Kol Ami’s new pledge system eliminates dues payments.

Outside Temple Kol Ami: Rabbi Ariana Silverman; Paul Gross of Farmington Hills, first vice president; Rabbi Norman Roman; Gene Farber of West Bloomfield, treasurer; and Cheryl Chaben, executive director. (Photo by Brett Mountain)

Temple Kol Ami members opened their mailboxes earlier this month to find an envelope with an innovative request inside. Having voted on May 22 to abolish the synagogue’s dues structure, the congregation received a letter explaining how to pledge the amount they intend to pay over the course of the coming year in place of an annual payment statement.

The new system is an attempt to retain members and attract new congregants as well as create a plan that shows respect for those unable to pay the full dues amount.

“It can make all the difference in the world when instead of paying what we are supposed to pay, we pay what we are able to pay,” said Paul Gross, Kol Ami’s first vice president.

The idea was first discussed at an executive board meeting of the West Bloomfield synagogue in November. Gross was charged with leading the research and coordinating outreach to the 337-household Reform congregation, who, as a group, responded favorably.

“In a non-binding survey, almost all respondents said if the system was adopted they would pledge the same amount as what they had been paying in dues, or greater,” Gross said.

Administration and clergy also discussed the issue with leadership at the Union for Reform Judaism in New York (URJ), of which the congregation is a member, and with others who had already successfully instated the pledge system.

Gross said the board is confident that funds pledged will be honored.

“When we did our capital campaign to fund our religious school wing in 2008, pledged payments were due during the economic downturn, but remarkably 95 percent of all pledges were paid in full,” he said.

“Right from the start, the idea piqued my interest because I’m the person someone calls if they need reduced dues,” said Cheryl Chaben, Kol Ami’s executive director. “I also know there are people who will leave the congregation before they will ask for this kind of help. With the new system, there would be no need for reduced dues. Everyone can feel good about what they can pay rather than feel bad about what they can’t. There is pride in committing to something you can do.”

Heartfelt Commitment
The new pledge system has been termed t’rumot halev or “gifts of the heart.” “It is about making a pledge from the heart, rather than paying a bill,” Gross said.

Looking over pledge letters sent to congregants: Paul Gross of Farmington Hills, first vice president; Cheryl Chaben, executive director; Rabbi Ariana Silverman; Rabbi Norman Roman; and Gene Farber of West Bloomfield, treasurer. (Photo by Brett Mountain)

The name, suggested by Kol Ami’s Assistant Rabbi Ariana Jaffe Silverman, originates from the book of Exodus.

“Moshe asked the Israelites to bring t’rumot (offerings) to the tabernacle,” Silverman said. “There was not the same assigned amount for everyone, but they were asked to bring what they could afford and to pay as their hearts moved them. They brought so much that it was too much.”

The response to Kol Ami’s pledge system has been overwhelming, both with positive phone calls and pledges returned — 20 were mailed in the first day and 45 arrived by the end of the first week.

“A family on reduced dues pledged five times what they paid for membership last year,” Silverman said. “And they also mailed in a note saying, ‘Thank you for doing this for me.’ That one pledge alone makes me know this is the right thing for us to do.”

Kol Ami’s reputation for being a warm, friendly, family-oriented congregation active in programs for social justice, along with what Chaben termed, “a strong sense of commitment,” makes them a good candidate for the new system.

“[We] have been concerned for some time that the concept of dues is an imperfect fit with our true Jewish identity,” wrote clergy and board of trustees members in a letter to the congregation.

Kol Ami’s Rabbi Norman T. Roman said, “We feel it fits right in with the philosophy of our congregation, which has always been very democratic in its approach and non-pretentious in the way we respond to people’s giving; taking care of one another. Some were hesitant but still supportive, and we felt it was the right time.”

This is not the first innovative initiative Kol Ami is currently involved in; they share space in their building with the Conservative B’nai Israel Synagogue.

“This connection is consistent with the reasons Kol Ami is involved with the pledge system,” said Kol Ami’s treasurer, Gene Farber. “We want to be there for all members of our community.”

How Does It Work?
Just as with current dues, pledged funds will be used for the synagogue’s basic operational budget only. Other fees, such as tuition for the K-12 religious school, b’nai mitzvah costs and building fund remain separate and unchanged.

Each pledge — regardless of the amount — provides full synagogue membership, including High Holiday tickets.

Under the old structure, members paid varying amounts of dues based on different categories, like families, seniors, singles and those under age 30. The highest dues — for families — was $1,995, plus a $35 fee to maintain building security.

The pledge letter sent to congregants

“This is comparable to, or lower than, most congregations in the Detroit area,” Farber said. Most synagogues charge around $2,000, with some a little higher. He added Kol Ami’s finances are stable and that the budget is not an overriding factor in the development of the pledge system.

The categories have been abolished and the pledge system eliminated the need for an approximately 10 percent dues increase. “And anytime you raise dues some people will leave,” Farber said. “We don’t want anyone to have to call to say I can’t afford it.”

Working with Farber, the board and clergy determined that based on the upcoming year’s expected expenses and the number of households involved, $2,100 to $2,400 is needed, on average, to be pledged from each household

That amount has been termed the “sustaining range.”

Those who paid full dues in the family category are being asked to pledge in the sustaining range, or higher, to balance the lesser amount some others may pledge. “Those who pledge at least in the sustaining range are enabling somebody suffering financial hardship the opportunity to be affiliated, which is a true mitzvah,” Gross said.

“Others are asked to try to pay at least what they were in the past,” said Karee Strome, Kol Ami’s co-president, along with Lee Schottenfels.

“If a senior was paying $1,350 as that part of the dues structure, we hope they can pay that, or more. At one of our focus groups someone on reduced dues said the pledge system will make them feel like a true member, not somebody who asks for reduced dues every year.”

One longtime member, who asked not to be named, said, “Applying for reduced dues felt like begging. I know we qualified, based on income, but somehow filling out the form — even though we know it’s confidential — was like groveling. I had the feeling that we were not full members.

“At the first informational meeting when the pledge system was discussed, I surprised myself by speaking out; I said how much more comfortable I would be knowing that we are paying what we can. In fact, we will try to find a way to pay a little more this year. We have a better feeling psychologically about the idea of making a pledge. We are out of the begging mode and doing our fair share.”

Roman said, “We are not expecting everyone to pay the full amount, but think many will come close or exceed it. But whether someone gives 25 percent of the amount or 250 percent of the amount, they should not feel any different if they are giving from the heart,” he said.

Checking Around
“We did a lot of studying and talking and research and held an open forum of opportunity to talk about it before making this change,” Roman said.

Silverman spoke with Rabbi Steven Mills, rabbinic director of the URJ’s Congregational Networks-Central District.

“There are a number of URJ congregations that have begun to implement different funding models, and the Union is beginning to draw together a network of congregations that are in various stages of transitioning to non-dues based models,” Mills said.

“After a great deal of research, Temple Kol Ami is among the first to move to a new funding design. The Union helped Temple Kol Ami identify other congregations that had adopted or were exploring funding changes. No one model fits all, but I am hopeful that Temple Kol Ami’s system will do what the congregation intends: grow its membership base and provide a fair self-assessment process that will sustain the congregation for future generations.”

Gross, Farber and Kol Ami’s outgoing President Joe Falik held a conference call with Rabbi Daniel Freelander, URJ senior vice president, to discuss different models of dues.

“He gave us a nice education about the history of how synagogues handled collection of their sustaining income, and the philosophy of the dues versus pledge systems,” Gross said. “We also discussed other synagogues that had switched to the pledge system — and there aren’t many.”

Gross sees Kol Ami as becoming a model for other congregations, with URJ leadership following the progress.

Outside of the Reform movement, the Conservative Temple Israel in Sharon, Mass., has implemented a successful pledge system. Chaben spoke with their executive director, Deborah Astor.

“She shared much information about their three years of research and three or four years of being involved in the system,” Chaben said. “The reaction there has been positive. We learned that we needed a full commitment from leadership, staff and clergy, how to communicate with our families and what our pledge card should contain.”

Retaining, Adding Members
“We know there are some who are done with temple after their children’s bar or bat mitzvah,” Gross said. “Now we are hoping that by allowing people to pledge the amount they can pay, some former congregants will come back.”

The hope, too, is for some younger families to join.

“This is not going to make young, single Jews automatically want to affiliate,” Silverman said. “There is not an influx of 25-year-old Jews looking for dues to go down. But for those considering this opportunity, this is a way for them to do it in a way that is affordable and welcoming. For those starting to think about it, money is now not a barrier.”

Roman said the new system may also attract some who are not currently affiliated with a congregation. “Maybe some never belonged anywhere, thinking they would not be welcome if they couldn’t afford the amount,” he said.

Since the pledge system was announced, Strome said, “We already heard from a family who left after bar and bat mitzvah year who are planning to come back, and from a young family whose parents are members but who are unaffiliated who are interested in joining with a pledge.”

Roman said, “We made a commitment to try this for two to three years. We thought at one year some may be wary and hold back larger pledges to see if others are giving their share.”

A backup plan is in place if the system doesn’t work out. “We have been able to secure commitments from some who will help underwrite the difference if we have a deficit,” he said.

As with mostly all synagogues, Kol Ami has offered reduced dues for those who find it necessary and will not turn away anyone unable to pay at all.

But at any cost, being affiliated is important.

A thought on the URJ website likens non-members who attend Shabbat services and pay non-member fees for classes and High Holiday tickets to those belonging to a health club and just paying for what is used. “People join to become part of a community of values where people care for each other through times of celebration and sorrow,” the statement says. “They choose to support these values with their money and their energy.”

The pledge commitment can allow more to be part of that community. For that reason, Gross said the hope is for everyone who wants to affiliate to make a pledge, however small, in order to have a physical and emotional stake in the congregation.

“With the pledge system, everyone who affiliates with Kol Ami is considered the same, regardless of the amount they pledge,” he said. “A senior citizen on a fixed income, who may pledge $250, receives the same High Holiday tickets and is entitled to the same volunteer opportunities and participation in services. The system is non-judgmental.”

Roman said, “We’ve had a dues structure since the temple was founded in 1966, so this is a significant change. And now we are the only congregation around here with a pledge system.”

By Shelli Liebman Dorfman, Contributing Writer

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  1. This is a fantastic story – Hol Kakavod to the congregation for taking this bold step, and to the author for providing so much insight into the process, planning and reception from the community. I’m very interested to see how this unfolds in the coming years. A follow up article in 2 years to see how things are working out?!

  2. This “new” pledge model is actually a form of the fair share pledge model for which there is extensive literature from the URJ and elsewhere.

    Will this model work? Yes IF congregants become fully engaged in synagogue life. In marketing terms–if the customer buys the product the customer will pay the price. A prime example of this is Starbucks.

  3. Congregation Or Ami in Richmond, VA has used the fair share system for the whole 40 years of its existence and recently gave it up. It worked when there were a few, close and dedicated members, but turned into “what is the least I can pay and be a member.” We have never required membership or tickets for High Holy Days, and some guests contributed more than members, but for whatever reason chose not to join.

  4. After belonging to Temple Emanu El, San Jose, Ca for some 25 plus years, having our daughter confirmed there, I was asked in 2004, to give more than I could do. I approached the Rabbi and then a member of a committee which took care of such requests. Ultimately, I was denied membership because I was told that at the rate I could pay, it would cost the synagogue for my membership a fee which is paid to the congregation of reform Judaism for every member. I wasn’t very active, but at that time particularly, had joined the Sisterhood and was active in it. It broke my heart to have to beg, and ultimately be denied…My husband of 50 years, who is not Jewish, was upset for me. We had even renewed our marriage vows at Temple EmanuEl on our 25th wedding anniversary, and one of our children was married there. My Father passed away in 2001 and the senior Rabbi conducted his funeral service….So, I don’t have a Jewish connection other than through a Hadassah group which I joined…I had even worked at a religious school as the school secretary, but couldn’t be a member there because it was a conservative congregation and I was married to a non Jew…Something is missing here. Thanks for reading this.

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