By Alan Burke
---- — MARBLEHEAD — It might be a sacred space, but even the house of God gets bills.
Temples have traditionally paid those bills by charging mandatory dues for membership — dues that could run into thousands of dollars a year.
Now Temple Emanu-El has launched a revolutionary new method to maintain the staff and keep the building running. Instead of the traditional system of mandatory dues, the temple will ask congregants to voluntarily pledge an annual amount.
It is the first temple on the North Shore to drop its mandatory dues, temple members say.
The change, said temple president Brad York, will give people “a much better feeling about belonging and being part of a community. ... You donate what you feel you can donate, what you want to donate.”
The dues process “is inconsistent with what you’re trying to do in creating a sacred space where everyone can participate,” he said.
A voluntary gift “seems more than a business transaction,” added Rabbi David Meyer.
In the past, paid up or not, no one was shut out of the temple.
“We have never closed the doors to those who want to be part of our community,” Meyer said. But going back to accounts in the Bible, members of the Jewish community have always been expected to bring gifts in order to maintain their synagogue.
Under the old system at Temple Emanu-El, each family was responsible for an annual charge in the region of $2,000, according to York. If members failed to pay, theoretically, some services could have been denied, although York said he can’t imagine the rabbi denying counseling to anyone in need.
The new voluntary system is endorsed by Meyer, York and the 20-person board of trustees.
“We’ve studied this extensively over the past year and half,” York said. Similar changes have been made at a score of Jewish temples across the country, including Temple Israel in Sharon on the South Shore.
York is confident of the congregation’s overwhelming support for the change. Nor does he expect it will hurt financially to abandon the dues system, which goes back more than a century for American Jews.
“We’ve talked to 20 congregations,” York said. “... It’s worked in every single situation where it’s happened.”
On the other hand, he conceded, “Is there concern? Yes.” He said he’s anxious to see how the first pledges come in.
“Someone needs to pay for the heat. It doesn’t just happen,” Meyer said. “ ... The people will respond to that need.”
“I’ve heard plenty of skepticism, but more optimism,” he said. Fortunately, the temple has the means to withstand some tough times if necessary, he said.
The decision to change was driven by the lay leadership, York said. Although Temple Emanu-El practices Reform Judaism, a more liberal faith, a lot of the inspiration for this move came from watching the success of the Orthodox (and very observant) Chabad Lubavitch of the North Shore, a Hasidic movement that meets in Swampscott and is supported by voluntary contributions.
Additionally, the trustees heard from Rabbi Dan Judson, a national advocate for a voluntary system. In a recent online article in Reform Judaism Magazine he wrote of the system of mandatory dues: “It is now out of step with contemporary Jewish culture and values. ... Writing a check to a synagogue for dues can feel like paying the price of belonging to an exclusive country club, rather than to a sacred community.”
It’s not the purpose, but the change to voluntary dues could give a slight boost in the number of people who attend Temple Emanu-El, an important factor in a world where so many are seen as adrift in a less religious culture.
“The offerings of a secular society don’t fill the basic human need for meaning in life,” Meyer said.
Pledge cards will go out in late spring or early summer.