Yom Shlishi, 14 Heshvan 5780
Tuesday, 12 November 2019
Parashat Ki Tissa 2014

Parashat Ki Tissa
Rabbi Pete Tobias
14th February 2014

Exodus 30 OR 25 – Which Model for Synagogue Fees?

The weekly portion·Ki Tissa begins with a commandment that the Israelites should all make a contribution to the upkeep of the Sanctuary. We are told that ‘the rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less’ (Exodus 30:15), making this a poll tax on the people that pays no attention to the people’s ability to pay. Yet, just a few chapters earlier, we are told that the Israelites were encouraged to bring to the Temple whatever their hearts moved them to contribute (Exodus 25:2). In a time of financial pressure and, for many, economic hardship, which of these two models of funding is more likely to ensure the future of our synagogues in the way they guaranteed the maintenance of the sanctuary in the wilderness?
Part of the issue here concerns the role of the synagogue and congregants’ perceptions of it. Is a synagogue a private members’ club, offering its services to those who agree to pay the required fees? If the answer to that question is yes, then decisions regarding membership are fairly straightforward, and operate on the Exodus 30 model: everyone pays the same – and if they don’t then they cannot belong to the club. Of course, within that framework there are always structures to permit would-be members of the congregation who are in need to have their membership fees reduced or subsidised. In order for such a system to work, there needs to be a level of discretion exercised by those responsible for collecting the fees, as well as the ability to see through those who simply do not see the synagogue as a major priority, and who choose to distribute their available income accordingly. Differentiating between those two categories and finding an equitable way of balancing the books is a challenge that has faced synagogue treasurers for generations.
What about the Exodus 25 model – a system that is based on everyone donating what they feel able to give, ‘as their heart moves them’ to quote verse 2 of that chapter? It’s a system that has been rolled out in the United States in various congregations. Synagogue members are given an explanation of the synagogue’s needs, and what payment is required from each individual member to enable the synagogue to fulfil its various roles in the life of the community. Individual congregants or families then decide what they are willing to pay ‘as their heart moves them’ and donate accordingly. Although the efficacy of these schemes has not yet formally been analysed (they are still in their infancy), those synagogues utilising such schemes have reported no significant reduction in the income gathered from their membership and, indeed, many say that the level of contribution has increased. There is also evidence of a change in attitude of congregants towards their synagogue if they have themselves determined the amount they pay as opposed to receiving an invoice and paying what is demanded.
Would such a scheme work in the UK? In our current economic climate, anything to do with demands on a family’s finances presents a challenge. But is there sufficient room – and courage – to attempt to introduce a scheme based not on the model in this week’s Torah portion, where ‘the rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less’ but rather on the instruction in Exodus 25 that people should give ‘as their hearts move them’? The response in the Torah was of such generosity that by the time the work of construction is being carried out, too much has been donated, and Moses orders the people not to contribute any more!
It is unlikely that such a situation would ever occur in the context of synagogue funding. But perhaps we might get closer to that possibility if we relied more on people’s good will and personal choice for money to support our ventures than simply behaving like a gym or a golf club and demanding fees from those who wish to be members…