A small but fast-growing number of synagogues are switching their funding models from charging annual dues to asking members to pledge voluntarily.
I reported recently that Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood had joined that growing trend. At the time, the best data available was a 2016 report that said 26 synagogues nationwide had adopted this funding (although it didn't include Parkway Jewish Center in Monroeville, which has done so for about 15 years).
Just two years later, the same researchers found 57 such synagogues (still not including Parkway, so that makes it at least 58). In any case, the report noted a new crop of synagogues (such as Sinai) transitioning to the pledge system even after the researchers wrote their report. In short, it's a small but fast-growing trend.
The new survey was done by UJA Federation of New York. It re-contacted most of the earlier batch of 26 synagogues and found most people were happy with the switch. And the reason was at least as much cultural as financial. Paying dues to belong to a religious house of worship seemed a little too transactional in modern times, as opposed to relational. True, the needy could get a break from the full dues assessment, but it was often embarrassing to apply for financial aid from one's spiritual fellowship.
One of the concerns, voiced at Temple Sinai and elsewhere, is over the rise of the "Nones," people with no religion. Synagogue leaders are concluding that if the dues system puts off someone who might otherwise consider joining, why keep it?
It's worth recalling that the dues system wasn't always viewed negatively. It originally was a social-justice move away from the even older system of pew rentals (in churches as well as synagogues), in which the wealthiest got the best pews in front. (These days, one might imagine the higher-price real estate being in the back pews.)
From the report:
"While many synagogue members assume that the dues system was handed down at Mount Sinai, most synagogues began charging dues as their primary mode of revenue only 100 years ago. Some synagogues employed a “fair share” system in which dues were tied to an individual’s personal income, while most used a category system with dues based on age and family status. Under either system, paying a set amount of money was the primary way to become a congregation member."
Still, there are challenges to the new system. The report recommends financial transparency as a way of retaining the confidence of donors, and the system needs to be re-explained regularly to newcomers, and to encourage existing donors to gradually increase donations over time to meet growing costs.