Earlier this month, members of Adat Ari El, a Conservative synagogue in Valley Village, received a letter informing them of “an entirely new membership structure.” The new “Sustainability Model” is a give-what-you-can (at the highest level possible) approach that replaces a more traditional system that featured 22 levels of membership based on things such as marital status and age.
This radical shift comes following the hiring last summer of Adat Ari El Executive Director Eric Nicastro, after a steady drop in families joining the synagogue over the past decade. The temple also had several “negative budget years,” Nicastro told the Journal.
However, Nicastro said the move to make the change was not his idea, although it was one he wholeheartedly embraced. Rather, it was part of the interview process.
“One of the reasons I was selected,” he said, “is I came in with this idea of what synagogues were like in L.A. and really around the country, and the antiquated model of membership dues and not being accessible. It’s expensive being Jewish. Finances become this massive roadblock.”
Indeed, before Adat Ari El’s new model, a family of four could pay close to $4,000 in annual dues. The new model has an average “sustainability level” of $2,800, but it also gives families and individuals the option to pay as little as $500 annually (which includes High Holy Days tickets), without having to supply financial information.
“I came in with this idea of what synagogues were like in L.A. and really around the country, and the antiquated model of membership dues and not being accessible.” — Eric Nicastro
“When I read [the letter], my first reaction was relief,” said Talia Strauss, a Studio City resident who has been a member of Adat Ari El for about 10 years. Strauss also has children at the temple’s early childhood center and day school. “A lot of people have complained about temple memberships, especially for families like us [also] paying tuition for school. To have to pay a temple membership, it’s an extra that you say, ‘Wow. That’s great. Maybe this year I don’t want to do the full temple dues, and I would love to pay a quarter of that.’ That would make me be able to breathe the rest of the year.”
While some newer and progressive congregations are using alternative membership models — some are even abandoning the use of the word member altogether — it is still a relatively new concept at Conservative temples, and some Adat Ari El stakeholders were resistant, or at least uncertain.
“What we had to get [the 67-member board] past was the fear that everyone is going to pay the lowest amount possible,” Nicastro said. “However, the data is the opposite. People actually pay more.”
Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard counts himself among “those people who were a little more cautious.” But ultimately, he told the Journal, “we felt that the risk was one we could absorb. The other thing is, the dues model is a risk in and of itself. We just weren’t as cognizant to it because it’s what we had been doing.”
Although the change is very new, Nicastro and Bernhard are buoyed by the early response. Several households have made commitments of $4,000 or $5,000. One congregant who had been paying $100 per year for many years upped the contribution to $250.
“What it allows us to do more than anything else,” Bernhard said, “is take the feeling that being part of the Jewish community is transactional and move it toward a partnership you enter with other people to create the kind of community that you want to live in and reflects your values.”