November 18, 2018

Adat Ari El Shakes Up Dues Model

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.”

Being a Jew is a bargain

If you want to be Jewish, money is no object. In fact, it’s a bargain.

It used to be pricey, say, 25 years ago when the postwar heyday of the suburban synagogue coincided with the busing-fueled exodus into private Jewish schools, a family could spend tens of thousands on temple dues, day school tuition and summer camps. Add in the cost of a keeping-up-with-the-Schwartzes bar mitzvah, maybe a trip to Israel, and the surcharge on kosher food and, yes, Jewish life was a financial slog.

But the Lord heard of the cry of Her People, and things changed.

Actually, the credit goes elsewhere: to Jewish institutions themselves, which found ways to make it easier for Jews to afford practicing Judaism; to Jewish groups and individuals who pioneered more accessible avenues into Jewish life; and to the internet, which lowered costs and increased competition, as it has done for everything else.

The result is that if you are an American Jew who wants to participate in Jewish communal life, you have options, lots of them. They may not be free or even cheap, but it is no longer one-high-price-fits-all.

The subject came up after the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed on July 30 titled, “It’s too expensive to be Jewish.” The piece by Leslee Komaiko generated a lot of clicks, controversy and comments. It popped up on numerous Facebook feeds. Alas, it was misleading. 

Based on the author’s personal experience, it failed to take into account what a simple Google search could tell you: If you want to participate meaningfully in Jewish communal life, there now are many low-cost, and in some cases no-cost, ways to do so.

Let’s start with Birthright, the program that offers every Jewish young adult the opportunity to go on a 10-day trip to Israel — for about $250. 

But wait, as the infomercial would say, there’s more. Jewish newspapers online? Free. (And so is the Jewish Journal in print.) High-quality online Jewish education from YIVO? $99. Classic and contemporary Jewish texts online? Free. The internet will continue to open up opportunities for less expensive Jewish learning, digital meetups, even virtual synagogue services.

As for real-world synagogues, there are numerous options ranging from free to low-cost to high-end. 

There are newer congregations with progressive cost models like IKAR, Open Temple, Valley Torah Outreach and Nashuva, and there is Chabad. But also many mainstream synagogues have developed membership models that work for lower income brackets. The Jewish Journal publishes a directory of free High Holy Days services, a list that grows every year. Beyond Los Angeles, any city with a good-size Jewish community has similar programs going on. 

Want summer camp? Scholarships are widely available. Each year, for instance, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles holds a Tour de Summer Camp bicycle event (this year it’s on Oct. 29) that helps send over 1,500 kids a year to Jewish summer camp.

A lot of these programs developed in the aftermath of the continuity crisis, when surveys showed a declining Jewish population and participation in Jewish life. Organized Jewry reacted in the way it knows best — full-fledged panic — but out of that came an array of low- or no-cost initiatives to lure people into Jewish life. Still more initiatives came into being after the recession ripped a hole in the cost model of Jewish institutional life — a hole that may never be fully repaired.

The L.A. Times piece focused on the writer’s attempt to arrange for her 12-year-old son’s bar mitzvah lessons. (To the commenters who shamed her for “waiting so long”: Nice going; nothing like derision to draw people into the fold.) Lessons, she said, can cost $80 to $140 per hour.

I don’t think $80 per hour to learn and train for a meaningful rite of passage is outrageous, but it’s possible to spend even less. Some families I know get together and meet on Friday afternoon in one another’s homes, splitting the cost of a freelance rabbi or Jewish educator to teach their children. At nightfall, everyone celebrates Shabbat together. There’s also the “Craigslist” route, with many low-cost tutors online.

Most of the complaints I hear about the high cost of Jewish life revolve around day school. I know, because I used to complain about it, too. Annual tuition at a Jewish day school can top $40,000 for high school. It’s expensive — but so is non-Jewish private school.   

Even so, 50 percent of the students in Jewish day schools in Los Angeles are on some form of financial aid. There are scholarships to make it as affordable as possible — but Jewish day school always will be the top-shelf liquor of Jewish involvement. For Orthodox parents who have larger families and see day school as a necessity, this is a special burden. But for the vast majority of those seeking to engage in Jewish life, it will always be a voluntary sacrifice of some sort.

And that’s the larger point. Things we value — cars, sports camps, pasta at Felix — cost money. At some point, Jewish involvement does require a choice — you’ll need to pay something, which means foregoing something else. But in exchange, you get a sense of meaning, community, comfort, tradition, belonging, intellectual stimulation and good jokes.

Like I said, it’s a bargain.


ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.