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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 rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar ... yet

It’s not every day that a liquor license comes up for sale in Teaneck. (State licensing laws limit the number of licenses in a formula based on a town’s population.)

So when Jonathan Gellis heard that the owner of Vinny O’s in Teaneck was looking to sell the establishment, including the license, after 28 years behind the bar, he realized that only one of the more than 20 kosher restaurants in Teaneck could sell alcohol.

That seemed to be an opportunity.

Mr. Gellis is a stockbroker by day. He’s used to working in a regulated business — and the alcohol business in New Jersey is highly regulated.

Mr. Gellis grew up in Teaneck; his parents moved the family here from Brooklyn in 1975, back when the town had only one kosher restaurant. His four children attend Yeshivat Noam and the Frisch School, and he serves on the board of both institutions. He also is president of Congregation Keter Torah.

 

The converso’s dilemma

Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

How to learn Hebrew

Confronting American Jews’ linguistic illiteracy, many programs offer help

Can you read a Hebrew newspaper or order a meal in an Israel restaurant? If you’re like the vast majority of American Jews, the answer is no.

“Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet,” according to last October’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the famous study released by the Pew Research Center.

“But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew,” the report continues.

Alarmed by this finding, the World Zionist Organization, the Israeli Education Ministry, and several partner organizations recently launched the Hebrew Language Council of North America to help more Jews become conversant in the language of their literature, lore, and land — as well as the language of their peers in Israel.

 

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Puffin marks jubilee of Freedom Summer

It was a summer that changed lives.

It was a fight for American democracy in the face of terrorism.

It was dubbed “Freedom Summer,” and it drew 700 college students and young adults to help Mississippi activists fight for civil rights.

The year was 1964.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech the previous August, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In Washington, a far-reaching civil rights bill that would desegregate public facilities had been introduced to Congress by President Lyndon Johnson — but quickly stalled and was then filibustered for months.

 

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Rabbi Moshe Mirsky heads religious services department at Daughters of Miriam

Rabbi Moshe Mirsky thinks his new position as the director of religious services at the Daughters of Miriam Center/Gallen Institute in Clifton is a perfect shidduch.

Actually, it is not quite a new job. Rabbi Mirsky had already worked there with Rabbi Ira Kronenberg, who just retired from the home this month, in the late 1980s. Back then Rabbi Mirsky was studying for simicha — rabbinic ordination. He worked there once again in the 1990s, while he was teaching at various day schools.

“I would come on the weekends for Shabbat and on yom tov to assist Rabbi Kronenberg,” he said. “I would lead davening, give Torah classes, go to the Alzheimer’s unit, and try to engage the residents Jewishly. I had a special rapport with Rabbi Kronenberg and the residents.”

Indeed, then he already was doing many of the things he is doing now as director of religious affairs.

 

Poor assumptions = poor policy

ZOA’s congressional lobbyist talks about Israel, Oslo, and plans doomed to fail

The two-state solution is a chimera, Joshua London says. It is a lovely vision of something that never can be real, and chasing it — chasing the plan that would make Israel and Palestine two separate states, living next to each other in prickly but sustainable peace — is chasing the wind.

Mr. London, who lives in suburban Maryland, is the Zionist Organization of America’s co-director of government affairs. He will be taking a break from his daily routine — lobbying Congress to further the ZOA’s own understanding of the Middle East — to speak at a parlor meeting in Teaneck on Wednesday.

His goal, he said, “is to bring clarity and critical analysis to the longstanding U.S. policy for support of — and in fact to apply pressure toward — the creation of a Palestinian state from territory that otherwise belongs to Israel, and to do so under the notion that this will bring peace.”

 
 
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