Transactional Judaism: Enough!!

The “Pay What You Want” Model is now mainstream. An article last week in the New York Times has made it so.

What really troubles me is that many people are talking about this “Pay What You Want”, or “Pledge Model”, as the best thing since the discovery of white bread (or is it sliced bread, I can’t really remember).

Michael Paulson in his New York Times article wrote 30 synagogues “across North America are “striking a new trend” by eliminating dues and adopting a “pay what you want model”. Eric Goldstein, the CEO of the UJA Federation of New York, added that while it is a very small percentage of the synagogues in the country “it is picking up steam”. The SYNERGY report, from the UJA Federation’s synagogue group, highlights the 30 congregations that are utilizing this approach in lieu of the more traditional dues models.

Think about this:

There are 900 Reform Synagogues in North America.

There are 675 Conservative “Kehilot”.

And 103 Reconstructionist synagogues.

This of course does not take into account the Orthodox and Renewal synagogues, unaffiliated congregations and independent Minyanim.

Is it a groundswell in the synagogue world – at least for Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform synagogues anyway – when less than 2% of synagogues are doing it?

Don’t get me wrong. There are elements of the pledge model I like very much:

  1. Financial transparency by the board with congregants is something all congregations – and not-for-profit organizations – should be doing. Recently, the financial challenges of FEGS – akin to what many of us know as Jewish Vocational Service with a budget of over $200 million – and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, have been in the news. Stuff like this happens in synagogues, too. Financial transparency with stakeholders helps create and strengthen trust between congregants and board members.
  1. Focusing on the mission and values of the congregation is also important. For as long as I can remember, there have been many synagogue leaders doing this well as a matter of just being a sacred community.
  1. Abandoning the dues relief process that is actually so painstaking for people asking for dues relief and even for some representing the synagogue’s leadership. Years ago, I remember visiting synagogues where they were still asking people requesting dues relief to submit tax returns. This practice, too, has been on the wane.

Synagogues that continue to use more traditional dues models and that are not struggling financially already incorporate some or all of these elements in their transactional approach and in everything that they do. .

The data in the SYNERGY study is helpful. Membership growth and a 4% increase in income are certainly good. But what about the numbers of people who are no longer members?

Efforts to engage Baby Boomers – and others – so their synagogue involvement is an integral part of their lives will also do much for the fiscal health of synagogues.

While I am bothered by some of the math – I am not sure that 2% of anything is a true indicator that new business practices are taking hold – it is still just a new model for the primary financial transaction congregants will conduct each year. It won’t replace other fundraising efforts (High Holy Day and End of Year appeals, the annual Gala, rummage sale and the like).

More to the point, why aren’t we talking more about how to better engage congregants in being Jewish? How do we help people find meaning in Worship, Jewish learning, and Social Justice?

Many thanks to Nina Badzin, who penned an article for in response to the New York Times article. She expressed so well that synagogues need to focus on showing people the joy of Judaism and how it can give meaning to their lives. Synagogues need to focus on this, and people will feel more engaged – and be more supportive financially- in their sacred communities.

Nina writes:

“Engage members with discussions on how to be a better person, a better parent, sibling, spouse, friend, and a more ethical business person, and they will come back for more. If Judaism cannot answer the big questions in life and be relevant in our homes and everyday life, then members will go somewhere else and take their dollars with them”.

Synagogues as well as our North American institutions – religious Movements, Jewish Federations, JCCs, and others- need to devote resources and be mission driven to help Jews to grow Jewishly.

Then the financial challenges will take care of themselves.


5 Comments on “Transactional Judaism: Enough!!

  1. David,
    As always, thank you for your insightful posts. Let me clarify that this study was not meant to be conclusive or to endorse any particular model. The numbers you state are in fact correct however, to date, despite the discontent with the current dues model, and the scattered experimentation with alternatives, there have not been any other models that have caught on as this one has. And so, for that reason, it was worth studying and noting. “Pay what you want” in fact limits the ethos of the voluntary dues model. This model, and the process leading up to considering it, as we detail in the report, are meant to spark critical conversations about the nature of engagement, synagogue vision and values, and how the financial relationship aligns with the aforementioned. If this guide has sparked any of these conversations then it was an important investment for the field.

    • Hi Adina,

      I always appreciate when you respond to the Blog and offer your insights. We are taught that journalism is supposed to be objective. Sometimes that does not happen.

      The end product here, the new pledge model to replace traditional dues, is what is being emphasized. Not the process of discussion and analysis to get to that point. And most of the folk involved in the money matters of synagogues are more interested in the end product rather than the journey.

      For most congregations who have gone down this path, it is still a relatively new. Not only is the number of new members important, but the number of those who leave would also help in the overall analysis. The former treasurer of Temple Israel in Sharon, MA is an old camp friend and I spoke to him at length about the impact of their pledge model. His take on it was that there hasn’t really been a negative impact by making the change. They are also going through a rabbinic change which I believe is an important fact not mentioned in the case study.

      We both agree that there is so much more that makes a synagogue strong than its financial model.

      Thank you again for sharing.



  2. David:

    I too read the article Pay What You Want – and saw the value, as a 2% alternative to what is our current model.
    I agree and support what you are advocating for — better engagement with finding meaning in Jewish learning –especially, Social Justice. As an example — my local synagogue is hosting a program an evening tribute to Martin Luther King, with a pair of prominent Jewish leaders who marched with him and knew him well, exploring the black/Jewish story that was left out of “Selma.” Bringing that perspective to current issues is an example of what a Jewish community can be and do.

    • Hi Susan,

      Thanks for sharing. Iner-Religious efforts as you describe are really great. My hope is that they just don’t only happen around the annual celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, but are ongoing.

      I hope your congregation continues its efforts. Many thanks.



  3. Mauri Willis, a past president of Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, asked me to post our exchange on this topic:

    Hi David

    Could you explain to me how this “new” dues model is any different from the Fair Share plan that my congregation has used for years. Every year each member unit gets a letter telling them what the per capita dues should be from each household to allow us to have a balanced budget. Then they are asked to make a commitment for the coming year. If they can pay more, great, but if not we accept what they say they will pay even if it’s less than the average. The only time the dues adjustment committee gets involved is if the congregant becomes delinquent.

    I’ve heard several presentations on voluntary dues but I’ve never gotten a clear answer on the difference.

    Hope things are going well with you,
    Mauri Willis
    Temple Sholom


    Do you mind if I copy and paste our exchange on the Blog?

    So nice to hear from you. I hope you and your family are doing well.

    I think that those advocating for this new model would say that Fair Share is tied to one’s income – if it be 1 1/2 percent, or 2 percent. This pledge model is such that the letter that people get in the start of the fiscal year in July will say something to the effect that the annual per family costs at Temple Sholom are $2500. If you can pay that great. If you can pay more than that, even better. Whatever you can pay is welcome.

    Do you know that most of the synagogues with a Fair Share model are in the Midwest? For Reform synagogues anyway, Hardly any on either coast.

    Dues Relief and any process associated with this is more a part of a fixed dues model. There have been congregations that require the submission of tax returns. Most ask for the completion of a form about your current financial situation.

    I am not sure, that based on how you describe dues at Temple Sholom, that there is much difference. Although there wouldn’t be a need for any dues relief or delinquency committee.

    I think the question to pose about the voluntary model is what to do regarding people who say that they are going to pay a specific amount – let’s say it is $500. And they don’t pay it.

    Not sure if I my answers to your questions are helpful. I hope so. How are things at Temple Sholom?

    Any further questions, please do not hesitate to call or email me. Many thanks.



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