As I walked into my synagogue on the High Holy Days, there were two police officers in uniform greeting everyone. They had big smiles on their faces as they closely observed those walking through the doors, perhaps enjoying the human ongoing human contact that this assignment afforded them.

I was also thinking about the $75 security fee on my invoice from the synagogue.

With 515 members, the security fee falls short of $40,000. I can’t imagine that is quite enough to pay for the High Holy Day team of police along with the armed, and uniformed security guard who is always at the entrance whenever we are at the synagogue for Shabbat worship or for a meeting. And for any security enhancements like video that I keep hearing about. I imagine that $40,000 goes very quickly.

Of course there are so many other things that $40,000 could be spent towards. Like a full time youth staff member. You all could think of so many other things, too. But at this time, just having the security fee, as well as the police officers on the High Holy Days and the security guard gives people some peace of mind.

The other thought going through my head was $2900 in annual dues is a lot of money. If my two children were back in religious school, the total outlay to the temple would be $5000. There have been so many articles written on the cost of being Jewish. We should be so appreciative of every congregant for both their financial and time commitments.

But where is the ceiling? Perhaps 10 years ago, I had a similar thought about paying $2,000. And it would not surprise me if 10 years from now the cost of synagogue membership is $4,000. If religious school tuition rises in a similar fashion, families with two children might have to pay $7,000 annually to be a part of our Jewish community. 

And that $75 security fee? Either it will be incorporated into the overall fee structure, like salaries and other building costs, or it, too, will be considerably higher.

People know that costs go up. For salaries and for everything associated with the operations of synagogue life. This happens throughout our daily lives for so many things as well. But is there an amount that will make people think twice?

I am not sure we want to test this theory.

Finding other streams of income to support synagogue operations helps synagogues to not be so reliant on synagogue dues and religious school tuition. Like renting out your building either on a long-term basis or for events.

Or the infamous High Holy Day Appeal. Studies have shown that Jews are most philanthropic around the High Holy Days. And Americans are most philanthropic in December. So there is a window of 3-4 months to take advantage of people being in a synagogue frame of mind and being philanthropic.

Growing your endowment fund is another stream of income. This can take the form of a comprehensive endowment campaign similar to what happens at hospitals and universities. Or even a bequest program that take the long view – perhaps 10-15 years – of growing a synagogue endowment.

Whatever you use for a dues model, in order to see real financial growth, you have to do some other stuff, too!!

“She is 102 and just joined our synagogue.”

I had coffee with a rabbi friend and asked him what’s going on. And he told me this great story.

Martha’s husband had died several years ago. He was the CEO of a local community bank. And when he died, she was well provided for. She had two children who live out of town, and one calls her regularly to check in. She has lived in the same house in a neighboring town to the synagogue for many years and has home health aides with her 24 hours a day.

Martha had called the rabbi and they had an extended telephone conversation where she shared parts of her life history. She asked him to send along the membership forms and for him to come by one day the next week to pick them up and so they could sit and talk in person. On that day, Martha shared that she and her husband had been members of an Orthodox synagogue. It was more for her husband. Soon after her husband died, Martha was interested in joining a non-Orthodox synagogue in the neighborhood. She went to Shabbat worship a couple of times. She tried to strike up a conversation with the rabbi. He always said that they would make a time to meet, but never did.

My rabbi friend asked her why she was joining his congregation now. “Rabbi”, Martha said, “I am 102. In the winter of my life, I am looking for a rabbi who will help my family and my few friends who remain burry me when I die.”

Now, with all of her medical involvements and frailty, Martha may never set foot in the synagogue. Maybe she might come to High Holy Day worship during the day. The rabbi plans to call her every other week, and to visit her at her home each month. He will encourage his clergy colleagues to reach out as well.

Martha has lived a long life and must have many interesting stories to tell. Insuring that her end of life needs are taken care of is the community that she is looking for at this stage of her life.

The synagogue – and its clergy – are there for people. To celebrate. To mourn. To learn. And even just to feel part of a community.

As summer winds down and people return to life’s routine, the opportunity is huge to be there for people and to provide a sense of community. This is the time of year that people are remembering family.

For the fundraiser in me, all kinds of bells and whistles go off in my head. Martha should live and be well to 120 and beyond. And she very well may. When I hear that she is in the same house she has been in for years and her husband was a CEO of a local bank, engage her periodically for a year on the phone and in person for a year, encourage her to come to High Holy Day worship or a day-time lunch and learn. And then ask her to join the Bequest affinity group, and name the synagogue in her will.

But that stuff right now is low priority. In the years ahead, the synagogue, and its clergy, should continue to be there for Martha, and for everyone.

Some of us often posit that Jewish holidays – particularly the High Holy Days, Hanukkah and Passover – are either early or late. If Rosh Hashanah (“RH”) falls just after Labor Day, I often hear comments about the holidays being early. If it falls nearing or in October, it’s late.

But according to the Hebrew Calendar, Rosh Hashanah is always right on time.

There are lots of opportunities to connect with congregants between now and RH. There are some challenges in terms of summer camp and vacations and people being away. But whether people have gathered for summer services or you are utilizing email and social media for your High Holy Day “warm and welcoming” communications plan, there is much that you can do to create the atmosphere of special feelings that will encourage congregants to attend worship and other stuff throughout the year.

I have a pet peeve about the Big Envelope that comes to your house from the synagogue with “High Holiday Information” stamped or printed on the bottom left or right hand corner. You know the one. The High Holy Days are going to be great. There is a form for remembering loved ones at Yizkor. Some information on various types of services (adults, family, teens). Maybe some info about babysitting.

And then there is the paragraph that you have to be current in your dues obligations in order to receive tickets.

What about the family who is new to the area? Some High Holiday worship is open to everyone. Will they hear the High Holy Day choir and band? The rabbi’s sermon? The various items that comprise High Holy Day worship about which you associate with what makes your synagogue great.

Don’t get me wrong. The synagogue is a business. A unique one, but a business nonetheless. The need for money to pay the bills – for clergy and other staff, special security for the High Holy Days and throughout the year, HVAC, utilities – is pretty real. Maybe what I am talking about here is semantics and attitude. Send me the package with all of the High Holy Day information and present the synagogue as being a great place, warm and welcoming, a second home – however you want to come across in a positive fashion. Maybe in this particular package, you don’t detract from this by telling people they have to be current in terms of their financial obligations.

The High Holy Day package with ticket information is actually a remnant of the past. With technological advances in terms of emails and pdfs, do we need to kill a couple of trees to connect and share information with the large majority of congregants? That is another question for another day.

Send out an email a week before “the package” with information about financial obligations and requirements. And even a week after “the package” is sent, just a few sentences as a reminder. And as the High Holy Days approach, call people who are not even close to being current. The more personal the outreach, the better.

My point is really that you should be warm and welcoming, and proud. Just keep information about financial obligations separate.

Some friends once shared a story about how they picked a synagogue when they moved to the area. They visited the Conservative and Reform synagogues that were nearest for Shabbat worship. They also met with each of the rabbis.

One thing one of the rabbis had said as they were leaving their meeting kind of stuck in their heads. He said that the Hebrew School car pool in their neighborhood would definitely be going to his synagogue.

So for many people at the synagogue, the carpool was really the deciding factor.

For synagogues in a large suburban area, marketing is essential. You can drive within a 5-mile radius of my house and you will pass by 3 Conservative synagogues, two Reform and a Reconstructionist. Lots of choice. This doesn’t even include the Orthodox synagogues.

Whether it is the carpool, distance, or the Shabbat band, the stream of Judaism isn’t a deciding factor anymore for many. I think a great survey question would be whether the average “Jew in the Pew” knows whether their synagogue is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, or Reconstructing Judaism (or even if it is unaffiliated and what that means). And what factor such membership played in their decision to join that synagogue? The answers would probably be alarming.

A recent blog by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove caused me to think about this issue a great deal. He wrote that, referring to synagogue affiliation and camp attendance, “denominational labels are no longer the drivers of identity they once were”.

Does Joe Congregant know or even care that their Movement was a big help in the recent search for a new rabbi? Or that the website that the synagogue has is free to the synagogue and is hosted and maintained by the Movement? Or that the new prayer books came from a Movement’s publisher at a discounted rate? Or that the woman who recently came to a board meeting to help facilitate a board retreat, and who did a great job, was trained by the Movement?

Some might. But for the most part, people are paying dues – not a paltry sum, no doubt –  and expect the synagogue to be run in an efficient manner. They want the things that need to get done to get done. Movement affiliation is nice, but does it really matter?

And what about synagogue leadership? The question often asked is what do we get in return for what we pay in congregational dues to the Movement organization? A midsize congregation of 500 families could be paying $50,000-$60,000. Maybe they get that a chunk goes to support a Seminary/educational institution. But how does the synagogue benefit? The internet has been like open-sourcing to all kinds of information to help synagogues in a variety of ways. Help with a search for a new rabbi is nice, but that shouldn’t be happening very frequently. How will the Movement help us retain members? Create a youth group to engage our middle schoolers and high schoolers? Create worship that is both engaging and meaningful?

These are just some of the challenges of Movement affiliation in what is now a post-denominational world.

The internet has brought about greater financial transparency for not-for-profits. It is rare when an organization’s most recent financial statement and IRS 990 – the tax filing for not-for-profits – is not found on its website.

What about synagogues?

Recently, I had occasion to visit a synagogue website where a friend serves as rabbi. I read through the most recent quarterly newsletter. It was pretty striking to see a message from the synagogue’s finance chairperson that congregants could view the “3rd Quarter Report” through the synagogue’s ShulCloud membership portal.

Very Interesting. You have to be a congregant. But I know this is the just the second time I have ever seen a reference on a synagogue website to any kind of financial report.

How do most synagogue’s share financial information?

Most often in preparation for the congregational meeting, the board approved budget that needs to be ratified at the meeting is emailed to congregants, or sent by snail mail. It could be a 1 page budget summary, or it could be a very detailed budget with multiple pages, generated by QuickBooks or another similar program. Here is a really good example.

Do congregants have any interest in the synagogue’s financial information? Probably not too much. But then again, financial transparency has not been a general practice.

How do synagogue boards demonstrate that they are good stewards of the community’s money?

Congregants know of the various requests for funds – dues/annual commitments, High Holiday and annual appeal, Gala and other special events. But the sharing of budgetary information – how the synagogue is doing in terms of income and expense projections – hardly ever happens.

What about sharing the minutes from board meetings? Maybe the initial Google analytics would show that the open rate on board meeting minutes would be pretty low. But again, the issue is more about being both good fiduciaries and being transparent than about open rates.

So what am I proposing?

Synagogues should strive for transparency – for all aspects of synagogue life. Posting board minutes, once they have been approved and accepted, seems like a simple thing to do. Technology makes this easy in terms of implementation. Changing our behavior and making the effort to put it into practice may be a bit of a challenge. Or not.

What about financial information? For synagogues who do conduct an annual audit, post it on your website and share the link with all congregants.

How about ongoing financial information?

Sharing is caring. Not sharing such information might bring about some whispers that “they are hiding something”.  But I think there will usually be no whispers at all. Show projected monthly income and expenses for the year. Show the status to date. Encourage people to ask questions. You can do it like at my friend’s synagogue, on a quarterly basis, and for congregants only. Although practicing financial transparency is also a good message to prospective congregants as well.

I was speaking with my friend Carl today. He lives in Atlanta and attends a Methodist Church. He shared with me that this is a big weekend for Methodists. 864 Delegates will be gathering in St. Louis to consider several plans for the Church internationally related to gay marriage, gay clergy and the Church’s general views of the LGBTQ community.

Carl shared with me that at both the Methodist church he and his family attended in New York and the one in Atlanta they attend now, the clergy and leadership are open minded about these issues. But that is not the case throughout the many, many churches in more rural parts of the U.S. and throughout Europe. Right now, the current Methodist Church Book of Discipline – a pastor’s rulebook – doesn’t allow clergy to perform same sex marriages. Even though that is the law of the land in the U.S.

I shared with Carl that LGBTQ issues regarding the big stuff like clergy and marriage are not really a concern today – for non-Orthodox synagogues anyway. Although there is sometimes a similarly heightened conversation around issues of intermarriage.

This led to a further conversation about how churches and synagogues are concerned about membership and attracting millennials (Carl is in fact a millennial). And younger people tend to have a more progressive view of the world when it comes to such social issues.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Carl about how his church asks for financial contributions. “Do they still pass the plate?”, I asked. He said that his church encourages people to tithe at a rate of 10%. Sound familiar? But he said the church is cognizant of the fact that people have some big expenses – for housing, childcare, healthcare, and life’s general activities. He commented that what one contributes to the church is based on both an internal family conversation and a conversation with God.


Back to the question of how they contribute. He said that they do pass the plate on Sundays. People are also encouraged to make contributions using their smart phones by texting and through Venmo. Carl also said that congregants are encouraged to establish a recurring gift schedule using the church’s website so that contributions are made weekly or monthly.

I was about to ask him about a church stewardship campaign when we both had to end the conversation. Next time.

I once visited a small synagogue in New York City whose primary funding came from “passing the hat”. It is not a payment vehicle often associated with synagogue life. And not a method that allows for much financial planning.

Giving people options to make payments is key, and is really meeting people where they are at.

Someone is moved by the Rabbi’s Shabbat sermon – or even her sermon on Yom Kippur – why shouldn’t we ask congregants to Venmo the temple a contribution? Or send a contribution by text? Concerned about contributing on Shabbat? I went to a Bar Mitzvah at an Orthodox synagogue a couple of years ago. And everyone who was given an Aliyah was given an envelope and asked to press down a tab to make a contribution before they returned to their seat. Really. We shouldn’t always be asking. But we shouldn’t be afraid to ask when people are excited about being a part of their Sacred Community.

When our children were in elementary, middle and high school, it seemed that the PTA and the local Fund for Educational Excellence were always in fundraising mode. Bake sales, wrapping paper, silent and public auctions – every month there was another request for money. And fundraising for the various sports teams and special learning communities. You don’t want to know what we were paying in real estate taxes, which covered the Board of Education and other local services.

I am sure that we all agree with the importance of education for all children.

I know that there are some people who feel that the synagogue is always asking its stakeholders – congregants – for money as well. The Dues statement comes in June – or whenever the beginning of the synagogue’s fiscal year is – letting you know the amount owed. For most synagogues in the Northeast, that is around $3000. If you have children in religious school, add on about $800 per child.

September rolls around, and there is the High Holy Day Appeal. In November, the Pre-School has a Hanukkah Gift Fair.  Maybe the Religious School is selling wrapping paper. And there are two emails that you have receive in December asking to help close out the High Holy Day Appeal. Or just to include the synagogue in your end of year charitable giving. Maybe there is even a community event honoring a friend, or someone you really like and respect who has done a lot for the synagogue.  It is a fundraising event – not only are you being asked to attend by purchasing a ticket for $50 or $100, there are letters and emails about an ad journal (let’s kill a few more trees) that most people leave on the table at the end of the evening or discard when they get home. Maybe not the honoree and family.

And I know that many of you agree with me about the importance of Jewish community. 

Synagogues don’t have the benefit of receiving public funds to cover the basic costs, like for public education. Perhaps that is the analogy for the purpose of dues/annual commitments. It covers a major chunk of the operating costs, the rest is made up by religious school, pre-school, annual fundraising.

Years ago, a growing membership was a counter-balance to the increased annual costs of synagogue operations. That is not the case today for most synagogues – churches, too – so various fundraising efforts, such as direct appeals and events, have become as much a part of the fabric of synagogue finances as dues/annual commitments.

Perhaps the best way for synagogues to deal with people feeling “nickel and dimed” is to establish and grow a synagogue’s endowment fund. Universities and hospitals do it. Shouldn’t synagogues? And as individuals, we utilize a similar approach through our retirement investing. A $1 million endowment, invested appropriately, should generate $40-$50,000 for use in synagogue operations.

A comprehensive campaign to raise $1 million – or even more for mid-size and large congregations-is a good starting point. Having a bequest program will help grow the endowment over the course of the next 10-15 years. The growth in this stream of funding should allow leadership to focus more on community building activities, and not always be asking people for money.

And people will not feel so “nickel and dimed”.

The change in minimum wage laws in New York for fast food restaurant workers impacts synagogues, too.

Two and a half years ago, I wrote about the change in Federal Labor Laws and how synagogues would be affected. Your synagogue hired Jordan right out of college to be the Youth Director for a salary of $36,000. According to the new Federal regulations, every time Jordan accompanied teens to a weekend Shabbaton, she would be entitled to overtime at time and a half for every hour she worked beyond 40 hours each week. The same would be true for the office manager whose job responsibilities required her on occasion to work 55 hours a week. If her salary was less than $47,476, she, too would be entitled to overtime pay for each hour worked beyond 40.

In November of 2016, a lawsuit was filed and a restraining order was issued that kept these regulations from being implemented.

On the state and local levels, things are changing with a similar result.

New York State Labor Laws that increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour will impact synagogue employees – and most businesses and their workers – in a similar fashion as what was intended by the 2016 Federal Department of Labor regulations. As of December 31, 2018, if Jordan was the Youth Director at a New York City synagogue with 11 or more employees, and was earning less than $58,500, she would be entitled to overtime pay of time and half for every hour worked beyond 40 in any given week.

The pay threshold for synagogues with less than 11 full time employees on 12/31/2018 is a little less, $57,330. It will increase to $58,500 on 12/31/2019.

For synagogues in New York’s Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester Counties, there is a graduated grace period. But the threshold for all employees will be $58,500 on 12/31/2021. For synagogues in all other New York counties, the minimum salary threshold is $43,264 on 12/31/18, increasing to $48,750 on 12/31/20. Last December, several cities in Silicon Valley (Sunnyvale, Mountain View) increased the minimum wage to $15.  San Francisco has also increased its minimum wage laws to $15 as well. Other states may be following suit in the future.

There are not a lot of options here. The nature of the work of a Youth Director is such that there are a lot of late nights and weekends required. If the New York wage law impacts your synagogue, and the employee in question is earning below the threshold, you can require the Youth Director – or the Office Manager in the other example – to just work a 40-hour week. You will also need to ask such staff to keep really good time sheets. The weekend of the Shabbaton might be the only time that week that the Youth Director is working.

At the end of the day, this approach is probably “pennywise and pound foolish”.

You should of course consult with legal counsel familiar with New York State labor law.

When our son was 4, he went to a school that was Pre-K to Grade 2. Mrs. Jones sat at a desk greeting all visitors who arrived. She was the kind of woman who put the fear of God into most people. When she told you that you had to sign in, you did it.

If Mrs. Jones had been at the desk in the entryway at the elementary school in Sandy Hook, or in the lobby at the Tree of Life Synagogue, she would have certainly been among those who perished.

I was in Italy this past week following the tragic news on social media. Seeing soldiers at train stations, along with what seemed like a significant police presence is something that I no longer give a lot of thought. Being in Israel a lot and of course a near daily commute through Penn Station in New York since 9/11 has caused this to be the norm.

The first mass shooting in a U.S. synagogue shakes us all at our core. Similar occurrences have happened at churches (Sutherland Springs, TX and Charleston, SC), a movie theater (Aurora, CO), and a nightclub (Orlando, FL), and of course schools – Columbine, CO, Sandy Hook, CT and Parkland, FL. And just last night at a Dance Club for young people in Thousand Oaks, CA.

Back to the synagogue – will we ever again feel safe? I want us to get there. It will be hard for many of us to walk in to Shabbat worship or drop off our kids at Religious School and not think about safety – at least for several weeks. And our synagogue has an armed guard who sits at the entryway. Is that enough? Do we want our synagogues to be like in many cities and Europe where armed soldiers are standing guard at the entrance? And don’t you think the leadership of churches and mosques have similar needs?

One of the articles I read last week mentioned that a Conservative synagogue in New Jersey was spending $450,000 – 1/3 of its annual budget – annually on security. There was also an article in The Forward about an Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore – with a Day School – spending more than $300,000!! An outcome of last week will no doubt be increased security expenses for many synagogues, and other Jewish institutions throughout North America.

And now there are even synagogue leaders encouraging congregants who have a permit to carry a concealed weapon to do so when they come to worship.

Will such mass shooting ever stop? I am all for the Second Amendment, but until there are responsible gun laws, our fears about guns will always be on our minds.  Do people really need to have an AR-15? Or does one person really need to have multiple AR-15s and hand guns, like many of the alleged shooters throughout the years?

People have all kinds of reasons not to attend synagogue and spend the money necessary to become part of sacred communities. The local synagogue could spend significant funds for security.  And security will still be just another one of those reasons that keep people away.

There are no easy answers. Consult with your local police department for advice regarding security. Really listen to the concerns of congregants and be transparent with them about the steps you are taking regarding security.

Do people support the synagogue financially because it is advantageous in terms of taxes?

I doubt it is the first thing people think about when considering becoming a part of a synagogue community. Even when the first invoice comes for a new synagogue fiscal year, tax advantages are seldom the first thing that pops in our minds.

Maybe for people with 5 and 6 figure capital or endowment commitments to the synagogue, charitable contributions and tax planning is something to ponder. But not for most of us.

Before the recent tax law changes – taking effect in 2018 – 30% of tax filers itemized their tax returns. While we must wait for the IRS to share such information for 2018 returns, studies are predicting that only 4% to 10% of all filers will itemize. 2018 standard deductions will nearly double for everyone – $12,000 for a single filer, $24,000 for those filing jointly. It is the maximum deduction of $10,000 for mortgage interest and/or real estate taxes that will really impact the decrease in those able to itemize.

The statement “Your donation is tax deductible to the fullest extent allowed by law” should still be on dues invoices and fundraising appeals.  There will still be congregants who will be able to itemize and who will benefit tax-wise by their synagogue support.

How people feel about the synagogue and its vision remain the more dominant influences related to giving.

There are still a couple of ways for contributions to be advantageous in terms of taxes. Paying one’s synagogue dues through gifts of appreciated stock, including shares of mutual funds, is still a pretty good deal. Persons doing this do not have to pay capital gains tax on the sale of the stock as they would if they were to just sell the stock outright.

To make such payments work, the synagogue has to establish a brokerage account to accept such payments electronically. Anytime invoices are sent to congregants, you might also include a statement that simply states “You can pay off your dues/pledges with appreciated stocks, bonds or mutual funds. For more information, email or call the synagogue’s executive director” (or whoever is the Lead on this).

For congregants 70 ½ and older, utilizing your IRA to pay your synagogue dues or other charitable commitments to the synagogue is the best tax advantage. Payments are made directly from the congregant’s IRA. And you can make up to $100,000 in charitable contributions from your IRA annually. Such gifts do not have to be reported as income.

Congregants with some financial savvy will know about utilizing shares of stock or mutual funds to make payments, and of course utilizing their IRAs as vehicles for charitable payments. The synagogue should highlight such payment options as well. Such payment information should always be on or included with invoices. Separate emails during December encouraging support/payments would be helpful as well.

A congregant’s “donative intent” will always be the primary reason for charitable giving. So appeal to congregants’ hearts and heads. Any tax advantage is just an additional benefit.