Voluntary contributions help us have a better Jewish New Year – eJewish Philanthropy
Since their founding in our country more than three centuries ago, synagogues have been pillars of Jewish life, welcoming and helping generations of Jewish immigrants to acculturate and articulate unique Jewish and American identities. But for too long, many Jewish congregations have used a flat fee model that members must pay to join. While most congregations express a welcoming value, fixed dues can create a financial barrier and distract from deep community relationships.
It’s time to reverse the pattern – give a lot and give even more power and welcome. Our community has just become the first Reform congregation in Manhattan to align its fundraising with its values. We now give our members the means to give themselves to their heart’s content, but without a formal mandate or fixed level. Our voluntary membership (“community engagement”) is poised to transform not only our presence on the outside, but also our relationships on the inside.
East End Temple is fortunate to be among the few synagogues – let alone in major urban areas – to emerge larger and more vibrant than we were in March 2020. was that lay-led programs engaged the more people in the most moving way.
We have a Shabbat schmooze at 1 p.m. on Saturday afternoons that brings together dozens of people in deep and moving (or silly) conversations. We have a Monday minyan that popped up on Zoom bringing people comfort after years of atypical losses. Our chesed (community caring) group supports our clergy and ensures that hundreds of people receive calls, cards and care. Our congregation has helped set up apartments for refugee families, protest injustice and defend civil rights. Lay people shared their talents, abilities and wisdom. Simply put, when the needs became overwhelming, our congregation rose to the occasion.
With so many shifts toward lay leadership, in intentional collaboration with our clergy, it no longer made sense to use a top-down, flat-rate funding approach. We trusted our community members with key functions like never before. We can also trust them to take care of our community financially.
Three years ago, we launched a pilot voluntary dues program for new members. This experience with new members has shown that empowerment leads to both growth in numbers and growth in donations. It yielded more in total donations and per adult than the old flat fee system. Additionally, because our recent growth rate has been so strong, new members in the past three years now represent 38% of our total congregation.
At our annual meeting last June, our community voted overwhelmingly to affirm a transition entirely to a voluntary membership fee system, which we call community engagement. Our members are not passive recipients of services, but co-creators of community, at the forefront of everything we do and how we build. They affirmed that they will also, voluntarily, ensure our financial viability and solidity for the future.
As a community of 75, we know what it’s like to overcome turmoil in society. Looking back, it started with the families that moved to our part of Manhattan after World War II, coming together to form a new community. These same lay people organized social gatherings bringing people together after the trauma of war and global unrest. Yes, they hired clergy to support and empower them, but they never abandoned a lay leadership philosophy.
As we continue to move forward into the Jewish New Year, we reaffirm this direction. Community leadership is not just a part of our past, but an inevitable part of our future. For us at East End Temple, voluntary dues are the best way to financially reflect the ethos of empowerment values. We are a community of volunteers. We are a community of voluntary contributions.
Brian Lifsec and Rebecca Shore are co-chairs of East End Temple. Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple and Director of Leadership at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.