CJC Talks New Membership Dues Model

Sheldon Gnatt discusses a new funding model with CJC congregants. (Hannah Monicken)
Sheldon Gnatt discusses a new funding model with CJC congregants. (Hannah Monicken)

Columbia Jewish Congregation leaders took questions Sunday about its new proposed funding model, which would move away from the dues structure to a “sustaining pledge” one.

The change, which was approved this past May, will take effect July 1, 2017, the beginning of the 2017-18 fiscal year. The congregation, at least those members present Sunday morning, appeared receptive to this new model but wanted details about its implementation.

“What we’re trying to do is a different approach because the old dues model just doesn’t work,” said Stuart Berlin, the congregation board president.

For the 2016-17 year, dues at CJC were $2,135 for a family, $1,770.25 for a single parent family and $1,442.50 for an individual. Because the final 2017-18 budget won’t be finalized until January, Rabbi Sonya Starr asked that the pledge estimate not be made public at this time.

With this new model, the operating expenses of the congregation are divided by the number of adult members to get an average “sustaining pledge” number, the amount that, in an ideal world, each adult would give (meaning, a two-adult household would give double the pledge). This would cover the congregation for the year and get rid of the need for continuous fundraising.

Of course, this isn’t an ideal world, so the sustaining pledge number is more of a “reference point,” as Sheldon Gnatt, co-chair of the implementation committee, called it. Those who are in a position to do so will pledge in higher amounts, and those who may be facing more difficulties financially will pledge less than that. The end goal is the same: for the annual pledges to cover all the congregation’s expenses on an ongoing basis.

John Kaufman, who has also been part of the planning process for the dues restructuring, said that this change reflects the ideals both of CJC and of Judaism — the current model can feel like a “pay-to-pray” deal, and that’s in no one’s best interests. This new structure also has the added benefit of giving members greater input on the direction of the congregation, he added. If pledges were to go up, for instance, services could be expanded.

“From its founding, CJC has always been innovating and encouraging new ways of thinking about things,” said Starr after the session. “The main point is not to be wealthy. It is to support the activities and services that enrich our Jewish lives.”

Starr said that, as far as she knew, CJC was the only congregation in the area who had switched, or was in the process of doing so, to this model.

Gnatt emphasized that members shouldn’t compare the sustaining pledge price to former household dues. Instead, he said, they should look at all the money given to the congregation over the course of a year, including fundraising, memorials and other giving. He also urged members to consider what the congregation means to them and how they believe they can best serve in creating a vibrant Jewish community.

“We’re trying to broaden your focus so you can see the true cost of maintaining and sustaining this congregation,” he said.

After these introductory explanations and a presentation of the estimated budget for 2017-18, Gnatt opened it up for questions.

Several questions sought to clarify exactly what members would be asked to pay — and who would be considered members. Interfaith couples, for example, can decide on how much the non-Jewish spouse wants to be involved and whether that person wants to be considered a member.

Additionally, those who are in financial need will have the option to be members by paying what they can and not facing the embarrassment of dues abatement.

Other congregation members wanted to ensure this move to a sustaining model was being communicated to the larger Jewish community, especially to former members and those currently unaffiliated, considering it a factor that could bring new enrollment to CJC.

Others were not so convinced, but willing to give it a try.

“Well, it’s optimistic,” said member Jacques Fein. “The main thing is, it’s worth trying. [But] I don’t see it yet.”

In general, however, Gnatt was pleased by how the meeting went and felt everyone was receptive to trying this model. And the committee, he said, is dedicated to giving this model a chance to work.

“It’s breaking ground in economic access in fresh ways and looking at what it takes for a sustaining and inclusive community,” said longtime congregation member Helene Kass, who was in attendance. Ultimately, she thought the model would fit well with CJC’s culture and ideals.


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