“Bread & Torah”

Years ago, it was pew fees that was the funding mechanism of synagogues. Where one sat at the High Holy Days was the determinant as to how much you were to contribute to your synagogue. The closer you sat to the Bima, the more you were obligated to donate. There are a handful of non-Orthodox – in addition to Orthodox ones, I guess – synagogues today which still utilize this annual funding method.

Post World War II, annual dues became popular. There was fixed dues, fair share dues and hybrid models.  Along with what families were paying for religious school tuition, any of these various dues models seemed to be enough to cover the synagogue’s annual expenses. There would be the obligatory building fund one began to pay over 5 years when you joined to cover building expenses. And perhaps an occasional building campaign to renovate, expand or even move and build something new that targeted those with capacity and interest.

During the 1990s, many synagogues began to look to other streams of income. Traditional fundraising efforts such as a High Holy Day Appeal and fundraising events; facility rentals whether it be for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or wedding celebration, or a long engagement to a school program. Looking to a university model, synagogues were encouraged to create and grow endowment funds in order to utilize a portion of the annual return for operating expenses.

Today, the mantra “if you build it, they will come” is no longer a guiding principle for synagogue leaders to follow. Many Baby Boomers and Generation X leave the synagogue once their children have had their Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Experience and research tells us that Millennials are not joining synagogues in the same way that their parents did.

The synagogue funding model continues to evolve. In recent years, a number of synagogues have adapted a Voluntary Dues Model.  60 synagogues is the current number, double the number from a few years ago. Remember, there are more than 1400 Conservative and Reform synagogues in North America, not counting Reconstructionist, Renewal, Orthodox and unaffiliated.  And I am sure that there are leaders of several congregations that continue to ponder whether making such a change would be better operationally and philosophically.

The straight numbers might not make one overly enthusiastic about the voluntary dues model. The average increase in membership was 3.6 %. Average income from dues/annual commitments was 1.8%. From reading the report, though, and a recent article, leaders of synagogues that have made such a change are certainly feeling good about it.

No matter the dues model – fixed dues, fair share dues, voluntary dues, or even pew fees – focusing on engaging people through worship, relationships, and programming to build community is more important than the funding model.

The experiences of synagogues who have adopted the Voluntary Dues model highlight that former congregants are returning. And there is no longer a need for dues relief where congregants had to have uncomfortable conversations with the synagogue treasurer or executive director about their financial situation.

The new voluntary approach, or any dues model, does not take away the need for synagogue leaders to continue to raise funds.  For synagogues of all sizes, dues and tuition from Religious School, and Early Childhood programs are still supplemented by the various streams of income: whether that be through traditional fundraising activities like a High Holy Day Appeal or special events; renting out the facility; or growing your synagogue’s endowment fund to generate additional income.

2 comments on ““Bread & Torah”
  1. Again Thanks David – I just shared the article on “Volunteer Dues Models” with my finance committee yesterday. Shir Tikvah has had a verision of “Volunteer” Dues Model forever, but the committee didn’t like the word “Volunteer”, which isn’t a term we have ever used – it sounded like paying is an option and not an obligation to pay what you can. We have grown in the last 30 years from 40 households to over 500! Using many of the revenue options you mentioned.

    Recently we created a page on our website that tell folks what it takes to run the synagogue business http://www.shirtikvah.net/Financially-Speaking – so they know what it cost to turn on the lights, etc. But more than anything we want people to make Shir Tikvah a priority in their annual giving. Shir Tikvah is made up of families who do what they can do financially, but it is the care for one another that is our real wealth.

    Again thank you for what you do, it helps me do my job better!
    All the best

    • admin says:


      As I may have shared with you before, I am always appreciative for your kinds words and encouragement. I do apologize for not responding before today. Responses to my blog are supposed to be in my email and I always try and respond pretty quickly. For some reason, your comments were on the back-end of my website when I opened it up today.

      I am glad things are going well. Keep it up!! Be well, John.



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