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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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‘A do-it-yourself disease’

Before Saddle Brook walk, families of ALS patients talk about the disease’s impact

In early 2014, just shy of his 12th birthday, Eitan David Jacobi of Teaneck told his parents he was having trouble raising his arms. It was particularly hard for him to shoot basketballs.

This was a first for the youngster, said his mother, Rabbi Lori Forman-Jacobi, who described her son as an active, funny, and very social kid.

In fact, she said, he had spent the previous summer as a camper at Ramah Nyack. And when he fell off a horse in early November, “we told him to get back on.” Usually that’s good advice. But Eitan did not have the strength to stay on the horse.

“We didn’t have a clue,” Rabbi Forman-Jacobi, a past vice-principal of the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies. “It took us until Thanksgiving to get to a neurologist.” By that time, Eitan was “unable to reach to get to the microwave or to open cabinets.”

 

An ‘unwavering Jewish compass’

As he transitions out of his CEO job, supporters talk about Avi Lewinson

Last week, the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly announced a major change in its professional leadership.

According to a press release, the “exciting changes” saw its CEO, Avi Lewinson of Demarest, leave that position to become a fundraising consultant. He will be replaced in the JCC’s executive suite by Jordan Shenker, who had worked for the JCC Association of North America as a consultant to large JCCs, including to the Kaplen center.

Mr. Lewinson has been at the JCC for 25 years, and at its helm for most of that time. Since the announcement of his role change, his many supporters have been reminiscing about his work there.

 

Nostra Aetate 50 years later

Local rabbi looks back at half-century of progress since ‘radical’ document was published

Judaism and Christianity have shared the world for just about two millennia, and it seems fair to say that for most of that time, the relationship could have been better. Much, much better.

In the last half century, though, the relationship between Jews and Christians — and particularly between Jews and Roman Catholics — has changed radically, Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck says

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Our conversation with Rabbi Marans preceded the Vatican’s announcement this week that it would recognize the “state of Palestine.” The story is updated below.)

It was in 1965, 50 years ago, that Pope Paul VI promulgated Nostra Aetate, a surprisingly brief but thoroughly revolutionary Vatican II document that reworked the church’s relationship with non-Christian faiths.

 

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Burning questions

Rabbi Lawrence Troster reflects on papal environmental letter

On Sunday, Rabbi Lawrence Troster of Teaneck will march through downtown Rome to Vatican City.

The march is being organized to support Pope Francis’ call for action on the environment embodied in the papal letter, or encyclical, he released last week, called Laudato Si (“Blessed Be”). An international interfaith coalition, Our Voices, whose goal is “bringing faith to the climate talks,” is organizing the march. Among the coalition’s members are the American interfaith group GreenFaith, where Rabbi Troster is scholar-in-residence.

This is a period of increased activity for Rabbi Troster and the broader Jewish environmental movement, jumpstarted by the papal letter that Rabbi Troster called “amazing” and leading up to global talks on a new treaty to fight global warming scheduled for November in Paris.

These next few months, Rabbi Troster said, will see the environmental issues taking a higher profile on the Jewish communal agenda, as it becomes a priority for the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and a group he is organizing of rabbis and cantors called Shomrei Breishit. He hopes it will surface in high holiday sermons, and in interfaith actions during Sukkot.

 

A new home for Bonim

‘Builders’ moving to Rockleigh

When Bonim was created in 2002, it brought together volunteers of all skill levels to fix, renovate, and refurbish homes for Jewish families and individuals who could not afford to do it themselves.

Over the years, the group’s mission has not changed, though the number of individuals, families, and groups it helps has grown each year, surpassing 100 at last count. What has changed, however, is Bonim’s official home.

As of July 1, Bonim — formally called Bonim Builders, though “bonim,” in fact, means builders — will become part of the Jewish Home Family, based in Rockleigh, moving from its longtime home at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Carol Silver Elliott, president and CEO of Jewish Home Family, sees the new placement as “ideal.”

 

Musical mitzvah raises money for AIDS organization

Local teen (and friends) perform for a good cause

Haworth teen and stage performer Jeremy Shinder had his first gig when he was 2. It was when his grandfather, Rabbi Frederic Pomerantz, called him up to the bimah to play drums at Temple Beth-El of Northern Valley in Closter.

It is fitting, then, that his recent bar mitzvah celebration — which included a benefit concert for Equity Fights AIDS — took place at that same synagogue.

In fact, his bar mitzvah spanned two synagogues, said his mother, Rabbi Rebecca Shinder, religious leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Florida, N.Y., and associate rabbi at Tenafly’s Temple Sinai for many years.

“My shul is small, so we did Friday night there,” said Rabbi Shinder, who also is the congregation’s cantor and educational director. “It was packed. My father had done a jazz service [at Beth-El, where he is now rabbi emeritus] and Jeremy wanted that to be part of his bar mitzvah celebration. He played the drums for it. We brought in musicians through former congregants at Beth-El.”

 
 
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