What is Membership?

by Lynn Urbach, President

It is an unfortunate fact that nonprofit organizations need money to exist. If we care about an institution because of its value to us (a club, for instance), or because we care about a cause (e.g. animal protection or cancer research), or we want to ensure its continued survival (e.g. an art museum), we may choose to donate money to support that organization, or we may join it as members.

My husband and I are members of many nonprofits—or at least they’ve sent us a card that has our names on it and the word “member.” I’ve never used any of those cards and I don’t carry them with me. As a rule, we give a fairly small amount of money for these memberships and occasionally donate to an annual fund. I don’t identify with these places. I don’t think about them again until they ask for another donation. I care about their causes, but they are not part of my identity.

Membership in and donating money to a synagogue are an entirely different kettle of fish. Judaism may be about family ties or friends; it may be a culture that suffuses our lives; it may be the value system that helps guide us in our life. Judaism may be Zionism, belief in God, or a love of tradition. We may practice Judaism out of a desire to educate our children, or because we want to celebrate life-cycle events a certain way. Whatever our reasons, a synagogue is much more than an organization that sends us a membership card to keep in our wallet.

Most non-profits to which we contribute have members all over a geographic area. Anyone in Southern Maine may be solicited for a donation to the art museum; people from all over the state donate to Catholic Charities of Maine; and a person in any part of the country might choose to contribute to cancer research. Each of those organizations also have quite a few major contributors to help sustain them. Synagogues do not do mass mailings to non-members and they do not look for members in the general community. Almost all Bet Ha’am’s income comes from people who have already chosen to be members, to be “counted.”

By now you should have received a “financial commitment” letter. I’m sure everyone reading this has filled it out and returned it to the office or completed a form online. But just in case you haven’t done that yet, or it did but remain confused, I’d like to explain a few things.

At Bet Ha’am we don’t want to tell people what they must pay to be a part of our community. We don’t want our members to pay dues the same way they might for a golf or country club. There are a variety of reasons one might join a synagogue, but being able to carry a membership card is not one of them.

We are Bet Ha’am, House of the People, a community made up of all of us, our members. We depend upon our members to contribute towards both our operational expenses and additional programming. We understand that this commitment can be a significant expense for members and appreciate the investment you make in our community. Our congregational health and sustainability are linked to our synagogue’s financial situation, which, in turn, is linked directly to your donations.

What’s in a name?

We ask for money in two parts. Part one is an annual commitment that essentially grants you membership. (As an aside, we will NEVER turn away a member because they are unable to afford to contribute.) Part two is for our annual fund.

Part 1: Membership: The cost for membership used to be called dues. Rather than a fixed amount for each member, as some congregations used, Bet Ha’am used a fair-share system in which the cost was dependent on income. In the spring of 2018, we moved away from a percentage of income and adopted a model of philanthropic giving. We called this new model Machazit Hashekel/Nediv Lev (MHNL).

Here’s the idea: The Board of Trustees wants each member to be COUNTED as a member of this community, of Bet Ha’am. And we want a census: we want to know the number of adults who choose to be counted as a member of our community. To do this, we looked back to our tradition. In the Torah, Moses needed a count of the number of adults in the community. He only counted the males, but we choose to ignore that outdated detail. Moses’s census was done by collecting a half-shekel from each person. Moses counted it up and learned the total population. This is the machazit hashekel, the half shekel. For us at Bet Ha’am, that half shekel is $180 per adult who wants to be counted. Keep in mind, please, that we will NEVER turn someone away due to inability to pay.

The other part, nediv lev, are gifts of the heart/mind. In those days it was believed that the heart was the center of thought. Another biblical reference, nediv lev is a gift, from your heart, what you choose to give.

The idea is lovely–each household makes a generous donation to our congregation, a gift which is essential to our financial health, in an amount that is right for them. But the name, Machazit Hashekel/Nediv Lev, is a mouthful, even for those who know Hebrew. So last spring the board chose a simpler name, “financial commitment.”

How should you calculate your financial commitment to Bet Ha’am? Well, that’s up to you. Start with the $180 per adult member of your household. That’s the easy part. It’s the second part that will take some thinking. This is a gift to the congregation from your heart. Here are a few things to help you figure out a starting place for that amount.

  • It costs about $1700 per paying household to keep us financially stable at our current level.
  • If you are in the fortunate position of being able to be more generous, please, please, give as much as you can. $1700 is more than many families afford and we count on people who are fortunate to help more.
  • A chart included with your financial commitment letter gives you a suggested commitment amount based on your income and the size of your household. It assumes that, for a given income, the larger your family, the less disposable income you have. If you know your household income, deduct $5000 for each family member to reach the adjusted income which you’ll use to calculate your gift.
  • This is SUGGESTED contribution. It gives you a starting place. You need to make your own decision, based on the importance of Bet Ha’am to you, your disposable income, and what your heart and mind tell you is right for you.

Part 2: Annual Fund: After you stretched yourself with your generous donation in your annual financial commitment, how dare we ask for additional money for our annual fund? Financial commitments cover our operational expenses, such as salaries, building expenses, care of our grounds. The annual fund pays for additional programming.

Each and every president of Bet Ha’am has found soliciting money from you to be one of the most unpleasant duties of the job. I don’t relish asking you for money. But I also dread our budget meetings and the ever-present concern about deficits. We cannot sustain our current level of spending without an increase in donations. As you read in the treasurer’s report in our newsletter, Chadashot, on our blog, or in the treasurer’s section of our website, you will notice that we need your help. I ask you to please be as generous as you possibly can be as you determine the amount of your financial commitment and your donation to our annual fund this year.

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

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