Since developing as a people after the exodus from Egypt, the most common method of raising funds in Jewish community has been through taxation (see Exodus 30 on the half-shekel, Exodus 35 on free-will offerings, Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 14, 24, and 26 on tithing). This is by no means unique to the Jewish people.
Each system of taxation reflects the religious, political, social, and cultural values that underlie the society in which the rates are imposed, assessed, and collected, as well as the exemptions allowed various groups. Furthermore, it is these values that in no small measure determine the degree of compliance with the demands of the tax collector or collection system.
Meir Tamari, in With all Your Possessions, suggests the Jewish underpinning before the establishment of the modern welfare state was the axiomatic principle of collective responsibility. This approach is a generally accepted concept of society’s responsibility for the needs of its members.
He goes on to say that traditionally, a Jewish community managed its own fiscal system, whether as part of an independent commonwealth, or within the bounds of a ruling nation or country, in accordance with Jewish legal and moral authority. Tithing was not only an act of tzedakah, but also a tax in addition to voluntary acts required by Jewish tradition. A Jewish community was obliged to finance Torah education, redemption of captives, mikvaot, synagogues, cemeteries and charities. These demands might be limited by existing financial realities, but could not be eliminated by these constraints.
From rabbinic until modern times the halahkic system supported a variety of tax structures:
- Halakhat Shecheynim (Law of neighbors): Neighbors who share common facilities or property could obligate each other to finance common needs out of a joint fund. A municipal tax is an outgrowth of this neighborhood concept.
- Din Ha’Ir (Rule of the city): Popularly elected officials could require citizens to finance projects for security and communal well-being. There was often a one-year grace period for newcomers, unless they bought property.
- Din HaMelech (Rule of the king): Mishnah Sanhedrin 2:11 states that the king can appropriate land for the benefit of public needs.
- Din Demalchutah Din (Rule of the State): Following the obligations and legal system of the host nation (poll taxes at a flat rate, pay for use of tolls, water, etc., and taxes levied by income).
Jewish religious teachings tried to create an ideological climate in which individual obligations to communal well-being were constantly reinforced, attempting to guarantee a well defined fiscal system. With the arrival of the citizenship model in the modern nation-state, the founding of Israel, and the integration of Jews into mainstream North American culture, the financial support of Jewish organizations, charitable giving, general membership in centers and synagogue membership dues has changed substantially from a communal taxation model to a voluntary individual one.
As North Americans, we understand that paying taxes is one of the obligations of citizenship. There is a parallel in Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s formulation of Reconstructionism with its emphasis on Jewish peoplehood. As a member of the Jewish people, financially supporting the institutions of our Jewish community is one of our responsibilities.
Dues are a form of Jewish citizenship tax assessed every year. In exchange for membership and the benefits that come with it, a congregation requires the financial support of its members to maintain the full complement of programs. Dues are the way a congregation distributes the cost of its programs among its membership.
We are not paying a fee-for-services-rendered when we join a synagogue, a havurah, an organization, or a movement. Certainly we do not receive our faith-based non-profit status for being one-stop religious warehouses. In this consumer model, one might expect to pay only for the services one expects to use, need or benefit from. One might even expect an itemized bill justifying one’s charges. In this model, the individual’s only responsibility is payment and the congregation’s is provision of services. Jewish communities are based on the idea of covenant, not mutual obligations and benefits for all its members.
As a relatively young movement with a limited history of endowments and investments, most Reconstructionist communities operate with 65-80% of their budgets based on a variety of dues structures. This ratio may change over time, with more comprehensive and creative approaches to fundraising. This section is not designed to advocate for any one particular model, but to inform the discussion of dues, enable a synagogue to clarify its values, and harmonize its dues structures and policies with those values.
There are different levels of comfort with dues policies and procedures. If the conversation is handled as a monetary one alone, it splits dues off from their roots as a Jewish communal tax within a covenantal framework. The clarity of the congregation’s mission and how membership is articulated in the ongoing life of the community is vital to providing a holistic and sacred Jewish context to the issue of congregational dues.
There are two basic approaches to dues within the synagogue movements. Dues can be computed by demographic criteria: family configuration and age. This has been the standard approach in contemporary Jewish life in North America. Dues can also be computed by income: either a flat percentage or on a progressive scale (usually ranging from one to three percent). This model still means paying “full dues,” but “full” is determined differently for each member household according to its means. Despite some understandable fear about this approach, a number of our congregations have reported increased income using this model. Some communities also include a voluntary dues line beyond a flat or fair share structure so those who can afford more subsidize those who cannot.
Ethical mechanisms for assessing dues and requests for variances in dues that preserve the dignity and confidentiality of members are important to ensure fairness. The issue of respecting the dignity of the individual and the covenantal responsibility of being part of a community is a balancing act: How much do you ask? What do you offer? In being compassionate about dues assessment, do you include all or some of your programs? Do you have special categories of membership? Do you take information in written or oral form; is it annually reviewed?
Fair share systems must deal with the additional complexity of members making self-assessments and the need to have proactive education of the “hows” and “whys” of the policy. Communication about dues, especially if the system is undergoing a change, is crucial. Attention should also be paid to the words we use to describe dues. When and why would/should we use words like “obligation” and “responsibility?”
Money, viewed as a spiritual tool, is exchanged as a sign of responsibility both to and from the Jewish community with which we enter into a sacred relationship. It is a sign of covenant and commitment to each others’ individual and collective welfare.