In May, Temple Solel usually starts reaching out to its members and asking them to renew by the start of the synagogue’s fiscal year on July 1. But as in any regular year, “that doesn’t always happen,” said Doreen Feldberg, president of the Temple Solel board of trustees.
Many members travel out of state during the summer, and others don’t think to renew until it’s time for the High Holidays in the fall. And while this isn’t a regular year by most standards, the lag in membership renewal hasn’t changed.
In fact, even with only half of renewals in so far, Temple Solel is doing better than in an average year.
“We’re ahead of this time last year so far, which is quite encouraging,” Feldberg said. “I don’t know how it will end up, but we’re at about 50% renewal as of now, and that’s a little ahead of where we’ve been.”
The uptick in membership renewals this year is happening in the midst of entirely virtual services and programs, which, Feldberg said, members are taking advantage of now more than ever.
“We have seen some online Shabbat services for Friday night be attended by more people on Zoom than we’ve seen come into the sanctuary when we were live,” Feldberg said. As for other events, from affinity groups to education programs and virtual game nights, “most things are very well attended now with the summer here. We’ll see if they continue to be as well attended.”
Congregation Kehillah is also on track for membership renewal.
“We have been very active and very responsive, and so that’s why I’m not surprised that our membership is consistent,” said Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman. She’s seen people donate more and renew their membership at higher dues levels than she expected, and “I think it’s out of a sense of connection. We’ve worked really hard and diligently because we have a tremendous sense of community in our congregation for each other.”
At Congregation Beth Tefillah, Rabbi Pinchas Allouche expects financial challenges caused by the pandemic to affect some members’ ability to pay dues this year. But he also predicts that the synagogue’s budget will even out, given the increased interest the congregation has received from both newcomers and long-time members who are seeking a renewed sense of meaning during the pandemic.
“We do expect financial loss from people that won’t be able to pay what they usually pay, but on the other side, we also do expect a surge of new members, of new interest, of people really engaging themselves even more than before,” Allouche said.
It all comes down to the sense of community at CBT, which people are looking for now more than ever.
Members “are realizing that that’s the only thing that’s truly certain in life, their purpose, their Judaism, their value system, and that’s what we provide,” Allouche said. “So I think that, in many ways, we are coming out stronger because of this pandemic, and in a way our light shines brighter.”
The synagogue emailed members in early July to let them know that anyone facing economic hardship wouldn’t be turned away.
“Anyone who has been affected in any shape or form by this pandemic will be addressed with compassion and empathy, and we’ll do our very best to accommodate their needs as well as their financial situation all together, and work with them,” Allouche said.
Temple Solel is also prepared to help congregants who can’t afford membership fees. So far, Feldberg hasn’t seen an increase in the number of members who need assistance, but with only half of memberships renewed so far, the board of trustees is prepared to make accommodations.
While the synagogue’s annual budget already went into effect as of July 1, the board of trustees met on July 13 “just to have a Plan B in case we see something different than what we budgeted for,” Feldberg said. “The board is really looking ahead, because we don’t know how the membership will ultimately come in.”
In addition to membership, Temple Solel depends heavily on its preschool. Restrictions may make it impossible to enroll as many students as the school usually does, and Feldberg is anticipating that the synagogue may need to make adjustments, such as hiring fewer teachers for the school year.
“We are hoping we can open. And even then, we’re not sure if we can take as many kids, based on what the state says, as we have registrations for,” Feldberg said. “The preschool is certainly a major factor.”
Membership renewal is an essential part of the budgeting process at all three synagogues. At CBT, it helps give the synagogue leadership the “push” that they need to plan for the year ahead.
Nevertheless, Allouche is certain that increased interest in virtual programming will help strengthen the congregation in the year ahead.
“We’re confident that, please God, we’ll come together as a community and we’ll do our part, the members will do their part and we’ll continue to grow and experience this surge (in membership),” Allouche said.
Ultimately, Sharfman said, synagogues are providing something that people need now more than ever, and members recognize that.
“It’s people looking for meaning and looking for connection — and when the synagogue does its job, it’s able to provide both.” JN