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Executively Speaking: The Effects of Class and Money at Kehilla

by Michael Saxe-Taller

Over the last several months, a group of working class and low-income members of Kehilla have been gathering to discuss how class affects their lives both in and outside of the Kehilla community.  From what I have heard from some who have gone, it has been very meaningful for them to connect with each other and have a place to share their common experiences.

I am really excited that these gatherings are happening.  I love that at Kehilla, we strive as a community to be fully inclusive and to address challenging issues within our congregation;  economic class, money and wealth are exactly these kind of issues. From experience, I know there are many places in the Jewish community where money and class are rarely spoken of.  As I wrote in my February 2016 Kol Kehilla article, it is important that we learn to talk about and think  clearly about money and wealth and its impact on our community.

Kehilla is continuing to grow, and this upcoming fiscal year we expect our income and expenses to each be over $1.1 million dollars.  We need to bring in a large amount of money for our synagogue to function; we ask our members to pay dues and tuition fees, and to make financial contributions.  Our approach to money and class affects our entire community and when our thinking is unclear, it particularly affects those in our community who are, or were raised, working class or low income.  Leaders from the Working Class/Low Income Group have discussed some of those effects with me, and I want to talk about two of them:

Contributions and Recognition – In order for Kehilla to meet its expenses, we raise over $150,000 each year (almost 15% of our budget) from financial donations, largely from our members.  We ask several times each year for members to donate. We appreciate and acknowledge every donation we receive, regardless of its size. We strive to treat everyone – their ideas, their needs, how much access they have to resources and decision-making, how much recognition they receive – equally, regardless of how much money they give.  But, we know we function in a broader society, including the broader Jewish community , where people’s financial capacity often affect their access to resources and the way they are seen and treated by their community; we are not immune to this problem. We need to be attentive to the ways in which it seeps into our internal Kehilla culture and our community.

The enormous number of  volunteer hours put in by hundreds of Kehilla members is as essential towards the functioning of our community as the money that people give.  As a staff, we are recommitting ourselves to the recognition, acknowledgement and appreciation of the many ways that our members contribute through their work, time and actions.

Additionally, I want to acknowledge a core Kehilla principal: that we value each and every member of our community regardless of their monetary or volunteer contributions.

Membership Dues – Membership dues are an essential element of our financial stability.  Over 50% ($570,000) of our income will come from dues this next year. Over the years, Kehilla’s lay and staff leadership have strived to create dues structures that are both equitable and effective.  This has not been easy, and synagogues around the country struggle with this same challenge. About a half dozen years ago, Kehilla moved from a complex income-based system to our current one, which has a set of sliding scales based on the number of income-earners in a household and on the age of the adults.  As part of the dues system, we make it possible for those for whom paying the bottom of the scale is still prohibitive to pay what they can afford.

This system has worked in some important ways. We have been able to bring in sufficient income to meet our budgetary needs, and because the amounts have remained relatively consistent, we have been able to plan our budgets knowing that we can count on a steady amount of revenue.  We have been able to accommodate members paying a wide range in dues amounts that correlate to their financial capacities

It is also clear that our current system has some problems – most notably that the dues levels in the sliding scales are based on assumptions about the connection between age and income; assumptions that are not fully accurate. Some people work in jobs or professions in which their incomes don’t markedly grow over the years; people have lost jobs during difficult financial crises; and we live in a country in which a small series of unfortunate turns can make it challenging to establish financial security.  With the growth of the tech industry, we also have many younger people who are making higher salaries, and at the same time because of a number of economic factors, including the outrageous cost of housing, we have other people who, as they get into their 30’s, 40’s, or older, see no increase in disposable income.

In the long run, we need to alter our dues system to make it more equitable and accurate.  We also want to look at broader questions of the role of membership, such as our use of language and how we relate to the many hundreds of folks who don’t join as members but have a relationship with Kehilla.  To effectively take on these questions, we will need a process – one that demands time and attention to do right, and it will take some time before that process can begin.

In the meantime, we are trying to make our current system as effective and thoughtful as possible.  This year, in our renewal materials, we are adding language suggested by a mixed-class group of congregants that will make it clear that we do not mean to imply that people of certain ages should make certain levels of income.  We will also provide some guidance on how to think about using the sliding scales, particularly for those who will be deciding for the first time what dues amounts to pledge. We have also broadened the span of the sliding scale in recognition of the broad differences in financial resources in our congregation.

I am looking forward to the whole Kehilla community engaging more fully in these questions and issues, and I thank Dvora Gordon, Debbie Fier and the others in the Working Class/Low Income Group for leading the way.  Mark your calendars for Sunday, October 7, when they will sponsor a community-wide workshop on class issues facilitated by Penny Rosenwasser and members of the Working Class/Low Income Group.

I will meet you there to delve in!

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