Cranford – Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim has been serving the Jewish Community of Cranford and beyond for 101 years. But joining a synagogue, once seen as a necessity for Jews, is increasingly viewed as optional due to the high cost of membership dues. While no one is ever turned away for financial reasons, many people do not want to bother negotiating for reduced fees, and either don’t join a community, or defer until their children begin Bar and Bat Mitzvah training, traditionally at third grade.
In an effort to make congregational life more accessible to families in the area, the synagogue’s board of trustees voted on April 8th to switch from traditional dues structure, to a sustaining pledge model, where all commitments to the synagogue are made on a voluntary basis.
Synagogue President, Jackie Baranoff, had looked into changing the dues structure in the past, but it wasn’t until now that she really felt the time was right. “We want people to feel they are a part of a community – we consider TBEMC a family. If people feel connected, they will give with their heart. By being able to offer dues in the kind of way we run our congregation, where community comes before money, everyone feels welcome here, regardless of their financial situation.”
But the big question loomed. Will this change in financial obligation cause the synagogue to lose too much revenue each year? A team of members, led by Mark Kaplan, VP Elect, spent months researching existing synagogues that have adopted similar models and the effects it’s had on the congregations. They researched the over 50 congregations that have adopted this model and spoke in-depth to leaders at several congregations. “We learned the benefits and pitfalls, but in the end, we were so encouraged to hear that on average, membership and contributions increase in this model” says Kaplan. “Even more importantly, communities that adopted this model saw increased engagement from its members, and there was a better feeling about the community in general.”
The synagogue has unveiled the plan as a ‘sustaining pledge model’ with the goal for full transparency between members and leadership. Baranoff says, “There is a certain amount we need annually to run the synagogue and by sharing that sustaining amount with members, we are hoping to see members want to contribute as much as they can. But on the flip side, by making the amount voluntary, we allow families with modest means to know they are always welcome. As families grow with the community, we hope to see those pledges increase both in volume and dollars.”
This change is part of a very exciting year at TBEMC. In August, the community welcomed two new Rabbis, Rachel Schwartz and Neil Tow, to the community. This married duo has brought an energy and feeling of growth to the community, and they have been big proponents of this new model “As Rabbis we want everyone to feel welcome in our community. This change allows TBEMC to build our relationships based on our Jewish values and how much this community means to so many. Right now, there is a great energy in our community and we believe that this new model will enable this incredible spirit to continue to grow in so many amazing ways.”