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The Case for Pay-What-You-Can Synagogue Dues

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My husband and I really like our temple, so much so that we’ve been talking it up to other couples in the area with young children. Some have seemed interested but are hesitant to commit—and we can relate, because a year ago we were in the same position.

One of the reasons we weren’t as quick to join was the financial aspect. While we both agree that supporting a temple is important, we admittedly weren’t thrilled with the idea of spending a chunk of our hard-earned money on membership dues. And of the people we’ve discussed this with in recent months, most expressed a similar concern: They wanted to join a temple (not necessarily ours), but they didn’t want to take on the financial burden at a time in their lives when their families were growing and many of their expenses were still overwhelming.

It got me thinking about the merits of a pay-what-you-can model for membership dues. These days, a number of temples are foregoing traditional membership fees in favor of a more flexible financial arrangement. What a lot of these places will do is lay out the costs involved in staying operational and then leave it up to each individual family to decide how much to contribute.

READ: Expensive Dues Aren’t the Only Reason People Don’t Go to Synagogues

I suppose this model could work both ways—in some cases a family might choose to give more than what the temple would’ve otherwise charged for dues, but in other cases, a family might give less. And I’m sure it’s the latter scenario that keeps so many temples away from this flexible model.

And I get it. There are endless costs involved in running a temple, and as members, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t expect a roomy, comfortable sanctuary and stellar programming if we’re not willing to step up and help fund it.

On the other hand, by sticking to a more rigid dues structure, some temples may be doing themselves—and their members, or would-be members—a disservice. Because let’s face it: If a family has to choose between sending kids to camp for a month or paying temple membership fees, the former is likely to win out.

READ: After Having Kids, I’m Not as Generous

And then there are families who aren’t choosing between temple dues and a fun vacation—they need every dollar they earn to pay for essentials. Everyone’s financial priorities and circumstances are different, but the fact that money keeps so many people from joining their local temples is a definite problem. Yes, temples need money to stay afloat, but they also need members, and a pay-what-you-can model could be the key to attracting and engaging more families.

Some temples offer discounted introductory rates for new members. Others offer financial assistance on an as-needed basis. But even these allowances have their limitations. Let’s say a family with one young child joins a temple and is eligible for a reduced rate its first two years. What happens when that intro period is up, but by then the family has added a second child? That family’s expenses will have likely gone up at precisely the point when they’re on the hook for additional temple dues.

It’s also not just young families who might face financial difficulties. An established family could experience job loss or a number of unforeseen expenses at any point in time, thereby creating a situation where temple dues become a true burden. Yes, in either scenario, the family in question could ask for financial assistance, but having to do so could fall anywhere on the spectrum from awkward to downright humiliating.

READ: In Favor of Letting Toddlers Run Wild At Temple

Is the pay-what-you-can structure risky? Sure. But I’d encourage any temple looking to expand its membership to think about the upside. Imagine if a temple that charges $2,000 per family annually were to adopt this model and gain 10 new families, each paying $500, as a result. Math isn’t my strong suit, but I’m pretty sure that’s a more ideal scenario than having those same 10 interested families attend services on occasion but evade membership to avoid the burden of full-fledged dues.

The other thing to keep in mind is that members can contribute to their temples not just financially. They can volunteer, run programming, or even help coordinate fundraisers to bring in revenue.

Those who are against this model will argue that once members are let off the hook financially, they’ll automatically start giving less, and temples will start suffering from a fiscal perspective. And maybe they’re right. But here’s the thing: If membership fees are a deterrent for families—young or otherwise—they’re not going to join. It’s that simple.

If our goal, as one giant collective Jewish community, is to increase our ranks, then we should do everything we can to involve as many families as possible—even if it means taking a financial leap of faith.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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