the country has prompted a broader rethinking about the decades-old formula of asking members to pay dues to belong.
Particularly since the near economic collapse of 2008 and the years of recession that have followed, many synagogues have struggled with declining membership and keeping up the costs of maintaining buildings. That has led some to consider options that in the past would have seemed too risky or radical, like sharing staff or even building space.
The urgency of the issue was evident last week when nearly 60 people, representing 28 synagogues from across the Delaware Valley, showed up at a meeting organized by the Jewish Learning Venture titled "Towards New Synagogue Business Models."
Rabbi Philip Warmflash, executive director of the Jewish Learning Venture, said his organization is hosting a series of programs on reimagining the synagogue. One in March will focus on the changing profession of the rabbinate and, in May, the organization will hold a symposium on innovation.
The programs at the group's Melrose Park office are necessary, Warmflash said, because the Jewish community is currently "living with the congregations that our grandparents dreamed about."
Everyone, he asserted, is rethinking what membership means. "People are asking more and more, 'What am I getting for my money? I'm paying all this money and I'm only going to the High Holidays.' "
On websites and listservs, at federation events and synagogue conventions, rabbis, lay leaders and administrators across the country are intensely debating the continued viability of what's often referred to as "the model."
The concept is a little hard to define, but generally, it refers to the way synagogues have operated, more or less, since the 1950s. That's when new edifices — large structures that acted as shuls and community centers — sprang up in suburban environs and American Jews joined congregations like never before.
(Whether or not large numbers of these members actually went more than a few times a year or were deeply engaged in a religious community is another question altogether.)
It became common practice to charge annual membership dues based on family size. Membership, in turn, was required to attend High Holiday services or to enroll a child in Hebrew school.
But these days, families no longer have to join a congregation to get their children a Jewish education. Now, parents who might want a Bar or Bat Mitzvah for their child but would rather avoid synagogue membership can send their children to a Chabad-run school or find a tutor online.
Recent research shows that younger Jews rarely feel a sense of obligation to join synagogues, and some of the most Jewishly engaged 20-somethings are forming parallel institutions, such as independent minyanim.
In framing the recent gathering, Warmflash suggested it's a moment of possibilities, but it's imperative that synagogues and Jewish institutions reimagine themselves effectively in response to the tectonic changes occurring in American Jewish life.
Congregations, he said, need to "look at the Jewish community we want to see, and the institutions we want to see, in five or 10 years."
The Melrose Park discussion focused on a number of topics, including the ways synagogues are collaborating to save costs, such as combining Hebrew high schools or sharing youth directors.
But the hot topic was membership dues.
Dues at most synagogues enable the institution to operate, from funding the rabbi's salary to paying the electric or heating bills. For many synagogues, even the dues don't cover costs, requiring additional fundraising.
For years, most congregations have allowed members to pay less than the set dues, but that usually requires a special request and sometimes involves turning over personal financial information.
Nearly all synagogues say they will never turn anyone away because of lack of money.
Warmflash said that, in the context of synagogue economics, what Brith Achim and a few other congregations around the country are trying is indeed radical.
Brith Achim's Shapiro was at last week's meeting to explain just how the congregation's experiment, known as "Gift of the Heart," worked.
The synagogue, rather than asking members to pay a set amount, calculated how much it costs, per household, to run the congregation on an annual basis. The figure came to about $2,400 a year.
Congregants were sent a detailed breakdown of the budget, Shapiro explained, and were asked to pay what they could. If a member could pay more than $2,400, that was considered a bonus, he said, noting that the congregation really needs more large donations. But if they couldn't come up with that figure, it was OK, too.
"I think, this way, we are being very transparent about what it costs to run a community. We want people to believe that it's everybody's responsibility and not a fee for service," Shapiro said. "If you pay $1, you are still a member."
He noted that if gifts fall short of the budget, which they have so far, the synagogue seeks to fundraise the remaining amount through a new annual appeal.
He said that Brith Achim has also instituted a companion program, known as the "Gift of the Hand," meant to boost volunteerism and participation in synagogue life and reinforce the notion that if you can't give much money, you can give your time.
To augment the new mindset, the synagogue has also eliminated High Holiday tickets; non-members interested in attending need only to meet with the rabbi for half an hour and listen to his pitch about synagogue life. Brith Achim has also phased out committees in favor of what they now call "service teams."
"It's way too early to claim success," Shapiro said. "It is certainly nice to know we are trying new things and not just sitting back and hoping old things will work."
When he finished speaking at the Melrose Park meeting, the questions started flying.
Are religious school fees separate? They are. Has "Gift of the Hand" increased volunteerism? Not yet. So there's really no dues categories based on age or family size? No.
Rabbi Eric Lazar, Brith Achim's religious leader, couldn't make the meeting, but said in an interview the next day that the real question is whether the changes will, over the long run, increase the level of participation in synagogue life.
"The real product that any synagogue wants to offer anyone is something that can never be tallied on a ledger sheet. It's experience, it's an enriched life, it's a sense of community, it's a relationship with God," he said.
Catherine Fischer, director of membership at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City, said the Jewish Learning Venture event was important, but the next step should include those who compete against traditional synagogues, such as Chabad rabbis, and leaders of organizations serving the younger population, like Moishe House and Tribe 12.
She noted that although the path taken by Brith Achim might not be for every synagogue, "people are really looking at this whole model of dues and synagogues, and it is something we all need to consider."
Jonathan Broder, co-president of Tiferes B'nai Israel in Warrington, an 80-family congregation that no longer affiliates with the Reconstructionist movement — in part because it couldn't afford the dues — said his congregation is looking closely at the Brith Achim example.
"Most young people really can't handle the dues," he said. "We've got to come up with something new because this isn't working right now."