New financial model breaks down barriers to community, engagement and education – eJewish Philanthropy


Do not separate yourself from the community, (Pirket-Avot 2:4). In my own experience with Judaism, I noticed that Jewish texts teach us that community is not an option but an obligation, so it makes sense that when I was growing up in the 1980s, Jewish families joined synagogues. That’s exactly what they did. This is how families have built community and made lifelong friends. Besides being a place of prayer, the synagogue is the place to celebrate life cycle events and simchas, celebrations. The community that formed within the synagogue cared for its members and often took on the role of family, providing a sense of belonging, purpose, connection, and security. Today it is assumed that people only want rejoin a synagogue when they have a life cycle event and/or need the services of a spiritual leader, rabbi and cantor. I believe that this hypothesis is only a hypothesis. People, today more than ever, crave meaningful experiences where they are accepted and cared for, they want to feel like they belong. We always want and need a community, that will never change. What is changing is the mindset about how we build community within our synagogues and how we meet our community members where they are. Choosing to join a synagogue, pay dues, as was the case in the 1980s when I was a child, is no longer the answer. I would suggest that we begin the process of connecting and forming relationships to build community first by creating a sense of belonging, and the financial commitment to the synagogue community follows.

In Genesis 12:1, God speaks to Abram for the first time. “Go from your homeland and from your father’s house to the country that I will show you.” Like Abram, our journey involves twists and turns, taking risks, creating change, and like Abram, we must leave our comfort zone to continue growing. “Judaism invites us to understand that our individual life journeys are both mirrored and informed by the larger journeys of our people (and vice versa), and that our success in life depends as much on the integrity with which we progress only after achieving our goals.JCCs of North America Early Learning Framework, January 2017).

Over the last 2 years of COVID, many people in our community have remained very engaged in worship, programming and education, even remotely, but this was not the case for all. Conversations about membership dues began to turn into discussions about service charge, rather than needs-based reductions. While we offer myriad programs in addition to worship, people define who we are as a community. In 2021, we changed our mindset and culture to encourage engagement, create a sense of belonging, and promote community growth and sustainability. To do this, we have changed our traditional contribution model by calling it Community involvement, using intentional language based on values, emphasizing community support. Each year, devotees of the Makom Solel Lakeside community are invited to make a based on values commitment to help financially support the community, the people, not the organization. The goal being that this helps to strengthen and develop the community, while creating a greater sense of belonging. This annual financial commitment to the community covers everything Makom Solel Lakeside offers, including high holy days and the religious school, Lev Learning, which serves children from kindergarten to grade 12.

Based on national and local trends, traditional dues models can be a barrier to entry and congregational membership. In the 2017 study and article, Connections, Cultivation and Commitment: New Insights on Voluntary Dues, the authors’ key findings were: “The positive cultural impact of change is as important as the financial ramifications,” congregations report a 3.6% average annual increase in membership” and “congregations report a 1.8% average annual increase in pledge revenue”.

More relevant to Makom Solel Lakeside, the backlog model no longer reflected our values ​​of transparency and empathy or our goal of simplicity. By removing these barriers, we have seen an increase in membership, in specific, younger families. In the first year, the creation of Makom Solel Lakeside’s community engagement model, 84 new member households joined the community in fiscal year 2021-2022 (July 1, 2021-June 30, 2022), 52 of these households being families with young children. While other congregations in North America and the Chicago area have variations of the voluntary dues model, what sets Makom Solel Lakeside apart is the elimination of separate tuition for Lev Learning. This was intentional because in Judaism we value the idea that it is the responsibility of the community to educate our youngest learners.

Respecting and honoring families by asking them to make a values-based decision that is right for them has been shown to break down barriers to entry, make membership affordable, remove judgment, and empower families with young children to be part of the community , In the fall of 2021, class sizes for kindergarten to grade 2 doubled, while grade 3 tripled.

Yesterday morning I received the email we all love to receive. “Last Friday’s Shabbat services confirmed why we chose Makom as our community. I felt the love and peace that filled the room. I looked around and saw people who cared really about me and my family. It’s a place where I feel like I belong…and my family feels like they belong. Max shared with me, “I love going to Makom. All my friends are there. Eli said, “can we go back every week?” Life is hard…scary…and we all struggle to find a place where we belong…Makom does it for me…and hopefully for all of you. Thank you for creating this amazing space where we can pray, laugh, cry, eat, love and so much more. All is said !

Holly Krakow is Executive Director of Makom Solel Lakeside in Highland Park, Illinois.


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