In the midst of a difficult year, Congregation Or Tzion offered its congregants a new way to give, and its membership responded gratefully.
“Everything just sort of fell into place,” said Frank Jacobson, president of Or Tzion’s board of directors. “I think it’s because people feel valued. People feel like, ‘I can pay what I can afford to pay, what’s meaningful to me, and the congregation accepts me for who I am.’”
Or Tzion’s new membership model asks members to give an Annual Gift of the Heart Contribution, where congregants pay whatever they think their membership is worth. Any amount, even a small one, is enough to be a full member, entitled to High Holidays seats, religious school enrollment and more.
The program was first introduced in the spring as a direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic. After synagogues closed in March, Or Tzion sent out a survey asking members how they had been impacted, in part to find out if financial hardship was going to make it difficult for congregants to renew their memberships. Of the 206 who responded, around half indicated that they had been negatively impacted.
Synagogue leadership decided that now was the time to switch to voluntary dues, as a way to lessen the burden on struggling families.
“We had no idea whether it would work or not,” Jacobson said. “But what we also knew is that if we kept the same membership model that we had, we were likely to be losing members.”
The board of directors began considering an annual commitment or voluntary dues model in 2018 and again in 2019, but it wasn’t until the pandemic struck that the decision became urgent.
Originally, Jacobson said, the synagogue intended to wait for a calmer time to try the new model. Yet when the change finally came, it was in the midst of challenges not only for the community and the country, but for the congregation itself. The board of directors decided to make the switch at the end of April, a few weeks into what became a months-long shutdown, and a few weeks before Rabbi Micah Caplan died unexpectedly in June.
In spite of the turbulence, members of Or Tzion rallied.
“That was the beauty of all this,” Jacobson said. “Our congregants decided that we had to come together, we had to mourn the loss of our rabbi ... They hung with us.”
A cornerstone of the annual commitment model is transparency and strong communication, and Or Tzion made informing members a core component of the new system. With an operating budget of $1.1 million, staff calculated that the synagogue would be able to maintain its services and programs if each household — whether a single older adult or a family of four — made a “sustaining contribution” of $2,882.
In its guide to membership and the Annual Gift of the Heart Contribution, Or Tzion also suggests a minimum contribution based on the size of the household and enrollment status in religious school, ranging from $1,000 for a single membership to $3,600 for a family membership with children enrolled in the Roz Goodell Religious School.
When congregants began making their commitments in June and July, Jacobson was amazed by the amount people gave, he said: Some increased their contribution by as much as 10%.
Of course, Or Tzion doesn’t expect every household to be able to afford to make a sustaining contribution or even the suggested minimum, and a gift of any size is enough to become a member. What matters is that they’re part of the congregation.
“They’re a member of Congregation Or Tzion — how wonderful is that?” Jacobson said. “No one is evaluated by what they give, everybody is accepted. And everybody who’s a member has the vote at the annual congregation meeting. That’s the way it works.”
The voluntary dues or annual commitment model of membership is becoming increasingly popular among Reform and Conservative synagogues across the country. Reports by the UJA-Federation of New York identified 26 synagogues in the U.S. with voluntary due structures in 2015, and 57 in 2017. Two were in Arizona: The New Shul in Scottsdale and Congregation Bet Shalom in Tucson.
While the model is working well for Or Tzion so far, Jacobson cautioned that it requires careful planning and a strong commitment from synagogue leadership.
“It may not be for everybody. It’s really very dependent upon everybody’s DNA, if you will,” Jacobson said. “It just happened to work for us at the right time, with the right leadership.”
He credits the synagogue staff and the membership committee with paving the way for a smooth transition, crafting the message and providing the information to ensure that members were on board with the decision. Or Tzion also made a FAQ page on its website to explain the new membership structure to congregants.
“There were a variety of questions, really excellent questions,” Jacobson said. “Does this mean I get the full benefit? Do I get tickets for the High Holidays? Does this really mean my kids can go to religious school? Do I get all the life cycle events? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes ... you are a full member in that regard.”
This fiscal year, with the new model in place, membership grew from 393 to around 450. Some members who had left rejoined; some members’ parents or adult children contributed during the High Holidays and became members through the new model.
Overall, Jacobson is pleased with the results.
“Not only did we exceed our budget expectations, we exceeded the membership expectations,” he said. “We really felt that we made the right decision, the congregation responded very positively to the program, and that’s what we’re continuing to do.” JN