To Sustain

From Fred Thomsen
CJC Co-President

In the middle of the second year of CJC’s implementation of a “sustainability dues model” I want to reflect on where we are as a congregation. And, as we are still in a post-Thanksgiving glow, I want to express my gratitude. First, I am thankful for the all the support you have provided to me and Steve in our co-presidency, which has enabled our work thus far. And I am thankful for all your pledges, and especially for all who have heeded the call for supplemental pledges. All of these go toward realizing our congregational vision of Kehilah Kedosha, sacred community.

When we talk about the “sustainability dues model” what do we really mean? To sustain is to nourish, feed, support or nurture. That which we are sustaining with our pledges is our community. With our pledges we nurture each other. If the community is maintained, then we can be there for each other, to learn and to grow, to celebrate, commiserate or console.

This is the vision that I have always had for this model, but I am convinced that it isn’t the way many others see it. It is in contrast to a dues or fee for service model, where we pay for specific things, and there are rates associated with them. In that model, the High Holidays are a “big ticket” item, so anyone who wants to participate will pay specifically for that, and the price will be higher. After all, it’s the World Series of Judaism! Just coming for a few Friday nights? A thirteen-service plan is available, at reduced rates and an easy exchange policy! I have seen some responses to our request for supplemental pledges that want us to put price tags on things. I’ve also heard people who respond by saying they pay less because they use less. To me, this misses the point. My pledge is for the intangible notion of the sacred community of which I am a part, not for any of the myriad activities that take place under its umbrella. And my contribution is intended to nurture that community so that it is there, not only for me and my family, but for all of us, when we need it, and for whatever we might need.

The obvious analogy that comes to mind is public radio and television pledge drives. Years ago, stations set a member level which came with certain privileges, but they encouraged gifts at any level. At some point that changed, and there were no longer second-class contributors. If you gave any amount, you were a “member,” whatever that might mean. The language of those pledge drives also changed subtly. They stopped saying, “call now to support program X or program Y,” which always sounded like you were paying a fee for a specific show. No, contributions are holistic, supporting all the programming, not just one’s favorite. And some “members” give more and some less to support the whole.

I’ve thought about other sorts of charitable giving. I give to organizations whose work I support. It is things that THEY are doing that I am helping THEM to do. But I also give to my undergraduate alma mater. And yes, I support what is being done there, the mission of the college. But I also identify with that place, that community, and I share a bond with my classmates, fellow alumni, and current students. My contributions are based on my relationship to the place and its people and are therefore, at some abstract level, for US, not THEM.

In the same way, pledges to CJC are about the collective US, not about the individual members. Our congregational pledges support all sorts of things that some individuals might not use. My kids are older, so we won’t see the financial value of dropping the b’nai mitzvah fee. But we definitely see the communal value, as it strengthens our congregation as a whole. Traditional dues are transactional, between the member and the organization, in the same way that college tuition is transactional. In contrast, the pledge system is relational, stressing each member’s connection to the congregation and all of its members.

The community I thought I was a part of may not, in fact, exist, which saddens me more than I can say. I have heard individuals whom I consider pillars of the community who question why they should be asked for more, when they have done their part by making a pledge at the sustainable amount. And still others who claim there are some who pledge less because they can “get away with it.” But I think both of these perceptions come from a failure to fully understand what it means to sustain. If we see ourselves as nurturing the whole, if we can comprehend that our pledges are not just fees for services rendered, then we can come to a place where we give, without hesitation, what we can, with gratitude for what we have, and with the knowledge that we are helping all, not just ourselves.