Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco had a problem. No matter how hard it tried to promote its innovative Hebrew school, dynamic clergy or range of services, prospective members always had one question: How much does it cost?
"They didn't want to know who the rabbi was or what the programs were," recalled Gary Cohn, the temple's executive director. "They wanted to know about dues, and we wanted to take that out of the equation."
So four years ago the Reform temple did something that is standard marketing in the for-profit world, but unusual for a Jewish organization: It offered one-year trial memberships.
Under Temple Emanu-El's policy of "voluntary dues," newcomers are encouraged, but not required, to make a contri-bution the first year. If they stay on as members, they are asked to increase the contribution gradually during the next three years to the standard rate: 2 percent of the family's household income, with a suggested minimum of $1,400.
Dues for continuing members are collected according to an honor system, with no one at the temple checking tax forms to ensure that people are honestly reporting their incomes. That means some people have cheated. One family bought a $5 million house but paid only $2,000 in dues, said Cohn.
"Some congregations will make a big deal of that," Cohn said. "We say, OK, it happened. Now it's our job to create a bond between us and the member so when we ask for a large capital gift for the endowment or ask them to sponsor a program, they're going to want to do it."
So far, the voluntary first year has attracted approximately 200 new members each year, compared with 50 new members per year before the policy existed.
About 65 percent have gone on to become paying members.
In a Brandeis University study of Emanu-El's policy, 78 percent of new members said the dues policy was important in their decision to join the synagogue. About 73 percent of those surveyed had never belonged to a synagogue as adults.
Many newcomers actually opted to pay more than they were asked, with one person jumping from a $400 contri-bution to a $4,000 contribution and another going from giving nothing to contributing $3,000.Despite the apparent success of Emanu-El's experiment, which has become standard policy for the 1,775-family congregation, only a handful of synagogues have mimicked the approach so far.
However, Synagogue 2000, an organization leading synagogue transformation efforts around the country, recently began encouraging congregations to think about dues when it makes efforts to attract newcomers.
Membership dues vary widely throughout the country. They range from $100 in small congregations that offer few services to more than $3,000 plus building fund contributions in large synagogues with religious schools and other amenities. Most congregations have set rates for families, singles and seniors, but a growing number are shifting to rates based on percentage of income.
While most synagogues say they turn no one away and are willing to discuss scholarships or reduced rates privately, sticker shock often scares off potential members. Other Jews considering membership frequently economize by joining a synagogue only when their children reach Hebrew school age.
"We recognize that very frequently the financial considerations keep people away from synagogues," said Rabbi Larry Hoffman, a Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion professor who is one of Synagogue 2000's co-founders.
Voluntary dues can be a hard sell to congregations, said Hoffman, noting that "many think they're unrealistic."
As Rabbi Moshe Krupka, national director of synagogue services for the Orthodox Union said, "The bottom line is that synagogues need dues as a basis for their budgets. Synagogues don't have readily available cash flow other than dues and donations, so it's not a very appealing practice to have voluntary dues or abolish dues."
One particular strategy Synagogue 2000 plans to promote is combining voluntary dues with a Jewish Lamaze class as a way to recruit young families.
The Lamaze class would provide a forum for expectant parents not only to learn about childbirth but to study Jewish rituals and teachings related to parenting. The idea is to create a community of young parents who then feel tied to the congregation and want to stay on as members even after they face a charge.