I have been writing about Synagogues and how to fix them now for two years. I have spoken with anyone who will listen to me and I have now a pretty firm group of followers who respond when I write about fixing American Synagogues. . (If you have not read my thoughts on all of this, you can find them on my website using this link: RevitalizingSynagogues )
What I find astonishing is how synagogues are so resistant to change. I have had members of synagogue boards and even a few synagogue presidents tell me that my assessment of the situation today is spot on and that my ideas about resolving them seem well reasoned and easy to apply. But, then they tell me that it could never work in their congregation, because of a host of reasons that all boil down to, “This is just too risky for our community, we prefer to keep things as they are and see what happens.” Guess what? When there is no change, the situation remains the same, falling membership, falling income and more wondering why more people don’t join the synagogue. The more things change the more they stay the same (French proverb). Or maybe Einstein is appropriate here: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”
Here are some important realizations for those involved in synagogue life who feel that something has to be done.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner has said and he may not have been the first to say it; The business of a synagogue is NOT fundraising. Fundraising is important and even necessary, but it is not the reason that synagogues exist. We need to stop acting as if it is the most important task we do. It is not. It is at best, a secondary part of synagogue life. Any entrepreneur can tell you that if you want to succeed in your field, first you have to know what you are selling and then you have to promote what you are selling. Anyone who only wants to “make a lot of money” is doomed to fail. Anyone who thinks that people will throw money at them has no business plan.
In business, they rely on customer surveys to know what is working and what is not. In synagogue life we need to do the same. The first question we need to ask is “Why would any Jew need our congregation?” What reason do they have to come here and join with us? If you don’t know the answer you have to survey your success stories. Go and ask the most active members why they joined and got active, you will almost always get the same reply: “Someone welcomed us when we first visited, and we felt that this place was so warm and friendly that we thought we would give it a try.” So they came to a couple of events, liked what they saw and joined. Usually the first visit takes place during worship.
We can learn a lot from this reply:
1. Welcoming people and being friendly is a crucial part of synagogue life. If someone can attend a function at your congregation, sit down, get up and leave and nobody says “hello”, you are doomed. That is the kiss of death.
2. It is everyone’s responsibility to be warm and friendly. Not just the usher, the Rabbi or the staff.
3. Your programming, from worship thru social events needs to be engaging, every moment is a chance to bring someone in. What kind of programming do you have? Would you invite your best friend to come and be a part of what your synagogue does?
4. Do you follow through with those who visit your congregation? Do they get on email lists? Do you have printed material to give them if they ask? Does someone give them a call and invite them to a future event? Or is the first contact also the first time you ask them for money?
Ask yourself why you go back to the same restaurant over and over. Is there someone on wait staff that you like? Do they make your favorite food the way you like it? Were they constantly trying to get you to buy something you didn’t want or were their suggestions about the menu helpful? Translating this into synagogue life is not too difficult. Do new members find people they like in shul? Do we do things that people want/like to do? Are we always asking for money or do we show then why the shul is a meaningful part of our life and invite them to join us. The money always follows interest. Are we getting people interested?
The Rabbi and staff don’t need to be “Pied Pipers” and social media is not going to be the salvation of the synagogue. Success begins with these two ideas: People will attend events where they are made to feel welcome and when you engage them, they will quickly become active and then tell others about what they found in your community. To be sure, you have to do a lot of things behind the scenes to make sure that there is something to get people interested. But a synagogue is, first of all about relationships, then it is about Torah, Worship and acts of Hesed. Then it is about making a difference in people’s lives. Only then can we begin to ask them to help keep these programs and projects alive.
So, be honest. How does your congregation compare?