Country Clubs and Synagogues: Are Both Egalitarian?

Years ago, I staffed a country club campaign for its annual UJA breakfast. On the same Sunday in June, the four Jewish clubs sponsored a breakfast for the men with a speaker followed by a golf tournament. The day was the culmination of a several month fundraising effort that almost always raised a great deal of money in support of the UJA.

We don’t often think that there are similarities between membership at a synagogue to membership at a country club, but hear me out. Once you come up with the money for the purchase of the bond at a country club – which you do get back eventually and can be $5,000, $10,000, or even as much as $50,000 – the annual membership fees are typically the same for everyone. I believe there are different amounts for a single person and for a family. Everyone may have to spend a certain amount on food. If the club board decides to refurbish the clubhouse or build a new pool, everyone is assessed the same amount.

So it may be elitist to join. But once you do, egalitarianism does become the operating mantra.

The fixed dues model for synagogues that we have come to know, love and struggle with has a familiar tone. Some synagogues have different rates for those under 35, over 65, and if you are a single parent with children, or just a single person. And unlike the country club, should your economic situation be challenging for whatever reason, there is a process where you can ask for dues relief.

When there is a need for renovation, expansion, or even the purchase of a new facility, synagogues veer away from egalitarianism and plan and implement a traditional comprehensive fundraising campaign.

While not in recent years, there have been a number of synagogue leaders who have asked me about the idea of an assessment for a capital project. The project costs $2 million. There are 400 families. What do you think if we assess each family $5,000?

Sounds like what they do in the country club?

What about the people on dues relief who are really struggling to make their current dues payments? Do they have to go through the process – and perhaps embarrassment – of asking for relief a second time? And how about the congregants who have the capacity to give 2 times, 5 times, or even 50 times the $5,000 assessment?

It might be egalitarian, but to me, it certainly isn’t fair.

I know that some synagogues have an assessment of a security fee, over and above annual dues. I wonder if such assessments for capital purposes still occur.

How do we characterize the new “pay what you want” approach that many synagogue leaders are talking about? It is certainly a more market driven model and one that is more focused on congregants. The idea being that the more engaged and involved congregants are, the more willing they will be to arrive at the suggested annual figure from the synagogue’s leadership as their annual commitment to the synagogue.

I wonder what happens with capital needs for congregations adopting this new dues model. Will the philosophy still be to encourage congregants to contribute what they want by suggesting a benchmark? Encouraging everyone to give the same amount raises the issues I discussed above about assessments.

Time will tell.


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