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Time for Jews to lose the dues?

 
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How well is your synagogue’s business model holding up?

That’s the unexpected question being addressed by a series of programs from the Synagogue Leadership Initiative this year.

Synagogue leaders regularly discuss how their roof, air-conditioning system, clergy, and religious school are doing.

But discussing the broader question of a business model — defined as how an organization creates, delivers, or captures value (and not only financial value) — is an unfamiliar undertaking in an institution that has tradition as a core paradigm.

In fact, the general model of synagogue affiliation — you pay dues for the privilege of membership — is so familiar that it has been taken for granted for generations.

However, as Lisa Harris Glass points out, very few companies that are successful in 2013 are running on the same business model as 1963, if they even existed back then.

Glass heads the Synagogue Leadership Initiative, a project of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation.

Last year, SLI’s programs looked at how different generations within a synagogue relate to the institution in different ways. This year, the focus is on what is called “Synagogue Next,” helping synagogues evolve “without defining what the next is,” Glass said.

One way for a synagogue to change its business model, Glass said, is through “significant sustainable collaboration” — where a synagogue joins with similar institutions to share expenses. In a panel discussion Monday night, representatives of area synagogues heard firsthand stories of religious school collaboration, of synagogues of different denominations sharing a building and a sanctuary, and of a synagogue that merged with neighboring institutions.

Another focus has looked at shifts in the business model that a congregation can undertake on its own, by changing from the traditional dues and membership model of affiliation used by every synagogue in the region, bar one, to what Glass calls “alternative models of affiliation.”

In November, SLI convened a panel discussion presenting four other models of affiliation.

In the “fair share” model, members pay a fixed percentage of their income instead of a fixed fee (and have the option of asking the synagogue’s adjustments committee for a break).

The “free will” model goes further: Members are told what their per capita share of synagogue expenses are, but whether they pay less or more is up to them.

In what Glass calls the “tapas” model, members pay separately for different services — like at a Spanish tapas restaurant, where diners order small servings of many different dishes. That’s the one model that has a local implementation: The Sha’ar Communities, headed by Rabbi Adina Lewittes.

“I don’t know how viable that is for an existing traditional synagogue,” Glass said. “It seems difficult to implement if you have a building to support.

“The idea is figuring out a way where people can take advantage of the pieces they want and not the pieces they don’t want, and to thereby change the economic picture.”

And then there’s Glass’s own favorite, one she developed herself — the “investor model.” Rather than changing the actual way in which a congregation handles its finances, this model changes the meaning assigned to money paid by members and so changes the relationship between congregations and their congregants.

Don’t think of your synagogue payments as a monthly bill, this model advises. And don’t think of your congregants’ payments as dues. They are not something that is “due” to the synagogue.

Think of dues as investments — payments into the present and future of a cause in which you as a synagogue member believe.

“They’re giving a big chunk of their discretionary income,” Glass said. Therefore, synagogues have to “move to a framework of gratitude and appreciation from one of expectation and entitlement.”

After a year of paying a monthly membership bill, she said, members will ask of their shuls. “Do you send me a thank you note? What did you do to recognize my commitment?

“It wasn’t easy to write that check every month.”

The investment congregants make in their synagogue isn’t measured only in money. It’s measured in time as well — in the time spent within the synagogue each year, and the accumulated years.

Over time, that investment adds up. Glass believes it should be recognized and appreciated properly.

It might seem that shifting to a fair share model — where dues vary based on income — would be the easiest change to make. But in the discussions hosted by SLI, including a presentation from the head of synagogue in Saratoga, N.Y., that had implemented a fair share model, it proved the least popular.

“People don’t want the synagogue to know how much money they make,” said Stephanie Hausner, who works for SLI as a synagogue change specialist. “There’s a privacy issue.”

Additionally, “how much do you make?” becomes one of the first conversations a synagogue has with prospective members. “That’s not exactly a great way to build a relationship,” Glass said.

Instead, for some synagogues, initial discussions of fair share dues lead to the more radical — but not necessarily less feasible — idea of free will dues.

To those who sit on synagogue boards, worrying about the shul’s budget, the notion of making dues voluntary initially sounds crazy.

In fact, though, most Christian congregations fund themselves through voluntary dues. A recent study by the Forward found that Jewish and Christian congregations raised equivalent amounts from their members, proving no advantage to the membership method.

And some congregations have found that moving away from membership has succeeded in reversing revenue declines.

“They got the same income, but it changed the conversation,” Glass said. “People were opting in, and the community was saying, ‘Thank you for your generosity.’”

 
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Laughing with Joan

I made Joan Rivers laugh.

Of course she made me laugh, like she did to millions of others through her decades-long, often unfiltered, and ever-funny career, but yes, I made Joan Rivers laugh.

At the time, I was working at the celebrity-obsessed New York Post, and as the features writer for its women’s section, I had reason to ring up the raspy-voiced, Brooklyn-born blonde for a quickie. I had to grab a quote for some story that I was writing. As I recall, the conversation had turned to food, a favorite subject of the Jewish woman on my end of the phone, and, apparently, of that Jewish woman on the other end as well. Joan told me that she just adored the creamed spinach served at the legendary Brooklyn restaurant, Peter Luger’s — a must-have accompaniment to its famous and robust steaks. Joan told me she would dine there with a hairdresser-to-the-stars, the late Kenneth Battelle. (She kept her physique petite with this practice: She never ate anything after 3 p.m. If she did find herself dining with someone, she popped Altoids to keep her mouth busy.)

 

Cookin’ it up!

Tales of a Teaneck kitchen prodigy

How did 12-year-old Eitan Bernath of Teaneck come to be on the Food Network’s popular cooking show “Chopped”?

“He’s always been curious and he likes science,” said his mother, Sabrina Bernath. “He thinks it’s cool to mix flavors and watch things rise. He also likes to make people happy,” she added, pointing out that he had just brought his friends a freshly baked batch of cinnabuns.

For Eitan, a student at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, cooking is more than just a hobby. Struggling for the right word, the fledgling chef — whose website, cookwithchefeitan.com, will launch this week — described his relationship with the culinary arts as a “passion.”

 

Policies are the best policy

Teaneck synagogue forum addresses child sexual abuse

Does your synagogue have policies in place to protect children from sexual abuse? Do your children’s schools and camps?

Such policies, Dr. Shira Berkovits told a meeting in Teaneck on Sunday night, can make a difference to children’s safety.

Dr. Berkovits is a consultant for the Department of Synagogue Services at the Orthodox Union, and she is developing a guide to preventing child sexual abuse in synagogues. She was speaking at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, as part of a panel on preventing child sexual abuse co-sponsored by three other Teaneck Orthodox congregations: Netivot Shalom, Keter Torah, and Lubavitch of Bergen County.

 

RECENTLYADDED

‘Because the Middle East is funny…’

He hates to say so, but American-Israeli comic Benji Lovitt must admit that last summer’s war was good for business.

It led to a 14-show cross-country tour that will include stops at Temple Emanu-El of Closter on October 30 and at the United Synagogue of Hoboken on November 11.

Since making aliyah from Texas eight years ago, Mr. Lovitt has come back to perform in the United States many times, using his immigrant experiences as fodder for his standup routine. But his daily helpings of humor during Operation Protective Edge in July and August splashed his name across the social-networking world like never before.

“People are looking for really positive Israel programming after the war,” he said. “I spent a lot of the war expressing how a lot of us in Israel were feeling, and many people told me that when everybody was depressed I was the one they looked to for a smile.

 

Project Ezra offers help to job seekers

Robert Hoenig of Teaneck takes over as its second director

This is a tough economy that we live in.

It can be hard to find a job, and hard to think straight when you lose one. It’s hard to figure out how to reorient yourself, how to present yourself, how to maintain at least the façade of confidence.

And it’s also hard to figure out how to pay your bills at the same time.

Project Ezra, founded in 2001, has provided help to local Jews ever since then. It was the brainchild — and really, by all accounts, the heartchild and soulchild too — of Rabbi Yossi Stern of Teaneck, who was its first director, and led it until he died unexpectedly in February. His work not only allowed many people to find work, but also helped support them and allowed them to maintain their dignity as they searched.

 

Reality check

Author to discuss intergenerational ‘experiment’

Katie Hafner began her professional career writing for a small newspaper in Lake Tahoe.

That didn’t last for long, though. “I worked my way up,” said Ms. Hafner, who now writes on health care for the New York Times.

A seasoned journalist, Ms. Hafner was exceptionally well prepared to chronicle an experience in her own life that she calls both an “experiment in intergenerational living” and a “disaster.” Inviting her 77-year-old mother to live with her and her teenage daughter, Zoe, in San Francisco, Ms. Hafner learned that fairy-tale imaginings are no match for emotional truths.

(In her book, Ms. Hafner calls her mother Helen. That is not her real name; her mother requested anonymity, and Ms. Hafner honored the request.)

 
 
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