Rethinking Membership Structures

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, opens with each Israelite contributing a required half-shekel toward building the Tent of Meeting.  The Torah states that “The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less” (Exodus 30:15). Other verses describe additional voluntary contributions toward building the Tabernacle.

Today, this practice has inspired many synagogues to rethink membership structures. With younger Jews feeling less of an obligation to join and scores of folks of all ages feeling alienated, the fixed-dues model can discourage potential members.

Forward-looking congregations are exploring models that provide more engagement, equity and good feeling – and often better monetary results. The “fair share” model asks for contributions calculated as a simple percentage of household income. The philanthropic model, like the one used by Chabad, is purely based on donations, but requires significant fundraising efforts.

Under the “sustaining” model, a congregation calculates the amount each household would need to contribute to sustain the congregation’s expenses. They share the result with congregants, who choose how much to pay, knowing what a sustainable rate would be.

Finally, a “tiered” model requests an achievable base contribution from everyone, like the half-shekel of our Torah portion, with additional voluntary donation amounts, like the Israelites’ Tabernacle donations. Just as in our Torah portion, in this model, everyone is able to contribute the same base amount, with dignity.

When we consider both ancient and new models, we can include many more Jews in building the Jewish community.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

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