Innovation Station


San Diego Synagogue Adapts Innovative Dues Model to Make Membership Affordable to Everyone

Photo by Joshua Wakefield

No matter how close we are with members in our kehilla (Jewish community), we’re not always aware of the struggles those closest to us face. Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego, CA, realized many of its members were struggling to keep up with mandatory membership dues, so the synagogue created an innovative membership dues model that allows members to pay what they can afford without having to feel the embarrassment or stress of not meeting a set financial number each pay period.

Photo by Joshua Wakefield

Despite initial concerns about whether or not the model would be effective, Tifereth Israel Synagogue has reaped several benefits since making the transition. Most notably, the synagogue has seen a near 20 percent rise in membership and much greater satisfaction from the congregation since the system was instituted in the summer of 2014, according to President Dr. Seth Krosner. It’s also helped solve an issue many synagogues around the nation face—getting young adults and families involved in the synagogue. By not having to pay a mandatory amount, there’s no stigma or pressure behind young people just starting out in the workforce to pay a little less than a well-established family.

The new system wasn’t put in place overnight—it took plenty of behind-the-scenes planning and number-crunching for the synagogue to determine the cash flow needed to flourish long-term. “We created a formula where we take all the expenses for the budgetary year and subtract tuition, endowment and other sources of income,” Seth says. “We then divide the remaining difference by the number of congregations to get our sustaining number.”

Photo by Joshua Wakefield

The model, named T’rumah in reference to the Exodus chapters that describe how the Israelites “gave from the heart” to help build the Tabernacle, was the first of its kind in a Conservative synagogue west of the Mississippi, according to Seth. For synagogues looking to adapt a similar approach moving forward, Seth has some words of advice. “Intense preparation has to take place in order to implement this model,” he says. “There needs to be an understanding of the numbers and an awareness that some months the dues income will be lower and some will be higher.”

Tifereth Israel Synagogue makes it a point to be inclusive to everyone in the congregation, no matter how much they wish to pay. Small tweaks are occasionally done in order to give incentives to those who pay past a certain threshold. “In the third year of the program, we made a change to include High Holy Day tickets only above a certain, relatively low, level of T’rumah,” Seth says. “Other than that, all of our members get full membership benefits.”

The synagogue is still engaging in an analysis of the specific financial effects of the new model, but for Seth, the transition has so far been a success. “Letting our members pay what they’re comfortable with has greatly increased the satisfaction of our members and I’m hopeful that this new model will be sustainable financially for the synagogue.”

For more information about T’rumah or Tifereth Israel Synagogue, please visit here.

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