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Local synagogue takes leap of faith

Congregation Beth Shalom deviates from tradition to find pleasant results within the SCV community

Posted: February 15, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: February 15, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Rabbi Ronald Hauss leads the first assembly of Congregation Beth Shalom in the currently under construction synagogue scheduled to be finished later this year.

 

One local synagogue is turning a time-honored tradition on its head, and calling to open synagogue memberships to everyone.

Congregation Beth Shalom made the bold decision last May to do away with required membership fees. Instead, they instituted an open membership and voluntary contributions, a move which is quite radical to most Jewish synagogues.

Jewish synagogues across the United States follow a similar mandatory paid membership structure. Congregation Beth Shalom was charging nearly $1,800 for yearly membership dues.

They found the traditional model was turning members away. Every year, memberships slowly declined while inflation called for yearly increases in membership fees.

Something didn’t feel right.

“Membership fees were getting in the way of what our goal was, to serve people at all times and all conditions regardless of situations,” said Ronald Hauss, Rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom. “A religious community should exist for every member that wants it and it shouldn’t put impediments in the way.”

In May 2013 after much debate and consideration, the board of directors decided to take a leap of faith and change the membership structure. They opened membership to anyone who wanted to join, making contributions to the synagogue entirely voluntary.

They offered recommended guidelines, but in no way was a family required to pay a specific amount to be part of the synagogue.

“We need to trust if we do what we should, serving them in good and bad times, they will continue to support the congregation.”

Breaking Tradition, Keeping the Law

Jewish synagogues have a unique dilemma in collecting voluntary contributions. Unlike Christian churches which pass an offering plate on Sunday mornings, the synagogue is forbidden by Jewish law to collect or exchange money on the Sabbath.

That meant the synagogue wouldn’t be able to simply turn to a Christian model of voluntary offerings or tithes.

The synagogue had to find a way to communicate and exchange voluntary pledges without breaking Jewish laws.

The synagogue mailed information to current and former members detailing the program. Those interested, simply filled the information out, wrote a check or offered a credit card based on what they wanted to pledge.

“We expected a reduction to occur,” said Phil Levy, Vice President of Finance for the synagogue.
What Congregation Beth Shalom began to see, stunned the board of directors. Membership began to grow by leaps and bounds.

Within three short months membership grew by 50 percent. What did that mean for the synagogue financially?

Some families increased the amount they pledged to the synagogue.

Overall, the voluntary contribution made by a family decreased by about 30 percent.

Considering the dramatic increase in membership, gaining new faces, and in some cases familiar faces who were returning after many years, more than made up for the change in dues.

“It was a definite plus for the synagogue’s bottom line,” said Levy. “It worked better than we could have imagined.”

While the official review of the program and vote to keep the new model will not be made until May 2014, Hauss and other board members are more than confident the new model will be kept.

“We feel good about getting rid of a barrier to synagogue,” said Jason Feffer, synagogue president.

The change had a positive financial affect on the synagogue. They look forward to seeing what next year has to bring.

“We want to offer people meaningful contact,” said Hauss. “You give them a sense of meaning and being which is connected with a community that is larger than them, without any barriers, they are going to respond.

 

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