September 22, 2018

Will synagogue’s move to a no-dues model work?

Temple Ner Simcha, a 3-year-old congregation in Westlake Village with about 100 member families as of May, announced this summer that it was moving to a no-dues model that will include not charging for High Holy Day services. Previously, the cost of a family membership was $1,200 and High Holy Day tickets for nonmembers were $225. 

The Journal spoke with Rabbi Michael Barclay, a Los Angeles native and the spiritual leader of the transdenominational temple, which he describes as being liturgically between Reform and Conservative. He talked about the reason for the change, the response from colleagues, and why he thinks the new approach is going to work. An edited version of that conversation follows.

JEWISH JOURNAL: Why did you decide to make this change?

RABBI MICHAEL BARCLAY: I have always said this was my goal. I wanted to get to a dues-free model. This is something I said continually from Day One. I have always hated the concept of pay to pray. I find it offensive at the very deepest of levels. We all have our underlying foundations. My father came back from World War II having been a Flying Tiger and went, in uniform, to Kol Nidrei services at a temple in Chicago, and they would not let him in because he had not bought a ticket. This was a story I grew up with. He would not step into a temple again until my brother’s bar mitzvah. So my entire life, I have never believed in pay to pray. One of the reasons I came out here to Westlake is it’s the perfect storm to demonstrate that you don’t have to have this model.

JJ: How so?

MB: According to studies done in the last 10 years, apparently there are over 25,000 Jews in the Conejo Valley who don’t go to synagogue even two days a year. [Also], we’re in a decent income demographic. A big player out here is Chabad. If we can do the same model with a more accessible and inclusive theology … it’s about truly being inclusive. The idea of saying that so-and-so is a member and so-and-so is not makes a hierarchy and not a kahal, a community.

JJ: When did the discussion to make this change start in earnest at Ner Simcha?

MB: After the last High Holidays, because they were so successful, I believed we had hit a critical mass of people who had committed to coming to our services. We had north of 500 people. And so I believed that we had enough people to give this a shot. It’s not that we’re trying this as a brand new synagogue or as a chavurah group with 15 people. As an aside, in the evangelical world, this is called a mosaic model.

JJ: Do you hang out with a lot of evangelicals?

MB: Actually, because I was a professor at Loyola Marymount, I hang with a lot more than you might think. … The way a church happens, it gets seeded. A couple people say, We can build a community here. Here is enough money for the first one, two or three years. By that time, there are enough committed community members that it is a self-sustaining church.

JJ: Is there a precedent for this in the Jewish community?

MB: It is how many Orthodox synagogues work. That’s how Judaism worked prior to the big, institutional synagogue model. Everyone gave from their hearts and gave what they could.

JJ: But there is rent, salaries to pay.

MB: There is rent, salaries, insurance, programming costs, advertising costs, every cost that every full-service temple has. We are taught that everything is in the hands of God except the fear of God. That’s a Jewish teaching. So you know what? I have faith that we do our part and God is going to help with the rest. Yes, it’s scary. But it’s a choice to be in faith or fear. We have faith people will step up.

JJ: Have you seen that already?

MB: We have gotten donations from people outside the country who have heard about this. We got a donation from a foundation, donations from non-Jews who are saying what our synagogue is doing is righteous. We’ll know a lot more by the High Holidays. There will be a pledge appeal, and hopefully people will give from their hearts. We may have significantly more people in the room, which means we have that many more to be on a financially strong foothold. The Jews in the area are overwhelmingly embracing this model. It’s already bringing back a whole bunch of families. I think we’re over 100 different families coming to High Holidays that have not come before.

JJ: But you have gotten some flak as well, correct?

MB: I have gotten a lot of heat from people. I have received phone calls from some people who think this is amazing and are praying it works well for us. Sadly, I have also gotten phone calls or emails that have said, “You can’t do this. You are putting more pressure on us.”

JJ: Did you lose any congregants? 

MB: We didn’t “lose” anyone. We just said, “Look, this is a synagogue that is making a choice to act on faith.” For no one is that more clear than for our clergy. I give my tzedakah to the synagogue as well. How can I ask anyone else to do that if I’m not doing that? I give back to the synagogue a portion of my salary. … This is such an important and valuable idea that many colleagues are doing all they can to support it so that it can become the norm — an example being that we are blessed this year by Cantor Sam Glaser, who is coming out to join us and help build and make the community even stronger. [Glaser will be participating in all of Temple Ner Simcha’s High Holy Days services.] … [Sam is] one of the top 10 Jewish musicians in the country, according to Moment magazine. He has performed all over the world.

JJ: How did this come about?

MB: Bashert. We have a lot of mutual friends. One of the reasons that we have Sam is because he also believes in this model and thinks it’s fabulous what we are doing. … One of most important pieces is how does this model work? I have met with a lawyer and three CPAs, and I have done all of the business projections, low and high. If you have faith in God and faith in the Jewish soul, then this financially will work and it will get more people in the seats at services. It’s a choice, but it’s a choice to build a synagogue based on faith, and if you aren’t building a synagogue on faith, then what are you building it on?