Our Financial Model: "Voluntary Commitment"
“And Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to the Israelites that they may take for me a contribution; from everyone whose heart so moves him, take my contribution … and let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:1-2,8)
Shir Hadash has adopted a new financial model called "voluntary commitment." The decision was the culmination of three years of research and debate by the synagogue's Membership Committee about how to make membership more affordable and accessible.
"Voluntary commitment is a wonderful way for each member household to contribute to and support the synagogue and be as generous as possible," says Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow, founding Rabbi of Shir Hadash. "Each gift, regardless of the amount, is welcomed with tremendous appreciation and gratitude and makes the Shir Hadash community stronger."
In recent years, at least 60 U.S. synagogues have adopted a voluntary commitment model. This model is not simply a financial model, but a reflection of the values of community and transparency. Since the start of the recession in the late 2000s, membership and revenue in non-Orthodox synagogues has steadily declined. In addition to the economic downturn, other factors affecting synagogue affiliation rates include the changing generational attitudes toward synagogue membership; the transactional practice of finance in synagogues; the lack of inclusion; and synagogues' fear of change. As a result, many synagogues are turning toward voluntary commitment to increase membership.
"Shir Hadash meets a number of the criteria that tend to make voluntary commitment successful," explains Shir Hadash's Executive Vice President Stuart Aizenberg. "Our geographical location near a large city, our smaller size, the long tenure of our Rabbi, and our strong lay leadership means we fit the profile of synagogues who do well with voluntary commitment, according to a 2017 national study conducted by UJA Federation of New York."
Under the synagogue's former dues model, there was a minimum contribution, and those who couldn't afford it could apply for "consideration," a process that is typical for most synagogues around the country but that some members found onerous or embarrassing. Under the voluntary commitment model, there is no longer a minimum contribution. Instead, the synagogue provides transparent financial information, breaks down the costs of meeting its financial obligations by adult member, and trusts its members to self-assess their dues.
The synagogue will continue to assess religious school, bar and bat mitzvah, and building fund fees, in addition to voluntary commitment. Religious school tuition scholarships are available. The voluntary commitment of each household will be confidential as will the amount awarded via scholarship.
Along with a switch to voluntary commitment, the synagogue is emphasizing the importance of volunteerism to help continue to produce its dynamic religious, educational, cultural, and social action programming and services.
According to the 2017 UJA study, synagogues that have adopted voluntary commitment experience rising membership rates, recruiting and retaining members is easier, level of membership engagement increases, perceived value of membership is heightened, and revenue increases. None of the synagogues report problems with "free riders"; i.e., people taking advantage by paying no dues at all. Synagogues find the most significant membership growth occurs during the second year after adopting this model. No congregation reports a decline in financial stability after the dues model change.
"Synagogue dues were a 20th century invention," notes Aizenberg. "Dues came into existence after World War I. At the time, synagogue members purchased a seat at the beginning of the year, and the people who could afford better seats had the seats up front, and everyone else was in the back. Jews at the time felt that the system created a class system and wasn't egalitarian, so they invented the practice of synagogue dues instead. But for more than 5,700 years, Jews paid for their institutions without having traditional dues. We can do it again."