Economy forces tough dues decisions for congregants, synagogues.

With Rosh Hashanah 5770 fast approaching, the synagogue membership renewal season is in full swing. Throughout the summer months, billing statements with letters explaining dues, fees — and often increases — arrive in congregants’ mailboxes.

But many congregants affected by the economic downturn of the past year are struggling to meet their financial obligations, including those to their synagogues. At the same time, synagogues are facing their own reduced incomes and diminished returns on investments, leaving them all the more dependent on membership dues to help meet rising costs.

Although it’s too early to know the full impact of the economy on this year’s membership (dues collection continues through the fall), many shuls have been anticipating and are already seeing an increase in requests for financial assistance. As a result, they are faced with the need to cut costs while trying to maintain the offerings and services members have come to expect.

While balancing the financial needs of a synagogue with those of its members is often a struggle, it has become especially challenging in the current economy. Clergy and staff remain committed to extending compassionate help to their members in times of need, even when it means partially forgiving dues; at the same time, synagogues have to balance their budgets. Members, on the other hand, often don’t know how to ask for help, or are embarrassed by the prospect of doing so. But with some knowledge of shul policies and procedures on dues assistance, and of the role dues play in a synagogue’s budget, congregants in financial straits will most likely find they can reach a workable solution with their synagogue.

Allen Ishakis, executive director of Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, said he’s “definitely seen an uptick in the number of people who have asked for help.”

Because the Orthodox synagogue saw the problem developing over the past year, Ishakis said the congregation decided to send out membership packets to its 750 families earlier this year so the staff would have more time to deal with special requests.

Requesting assistance with Beth Jacob’s $1,320 basic membership fee is an informal and confidential process. All requests go directly to Ishakis and remain private, though occasionally, he needs to consult the board president or finance committee. He sits down with anyone who asks for help and discusses what their needs are.

“Everybody’s situation is different,” he said.

Ellen Franklin, executive director at Temple Judea in Tarzana, said she has been seeing congregants struggling on two fronts — completing payments on last year’s dues and paying for the upcoming year. And while the Reform synagogue’s “policies for dealing with dues relief are great,” Franklin said, “in these times, we end up with a lot of individual, case-by-case decisions.”

At Judea, where the standard membership contribution is $2,750 per year per family, members fill out a form to request assistance, which only a small group of people (the director of finance, one board member and Franklin) has access to. In addition, “our philosophy on adjustments is completely based on the honor system…. We want to hear people’s stories; we don’t want to see their tax returns,” Franklin said, referring to a practice some synagogue administrators once used to determine need.

At Temple Beth Am, a 1,100-family Conservative synagogue in West Los Angeles where basic family dues are $2,585, members asking for relief complete an application that is reviewed by a small “equity committee” and kept confidential, Executive Director Sheryl Goldman said. Though the form asks members to state their income and expenses (no proof of either is required), it also includes space to describe extenuating circumstances, such as a failed business or a prolonged illness. Congregants are also asked to suggest the amount of dues they feel they can afford, a practice shared by many synagogues.

Temple Judea’s Franklin said her goal is to “work out a solution that’s equitable for both the synagogue and the family,” but her instinct is to grant the amount families suggest. She also tries to keep the process as simple and straightforward as possible so “the predominant conversation with the shul isn’t about business, since that would detract from the ability to see this as a sacred community,” she said.

Most synagogues also offer options for paying dues over time, whether as two or more lump sums or monthly payments throughout the year. Ishakis of Beth Jacob said he’s always willing to give people extra time, “as long as they’re making progress … even if they’re paying $25 a month.”

Beth Am’s Goldman said that some members, especially those who have never before had to ask for assistance, are reluctant to approach the issue.

“We want to make them as comfortable as possible … and let them know that now, of all times, we want to support them through this,” she said, echoing a sentiment expressed by all the synagogue staff consulted for this article.

At the same time, the executive directors said, members need to understand what it takes to keep a synagogue running.

While congregants might argue they don’t use their shul often, and therefore shouldn’t have to pay much to belong, a synagogue still needs to be up and running every day.

“It’s wonderful that people don’t need our services all the time, but we still have to be here for when you do,” said Franklin, citing funerals as an example of an infrequent but essential service.

Synagogues have always tried to educate their congregants that they are not fee-for-service organizations, said Jane Zuckerman, who was executive director at Temple Israel of Hollywood for 10 years before becoming a nonprofit marketing and development consultant two years ago. She believes that many people, especially younger ones, “don’t see supporting temple as a moral and ethical obligation — they’d pay more money for a gym.”

In times of financial trouble, some families might not be willing “to prioritize membership relative to their means,” said Goldman of Beth Am. And synagogues have always struggled with how they can remain open and caring, letting it be known there is flexibility on dues, without inviting people to take unfair advantage. Administrators also said some members have misconceptions about where synagogues get funding.

“A lot of people make the erroneous assumption that there is some umbrella organization that helps to support synagogues,” Zuckerman said.

In fact, synagogues must rely on dues, program fees, school fees (where applicable) and fundraising in order to operate. Members who can afford to do so will sometimes pay some form of enhanced dues, which can help make up for those who can’t afford standard dues.

The percentage of a synagogue’s costs supported by dues varies, although most shuls aim for 60 to 70 percent. But in reality, the figure is often much lower; dues at Judea, for example, cover between 45 and 50 percent of the synagogue’s costs.

When income from dues decreases, synagogues have to find ways to make up their budget shortfalls, either through program reductions, staff cutbacks, increased fees for programs or fundraising. While no one consulted for this article wants to make any of these cuts, they would rather do so than see members leave.

Synagogues across the board are facing these same challenges, but each must ultimately grapple with funding decisions for themselves.

“These are the times that challenge and test us, and there are no easy answers,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, whose fall 2008 survey of more than 30 rabbis revealed widespread concern over the developing financial challenges.

Despite their individual needs and responses, Diamond anticipates a commonality in shuls’ responses to the crisis. He believes synagogues across all denominations will be “resetting their priorities and holding on to what’s most important, their three basic functions: as a beit knesset, where Jews come together; a beit tefillah, house of prayer; and a beit midrash, house of learning.” 

The rest, as they say, is commentary.