By Stacey Dresner
WESTBOROUGH – Taking a cue from Dr. Ron Wolfson’s book, Relational Judaism, members of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Westborough voted on May 31 to implement a new system of voluntary membership pledges.
“Terumah is the name of Beth Tikvah Synagogue’s new approach to membership dues beginning July 1, 2015,” said E.J. Dotts, president of Beth Tikvah. “In the Torah, terumah indicated a ‘free-will’ offering, not a required one. At Beth Tikvah, terumah is a membership pledge, an annual voluntary financial commitment that is used for our operating budget. It is pledged each spring for the fiscal year that begins July 1st.”
Of Beth Tikvah’s 53 families, about 30 families attended its annual congregation meeting on May 31 and voted on implementing the new pledge system. “It was almost unanimous,” Dotts said. “There was one vote against.”
At the congregational meeting, the members also voted to change the by-laws regarding their affiliation and membership; formerly Conservative, the congregation voted to be Independent.
Beth Tikvah’s by-laws used to say that to be a member one had to be Jewish.
“Since we are now Independent, we have changed that to reflect that we have a lot of interfaith families,” Dotts said. “Now, [the by-laws say] ‘any person interested in joining our Jewish community, aged 18 of years or older of good moral character, shall be eligible for membership.’”
Dues rates at Beth Tikvah used to run the gamut: regular dues of $2,100 for families (half of that for single parent families), $750 for young adult married couples, $1,500 for those between 55-65; and $250 for seniors 65 and over. “It felt like every member was on their own dues plan,” Dotts recalled. “And it makes assumptions that senior citizens can only afford to pay $250 or that a family who are dealing with childcare and college and everything else, can afford the full synagogue dues option.”
“We have too many ‘categories’ of membership, coupled with the need for some families to apply for an abatement of dues, making it absurdly complex,” agreed Jonathan Rappaport, board member, past president and current vice president of education.
“Additionally, many people are embarrassed to have to apply for abatements. Other families are inhibited from joining in the first place if they feel they can’t afford membership. We feel that this old system of membership fees structure is simply broken and acts as a barrier for some people from joining. On the other side of the coin, there may be people who can actually afford to pledge amounts higher than our current dues, and this encourages people to do that as well. Evidence from other synagogues who have adopted a pledge system is that it works well, and often brings in more financial support for the congregation. We think it is a good idea whose time has come.”
Beth Tikvah, which celebrated its 18th anniversary last year, has been thinking of changing its dues system for some time.
“The genesis was actually two years ago when the board started reading Relational Judaism by Ron Wolfson,” Dotts said. “Last year we had a program in Central Mass. and Wolfson came and spoke. We attended that workshop and the board went to various workshops after that. It just seemed feasible to start looking down that path.”
Rappaport, a founding member of Beth Tikvah, along with his wife, Rana, and three other families, suggested using a pledge-based system when the congregation was begun 19 years ago.
“As a professional musician that at one time was a choir director/organist in a Congregational church, I had observed the pledge system successfully at work in that setting 25 years ago,” he said. “I actually had proposed this type of system when Beth Tikvah was founded, but it was met with skepticism by others and was not adopted simply because ‘that is never done in Jewish congregations.’ There were at that time no contemporary models of this kind of system 19 years ago. Now there are successful models.”
Dotts said that the Beth Tikvah board wants potential members to join for reasons other than finances.
“When someone calls and asks about our synagogue, often the first question they will ask is, ‘What are the dues?’ or people search on websites, wondering, ‘What are they going to charge me?’” Dotts explained. “We don’t think that should be the basis for the decision; there are lots of factors that go into choosing a synagogue but money shouldn’t be one of them. We want the conversation to be about us and why someone should choose us as a synagogue, and then if they choose us they can decide for themselves what value they see in us.”
Dotts said that, ideally, to sustain operations, they would need every family to pay $2,000, but she added that if only half of the member families ended up paying $2,000 in annual pledges, the congregation will be able to meet its budget. “There are some levels above the sustaining, so if people are doing well and want to support those who can’t do the $2000 they can pay more, and if you can’t pay the $2,000 and want to be a supporter and pay $500, you can.”
The congregation could tweak the system if need be.
“The by-laws adoption allows for the Board to set any dues system or pledge system, so that if for some reason we feel after a year or two that this is not an improvement, we can always go back to the drawing board and revise it or completely change it,” Rappaport said. “We feel we have nothing to lose by trying it, and hopefully it will make joining the synagogue easier and more accessible to people from all walks of life.”
Is the Beth Tikvah board sure this new approach will work?
“I think there has been a lot of research into other congregations that have done this successfully,” Dotts said. “We were never like some synagogues where the whole abatement process is very intimidating – where they want to see and you really have to prove you can’t afford the dues. We never had that approach at Beth Tikvah. Our approach pretty much had been all along, if you ask, you get. We are not going to look at W-2s, we are not going to pry into your private matters. If you tell us you can’t afford our dues and you can only pay ‘this much,’ then you can only pay ‘this much.’” Since we really had this all along, I feel comfortable that people are going to continue to pay pretty much what they have been paying… There is a core group of dedicated long term members who are really invested in who we are and that we continue.”
Rappaport said that the entire topic has allowed Beth Tikvah’s members to think about the congregation’s future.
“I believe that this topic has engaged the Congregation in very substantive conversations about the synagogue and its future, which is always a healthy thing,” he said. “Instead of the Synagogue having a transactional relationship with its members, we hope this will encourage people to think about the value of the Congregation in their lives and the lives of their family members, and pledge amounts that they are truly comfortable pledging. It sets up a very different sort of relationship. The Synagogue will no longer be the “authority” to set dues (which for some are barriers), but rather put the onus on people to pledge what they feel is the value of the Synagogue to them.”
Why do I support it?