Transactional and Relational Judaism

It is hard to believe that Shavuot is here. Summer is just days away, although yesterday’s humidity in NYC tells me it has already arrived.

My synagogue’s annual congregational meeting was two weeks ago. Last year, I wrote about this annual event as another opportunity to engage congregants in a meaningful way. I also wrote about a fight that almost broke out at such a meeting several years ago. This year’s meeting, with PowerPoints about exciting efforts on strategic planning and an examination of our funding mechanisms, certainly shows our maturing as a community over the last 20 years.

What congregations are doing about dues continues to be of concern to many of us. Cantor Jamie Marx from the Touro Synagogue in New Orleans offers an interesting article about the journey his synagogue is taking to revamp its dues model. This is a synagogue with a rich history since the 1800s. Cantor Marx also compiled a comprehensive list of articles and related materials about dues that is worth exploring (and thanks to Cantor Marx and the Touro group for using one of my articles).

The journey that the leadership group of the Touro Synagogue “It’s Not a Dues Committee” experienced is what is of great interest to me. Obviously, there was a great deal of study and conversation. And the group was not in a rush.

So at the end of this process, Touro Synagogue members are now being asked to complete a membership form and pay whatever amount for an annual contribution for which they are comfortable. They are told that the average cost for each family is $2400 and encouraged to pay at least that amount. But they don’t have to. If they are able to pay more than that, they are encouraged to support the community in that way.

A rabbi friend once told me a story about what a Southern Baptist minister had shared with him. “If you always do what you always did, you are going to get what you always got”.

A sacred community’s willingness to take a risk like this is really admirable. You won’t know if such a drastic change will work until you try it. My hope for the financial people sitting on the board of Touro Synagogue and other boards of synagogues implementing such a model is patience. I also hope they are doing analysis for a back up plan if the income expectations come up short.

The one criticism I have of Cantor Marx’s wonderful article is when he writes about the actual proposal for change, this still remains just a financial transaction. This has been the emphasis of much of the myriad of articles in the past several years on dues and synagogue funding. I would like to know what Touro Synagogue – and the other synagogues throughout the country that are adapting a similar financial model – are doing to engage congregants? Is there an engagement plan? What are they doing to involve young families? What is happening to engage empty nesters and seniors? What is the communications plan to take advantage of social media and everyone’s dependence on smartphones and tablets?

Making the financial transactions of synagogue affiliation more customer friendly is nice. But without a focus on relational Judaism – where developing and nurturing meaningful relationships is emphasized – synagogue affiliation challenges will continue.






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