Chapter Six – Growing A Synagogue:
Part One – Welcoming- An Overview
Dr. Ron Wolfson, professor of Education at the American Jewish University and a major thinker at Synagogue 3000 has written a book about how synagogues can and should be more welcoming. [The Spirituality of Welcoming; Jewish Lights Press] I believe that every rabbi, synagogue administrator and membership vice president should own this book and read it often. Dr. Wolfson does not break any new ground, but his method of visiting places that have a successful membership culture, examining their methodology and asking “Why can’t we do it?” must be considered and put into practice if we hope to attract those that rarely cross our doorsteps. Much of what I have to say is affirmed and informed by his research.
A Welcoming Culture – Changing the Way Members Think
It is not an accident that Walmart, the large retailer has as its signature position, the greeter who stands at the door of the store. This individual is charge with saying to every customer “Welcome to Walmart.” The greeter’s purpose is to create a friendly and welcoming environment—one people will remember and to which they will happily return time and again. Churches and synagogues are no different. Those who walk through the door will forever remember their first experience, be it good or bad.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask any of the involved members of your congregation why they chose to join your synagogue (assuming that yours is not the only synagogue in the area). Virtually every time, you will hear a similar tale. When they arrived, someone met them, greeted them and made them feel welcome. I used to tell my congregation that if a new person came to our service, sat in a seat, had a cup of coffee and a piece of cake after the service and left the building without anyone ever greeting them or asking their name, that individual would never return and we didn’t deserve to have them join. I usually end my services by asking those who are new to take a few moments to join us at the Kiddush after the service so we will have the opportunity to greet them. There is no reason that someone new to the service should have to be a stranger twice. Just asking a few questions to begin a conversation with a visitor can make a huge difference. Since my members come from all over the United States, when I meet someone new, I always ask where they are from, and then attempt to connect them with the “landsmen” from that town. It always leads to a bit of “Jewish Geography” and often is the beginning of real friendships.
I am not in favor of asking visitors to wear something to identify themselves. It is better, I believe, to have members identify themselves. One suggestion is to give your members a lapel pin so strangers will know those they can easily approach for more information. Welcoming guests should be made a part of our synagogue culture. (I heard of a congregation in Ohio that had name badges made for every member of the synagogue to wear while they were at services, so that visitors would have an easier time getting to know the members’ names.) There should be greeters at the front door of the synagogue just to say “shalom” to all those entering. At the door of the sanctuary, there should be ushers that can help visitors find a tallit, whatever books they will need and seats.
It is “the Kiss of Death” for a congregation when members say to a visitor “you’re sitting in my seat,” or when, at the kiddush, someone says, “that is our ‘reserved’ table.” As clergy and synagogue leadership we need to teach our members to be welcoming and friendly. (I only allowed one exception. There was, in one congregation, a 100-year-old man that sat in the same seat for over 30 years and regularly chased away anyone that dared try and sit there. The kind people that sat around him often spoke to visitors, asking the visitor to join them in a different area; after all, you have to be a bit more patient when someone is over 100!). Members need to know that strangers should be invited to join them, not shooed away, so they can learn more about the service. Saying “come sit with me” is so much better than, “you can’t sit here.” This is the number one complaint visitors have when they come to a shul for the first time. Hasidic literature is filled with stories of how the prophet of miracles, Elijah, was turned away by uncaring and unkind Jews. Dr. Wolfson tells how he arrived once, early to services and was asked to move out of a seat when he was there as the Scholar in Residence; there were no more than a dozen people in a sanctuary that seated 700! We need to treat our visitors as honored guests if we hope to have them become a part of our community.
A Welcoming Building – A Self-Test
Try this experiment. Go to the front of your building, the part of the building that can be seen from the road, the place where your driveway connects with the street, and look at your facility as if you are seeing it for the first time. Take a moment and put yourself in the shoes of a first time visitor. While you are standing there, ask yourself these questions:
1. Can you see the signs/building when driving on the street or only after you enter the driveway? Just because “everyone” knows that you are supposed to enter the parking lot from the “back,” do visitors have to drive past the building and turn around because they can only see the turn when it is too late?
2. Once you are in the driveway, is it clear where a visitor is supposed to park? Do they have any way of knowing where the closer parking is or will they always park in the wrong lot? Remember, the door used during the week may be different from the door used on Shabbat. The door used by the school may be different from the one that leads to the offices. Is it clear where all these entrances are in relation to the parking lot?
3. Can a visitor find the main entrance easily? If there are many doors, are there signs telling someone while they are still in the car, where they need to park and where they will enter? I belonged to a congregation where years ago they stopped using the “old” entrance to the building and started using a different entrance on a different side of the building. As I would walk up to the building every Shabbat, I always found someone at the “old” entrance trying to get in the locked doors. There was no sign that the entrance had been moved to the other side of the building. Often we found that visitors that decided to walk around the building looking for the entrance, would circle the building to the right and walk around the entire campus before finding the proper doors that would have been found more easily if they had just gone to the left! There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to find your way inside the building and finding every door locked. I once visited a church and sound signs everywhere; the problem was that I didn’t know the lingo. Was I looking for the “vestry”? What was the “nave” or the “chancel?” The signs were of no help; they needed to be written in a way that that any visitor, especially one unfamiliar with church lingo, could understand.
4. After visitors find the proper entrance, can they find their way around inside? Are there signs that point to the main office, the rabbi’s office, the cantor’s office, the education office? Is there a sign pointing out the sanctuary, or the chapel where daily services are held? (Does the chapel have its own outside entrance? How would a visitor to daily minyan, who arrives when the offices are still closed, find his/her way to minyan?) Can a visitor find the gift shop and rest rooms? Remember if these rooms are named for donors, are they easily discernible if a newcomer doesn’t recognize the names? (Does the sign say: “Levine Hall” or does it say, “Levine Social Hall”? To a visitor the second name gives more information than the first name.)
5. Do the people that work in your office wear tags that identify them by name? Aside from the security issue, how will someone who is lost know who to ask for help and directions? Often the only person who has a name on his or her shirt is the janitor.
6. Finally, who will be the first person a visitor will meet when entering the building? Who is the receptionist? Who is the greeter/usher? Does that person have a welcoming personality or is he or she too busy to notice someone in the lobby? I recall visiting a hospital in a neighboring town for the first time. I don’t think I walked more than 10 steps in any direction without someone on the staff offering to help me find my way. Does that happen in your congregation on a weekday? On Shabbat?
In addition to the physical entrances to your building, there are also other “entrances.” What type of experience does a phone caller have? Do they get a live human being or do they go directly to voice mail? How many numbers do they have to push to connect with a live, human voice? What about the website; is it warm and friendly? Synagogues have a tendency to put pictures of the building on their home page. A synagogue is NOT a building; it is a community. Leave the building to a different page; the home page should have lots of smiling people doing fun activities.
When a person does become a member, what then? Do they get a call or letter from the rabbi or perhaps the president? Does someone call to ask them to join a committee or a project? If you don’t invite someone to participate, then don’t be surprised if you don’t get immediate volunteers. Is the only thing they get for their membership a bill?
Fifty years ago, a family would first join a synagogue and then look around to decide in which of the activities to participate. Today, it is exactly the opposite. With so many options in life, so many distractions and so many ways to spend our time, a Jew first has to see what he or she might want to do at a synagogue and then decide if joining is the right choice. This is why having many “entrances” to synagogue life is so important. What does your synagogue offer those who are looking for a place to express their Judaism? Do you have opportunities for involvement for Singles? For divorced parents? For men and women who work and commute long days? What does your synagogue do to “engage” newcomers in synagogue activities? Do you really want the first contact with someone new to be about “finances” or membership?
The goal is to create, from the time a person arrives in the synagogue parking lot until they leave the kiddush/oneg Shabbat/collation after the service, a feeling that the stranger is welcome here. It should be easy to navigate the building. There should be plenty of people who there to offer assistance and information. People sitting near the visitor should take a moment, when appropriate, to introduce themselves and perhaps make some introductions to others who may be sitting nearby. Visitors should be invited to have some small honor in the service and after the service, they should be able to meet other members, who will show them around, introduce them to the clergy and provide them with information about other synagogue events. Making someone feel welcome is dependent upon members reaching out and creating a warm and friendly environment.
One of the more difficult times to welcome people to our congregation is during life cycle events. There are often many strangers that attend Shabbat services as guests of a member celebrating a life cycle event at the synagogue. These folks typically have little or no interest in becoming members. There can be dozens of guests for an anniversary or a special birthday, as well as hundreds invited to a bar or bat mitzvah. How do you know if the stranger that arrives is a potential member or just the guest of the family that is celebrating? The answer is: It doesn’t matter. When we cultivate a culture of welcoming, embracing even those visiting for reasons other than potential membership, they will remember how welcome they were made to feel and will carry that memory with them. If someone should ask them where to daven when visiting your city, they will recommend the place where they were made to feel so welcome.
While the clergy and the ushers should be trained in how to make people feel welcome, it is important to foster a culture of welcoming in every member. When your members see a face they do not recognize, they should be conditioned to welcome that individual and provide useful direction and information. No system is perfect, but the goal is to make welcoming strangers the responsibility of every member, every day.
Perhaps, in the 1950’s, we could say that almost all Jews were married with children, and would be able to find all that they needed to do in the synagogue. I don’t know if this was completely true then, but it certainly is not true today. One of the reasons that synagogue membership is in decline is that synagogues are not particularly welcoming to different types of Jews. Jews are a diverse people; perhaps we are more diverse today than in any other time in modern Jewish history.
Most synagogues today, however, are still looking for young families with small children. We live in a time where the number of families with children is decreasing. The number of children in each family is decreasing. We cannot build our synagogue programming around a demographic that is no longer the central standard of the Jewish community. There are many other groups we need to attract; some groups have been ignored so long we no longer even think about them. Some groups are so new we are only beginning to understand their needs and desires. Synagogues need to expand programming horizons to include those who may not fit the old stereotype profile of the “two parent” family that was more common in a different era.
In my mind, the most obvious group forgotten by synagogues is young singles. As I mentioned earlier, young people are marrying later, sometimes 15-20 years later than young people did 25 years ago. If we want to attract single Jews, we have to program for singles. Does every event have a “family price” but not a price for singles? It is sometimes difficult for singles to attend events where there will only be couples. Not only is it uncomfortable to be one of only a few present that does not have a partner, but often the couples attending are not happy having the singles around either. Even in the most welcoming congregation, singles love to meet other singles. Having special programs for singles should also be a part of a synagogue’s planning.
It would be a wise idea not to just have one program for all singles. Singles need to be organized by age. Young singles do not mix well with older singles. Single parents likely have different needs than the never married. Seniors that are single may be looking for someone younger, but that does not mean that someone younger is looking to socialize with someone over 70. As singles get older, they have a tendency to “fudge” their age a bit. If you are trying to separate the singles programs by age, it may be necessary to adjust the ages to allow for those that may report “inaccurately.”
It is important to understand that programming for singles should not be all socials and “mixers.” In fact, these are the hardest programs to create since the young single community is very fluid and it is possible that the program will not attract the same people twice as they pair off and move on to other concerns. Like all other demographic groups, singles have available to them a wide range of social activities that the secular community provides; there are downtown hot spots, internet games and social networks that can keep singles busy day and night. Singles, on the other hand, have similar needs to couples; they wish to create meaning and direction in their lives. It is a far more successful plan for a synagogue to create social and political action projects that are open to all members of the community and invite singles to be a part of those programs.
Young singles, however, are not the only neglected demographic. I have a friend who became the president of his congregation. Sometime after he left that position, he became divorced. For the entire time he was divorced, his congregation had little contact with him. It was as if he had disappeared. Eventually he remarried and soon after that, he was asked to become a part of the synagogue board again. This is not how a congregation makes singles feel welcome.
We see this lack of planning throughout the Jewish community. If we want a service to be family friendly, but don’t start babysitting until an hour into the service, we have effectively said to that family “you are not welcome in our service until an hour after services start.” If we have a population we want to reach that doesn’t speak English as its primary language, then why not have a reading or two, or create a siddur with instructions in a language they understand (Spanish, Russian, etc.) or have an auxiliary service conducted entirely in that language? What about Jews with disabilities? Are the building and the sanctuary handicapped accessible? How about hearing assistance for those who are partially deaf, or large print Siddurim for those who are visually impaired, or having one service a month professionally signed for the deaf?
Is there a Jewish gay and lesbian population in the area? Think about how to make these Jews feel welcome. In a congregation where couples receive Torah honors, is a gay couple given an honor? Are gay families offered the “family” dues? A congregation should announce gay commitment ceremonies (where both partners are Jewish) in the synagogue bulletin. What about programming for families that have intermarried? Are the non-ritual programs designed so that the non-Jewish partner feels welcome? Often a congregation is so concerned parts of the service from which non-Jews must be excluded, we forget to consider the parts of the service where they are welcome to be included! How are non-Jews welcomed into services? What role in the service are they offered during family celebrations? Many congregations struggle to find ways to be inclusive of intermarried families but we still have a long way to go. Jews who convert to Judaism are not “converts” but “Jews.” We need to remember, however, that these Jews by Choice may not have the same Jewish family memories that other Jews have. We have to be sensitive in our programming to be as inclusive as we can. No Jew should be left behind.
Growing A Synagogue: Part Two – Programming
Let me try to be specific about the kinds of programs that complement the welcoming atmosphere we seek to establish. Once a synagogue has the reputation for welcoming new faces, the next big issue at hand is “what does the synagogue have to offer?” In some ways Welcoming and Programming need to go hand in hand. We know that many Jews want to get involved first and then become part of the community. So how do we get them involved?
First, we must remember that each person that walks through our door has individual needs and interests. We live in an age where we encourage everyone to find his or her own way in life. This means that we need to offer an array of programs, to cast our net wide, so that we can involve a diverse group of people in a wide range of programs. A synagogue may eventually discover that a dedicated staff person is needed to oversee this extensive program. A program director or a lifelong learning director can do what a rabbi alone may not be able to do. A pulpit rabbi, no matter how good his or her intentions, will be drawn away from planning and organizing when pastoral duties arise. Having someone to do the coordinating and publicity can make a big difference in the success of these programs. Volunteers can go a long way in a program that is just getting started, but as the programming and congregation grows, a new staff position may be required.
Programming is not only about social activities; it’s about learning and social/political action. These are the two main areas that synagogues and other religious institutions can provide that are still important and meaningful to those who have grown weary of empty, self-centered living. While there are a plethora of non-profit organizations that offer such programming, synagogues (and churches too) are in a unique position to do a great deal of good across a wide swath of the larger community. Synagogues can partner with other non-profit organizations to bring the volunteer culture of the congregation to the causes espoused by the non-profits. We don’t always need to reinvent the wheel by starting our own programs. We can work with other organizations to make the biggest impact in the wider community.
Examples of Social/Political Action Programming
Having stated the need for social/political action, we must remember to be sensitive to the needs of the different groups in our congregation. Young Jewish adults may be able to do different activities than middle-aged or seniors. For example, middle-aged adults may be able to help at a homeless shelter by checking in the residents for the night and making sure they have what they need; younger volunteers may be better suited to stay on duty over the entire night. For this reason, some congregations that house homeless shelters have two shifts: one for a couple of hours in the early evening to get everyone settled, and a later shift for six to eight hours, to make sure that everything goes smoothly throughout night. Volunteers of every age have a role to play and we need to provide options for all those wishing to serve.
Some of the best volunteers at a Senior Center are other seniors. They often have the time and patience to assist every resident. Younger volunteers, or those that don’t have the patience to sit and talk with the clients of the Center, could take part in special programming. I have seen Yiddish speaking volunteers have a profound effect on elderly Jews who feel disenfranchised from the world, like they no longer have a place in it. Just speaking Yiddish to those elderly Jews can brighten an entire day. Over time, volunteers should be provided the means to increase their skills and find new ways to help. As volunteers become more skilled, we should make sure there are many ways for them to use their experience to provide greater service to the cause.
Here again it is important to realize that “one size does not fit all.” Individuals will have different ideas as to how to bring meaning into their lives. It may not even be an age issue, but each individual’s approach to social action may reflect incidents from childhood. I once wanted to open a Jewish Alcoholics Anonymous group at my synagogue. The president refused to allow “those kinds of people” to come onto the synagogue campus. I am sure that somewhere in his past, an encounter with a drinker set his mind against “those kind of people.” There is no one social action or political action program that will please everyone.
In a church setting, these kinds of programs are called “ministries.” Every part of the church is organized around volunteers who are part of a “ministry.” In Hebrew, the word is “Vaad” or the plural, “Vaadot” which loosely translates as “societies” or “committees.” It seems to me that this is an excellent way to organize a social/political action program in a congregation. Invite groups to come together around a particular service program and if they can reach a critical mass of people, approximately 8-12 individuals, t they can begin to work together on behalf of their cause. There are two types of programs they will need to focus on: the ongoing program that speaks to the needs of the community and the congregational program that teaches other members of the congregation what the work of this “vaad” is all about and how they can become involved. Sometimes outside help may be a fundraiser for the project, but there are lots of other important ways the congregation as a whole can help the vaad. For example, if they are knitting wool caps for Israeli soldiers, anyone can sign on to make hats that the committee can then send on to Israel. If there is a need for contact with political figures, there can be a congregation-wide letter writing program, or maybe a forum featuring information on the issue and inviting political figures to join the event. It could alternatively mean setting up a “lobbying” day at the state capital or in Washington DC to bring home the importance of this cause to your congregation. A vaad that is working with a homeless shelter could ask members of the congregation to donate furniture and clothing to help the homeless set up new lives. Some congregations sponsor “suit and dress” drives to collect clothing for the homeless to wear for job interviews. A local orphanage, housing teens getting ready to graduate from high school, was looking for donations of cars. They wanted to help these students leaving foster care and heading off to college, to take responsibility for their own lives.
Examples of Learning Programs
Almost every congregation has an Adult Studies program. The issue is not simply having a program; it is having a GOOD program! All too often, adult studies classes are simplistic lectures that are perpetually geared for beginners; the level of learning is far below the level of most adults today. Students are not inspired to look deeper into the subjects or grapple with traditional study texts. Innovative programs for adults provide opportunities for learners to share their knowledge with others and encourage them to find their own way through these important religious texts. What makes Jewish learning exciting is the discovery of meaning in ancient texts. This does not occur spontaneously through listening passively to lectures. Real learning happens when students are permitted to find their own meaning in the sources. There are two basic kinds of programs that promote this type of learning and every synagogue should think about providing opportunities for adults to experience both.
Almost every congregation has an Adult Studies program. The issue is not simply having a program; it needs to be a GOOD program! All too often, adult studies classes are simplistic lectures perpetually geared for beginners; the level of learning is far below that of most adults today. Students are not inspired to look deeper into the subjects nor grapple with traditional study texts. Innovative programs for adults provide opportunities for learners to share their knowledge with others and encourage them to find their own way through these important religious texts. What makes Jewish learning exciting is the discovery of meaning in ancient texts. This does not occur spontaneously through listening passively to lectures. Real learning happens when students are permitted to find their own meaning in the sources. There are two basic kinds of programs that promote this type of learning and every synagogue should think about providing opportunities for adults to experience both.
The first type of class is, as we stated earlier, Hevruta Learning of serious texts. This kind of learning is text based. It encourages learners to read and wrestle with a text, but not by themselves. It can be used to study Bible, Talmud, liturgy or any other form of sacred text. A teacher should prepare a section of text, in Hebrew or in Hebrew and English, depending on the students’ abilities, (Hebrew is the language of Jewish learning and at some point the students should want to expand their Hebrew proficiency) with a list of open-ended questions. The students should then have some time to look at the text and contemplate the questions. This is done in small groups of two or three students (a Hevruta – from the word Haver, meaning “friends” or “colleagues”) around a table. The group can be as large as four or five, but the more students in each group, the more time they will need to prepare the material since each person should have a chance to share his or her understanding of the text with the rest of the group. Each person in the Hevruta has his or her own unique background and life experience to bring to the discussion.
At the end of this “Hevruta time,” the groups gather and the teacher gives a “shiur” or lesson that offers learners an opportunity to explain how they understood the text and how they arrived at their answers. There should be time allotted so that each group can share its ideas and answers, and the teacher can weave them all together, explaining why some ideas are not as good as others based on the limits of the text and the understanding of other rabbis and commentators. This will hopefully deepen the understanding of the text for the students. Hevruta study is a way to learn from the experiences of others under the guidance of a seasoned instructor.
The other style of learning is an independent study group. Here, a diverse group of 8-12 people choose a text to study, start at the beginning and read through it using whatever commentary and study aids they find helpful. Here too, the life experiences of the group members come into play as they work together to uncover the meaning of the text. The Genesis Project, made famous on a PBS special years ago, is a good example of this type of learning (The Bill Moyers Genesis Project: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/genesis). A diverse group of learners gathers each week in someone’s conference room and together they study a text of their choosing. Each person in the group can lead a session and the rest of the group can comment on what has been presented. The group does not need a teacher unless something within the text stumps the entire group. In this case, a qualified teacher or some reference work can be consulted to shed light on the issue.
Both of these methods of learning rely on the students to set the tone and pace of the discussion. Sometimes a teacher can point out an important concept that will help the students later in their learning or he or she can help the students venture below the surface to find deeper meaning in the words. For example, Bibliodrama, a way of personally encountering the stories of the Bible is an extension of the study group. Here, a teacher can guide the discussion to illustrate the ways that bible stories are also relevant, life lessons. (See the book, “Our Fathers’ Wells” by Peter Pitzele, Harper Collins Press 1995, as an example). The organization “Storahtelling” in New York (www.storahtelling.org ) can provide a good kickoff for this kind of a group or a way to revive a struggling one.
Adult learners should be encouraged to examine and chronicle their Jewish journeys, the reason that brought them to study these texts. Sometimes these journeys can inspire others on a similar path. To know that the same need for meaning and search for faith that drives one adult are spurring others is a powerful way of helping adults connect with their learning. This is not esoteric, college learning nor the practical learning needed to improve skill sets on the job. Adult Learning at the synagogue should be the kind of life changing learning that helps us understand better who we are and where we want our lives to go. It is unique to religious learning and we need to make better use of it for the benefit of those who are searching.
I like to think of this kind of adult learning as participation in the longest running classroom discussion in the history of the world. Jews have been studying these texts together for thousands of years. It’s an honor to be able to study them together and the enterprise is filled with meaning for the students and the teachers.
Growing A Synagogue Part Three: Communicating in the Twenty-First Century
Communicating in Print
The third leg of a successful congregation is communication. We can be the most welcoming organization in town and offer some of the most meaningful and innovative programming ever devised, but if we can’t get the word out about who we are, where we are and what we have, we may as well be invisible. Many synagogues have extensive advertising campaigns, but most of the information I’ve seen indicates that display advertising, in newspapers and fliers is ineffective. It may provide name recognition, but this kind of advertising does not attract new members or new participants.
Everyone knows that the single, most effective way to recruit new prospects is to have synagogue members personally invite friends and neighbors to join them at the synagogue. With the possible exception of the month before Rosh Hashana (when Jews do look for a synagogue to attend for the holidays), display advertising is of very limited use. Too many of the people we are looking for no longer get their information from print advertising.
For example, many newspapers and organizations use community calendars that offer free advertising of events. I don’t know of any community calendar that publishes all events regardless of their origin. Often events are published based on how much space the publication has available in the issue and if the program intrigues the editor. These events may only be published a day or two before the event is scheduled even though the deadline for inclusion is weeks in advance. Someone looking for something to do that day may read about it and decide to attend, but most of the time it only serves as a reminder for those who have already signed up.
Print display advertising for synagogues is expensive and never particularly effective. To be fair, most synagogues have not really invested in a major advertising effort. Synagogues don’t hire advertising firms to create eye catching and informative display ads. Most congregations just don’t have the budget for that kind of marketing. My colleague, Rabbi Jack Riemer told me once that he convinced a major PR firm to do a series of ads for his synagogue for free, as a public service. That was a rare successful program. In these modern times, newspapers, magazines and other print media are a dying breed. The place to get our word out today is on the Internet. The good news is that it is fast and free. The bad news is that it’s much harder to rise above all the other noise on the web.
Synagogue Bulletin/Weekly Announcements
Because synagogues are multi generational, there may still be a need for a printed bulletin. The bulletin should include your synagogue logo and should carry a professional design. There are many computer programs that can help one design a professional, attractive bulletin. There are also many good graphic designers for those who would like their bulletin, stationery, and logo to have a uniform look and feel. A generous donor can underwrite the cost of a print bulletin, printing and postage, or advertising can be sold to cover the costs. You never know in whose hands a print bulletin will fall so it should be used solely as a way to advertise upcoming events. Controversial items or critical letters do not belong in a bulletin. If you can afford to print in color and include pictures, so much the better. If not, find many graphics to highlight each page so readers are not subject to large blocks of boring print. Pay attention to the color and quality of the paper and the printing. If you can’t do a quality job in house, then pay to have the bulletin printed at a local print shop. A good graphic designer can, for a rather modest fee, create a template for a print bulletin that can be used over and over. It is also helpful to have professional advice on the layout of the bulletin. Achieving the balance between text, graphics and white space, the use of logos, borders, and catchy headers for regular columns often requires the assistance of someone with an experienced eye for graphic design. Once the design is finished, reusing the design each month should be easy for in house editors.
While it may be expensive, it’s worth thinking about, and good business practice, to have your print and web materials professionally branded. This includes consistency in the language you use as well as your use of fonts and colors to create a cohesive design. In this manner, those that receive or view your material can instantly recognize its origin and have a general sense of your congregation simply from the look and feel of your website or envelope.
Weekly announcement sheets can be put out every Shabbat for those in attendance to pick up at services. This is a good way to help those who attend on weekends receive information regarding upcoming events. Don’t make the common mistake of thinking that if something is put in the weekly announcements, every member of the congregation will see it. In fact, only the small percentage of people that attend services will see the events posted. It is no more than a reminder sheet for those active members of the congregation. It can be used to thank sponsors and donors for that weekend’s events so they can see their names in print. As it is handed out to members and guests, it is also a public relations tool. It should be short, to the point and easy to take home. If a newcomer to the service picks one up, it can also include information about the service, the congregation and a contact name for more information. It should include contact information for the congregation, including the web address and names of officers and staff to be contacted for additional information about the synagogue.
Since bulletins and weekly announcements are assembled by volunteers, it has become sport, over the years, to see how many typos and mistakes one can find while perusing them. There are entire books written about the humorous things found in church/synagogue bulletins and announcements. It is crucial, therefore, to make sure that a qualified proofreader carefully reads the documents before they go to print. I know this sounds obvious, but getting the names (the right name and the right spelling), dates and information accurate is not an easy job and someone needs to be responsible for overseeing this important process.
The information on both of these documents can and should be included on the synagogue website. If it is created on a standard word processing program on a computer, it can easily be reformatted to fit on an existing page or be posted to its own page in just about the same format as it was for printed distribution. It is a good idea to have a teaser for important items on the front page that clicks through to the full description of the program or event on a different page. Since prospective members looking for a synagogue will be viewing your website, having the announcements on the there is a good way for strangers to get to know your organization and for regulars to easily find details for programs they’d like to attend.
The basic unit of publicity on the Internet is a website. While there are free domains (web addresses), for just a few dollars you can own a domain name of your choosing (e.g. http://www.CongregationBethX.org or http://www.templex.com or something similar). Think of a website as one way of having your synagogue office accessible 24/7 (yes, even on Shabbat!). If your congregation is looking to attract young adults, you need to think like one of them! To anyone born after 1980, an organization or business that does not have a website simply does not exist. Long before a young adult will ever come to visit a synagogue, he or she will first check out the congregation’s website. It’s important that the website be done professionally and properly.
A website should include the following information: the name of your congregation and an accurate description of what you’re about; the mission statement and values of the congregation; your physical address and directions on how to find your synagogue; information including times and locations for services, programs, and classes; an up to date calendar of events and contact information for the synagogue staff. It’s also nice to include a bio of your clergy, sample sermons from the rabbi or audio files of the cantor; the different committees and affiliates and some of the activities that they sponsor; and information about the neighborhood in which you are located, such as kosher restaurants or supermarkets, etc.
Your website must have accurate and timely information and be updated regularly. Developing a website means having a volunteer with excellent “web acumen” or having the website designed professionally. Professional web design may not be the cheapest option, but if the congregation is cutting back on print advertising, a professional designer may be a good investment. One important consideration is how the website will be maintained. Who will be responsible for keeping information on the site up to date, and what training might they need? Synagogue staff and volunteers should establish a communication strategy that includes making sure upcoming programs are posted to the website, old material is removed and all information is accurate. This also includes an annual review of the entire website and at-least-monthly check for accuracy. Also consider rotating the pictures on display.
If a congregation does not have a website or the congregation is unhappy with what they have currently, the first thing to do is spend some time on the web looking at what other successful synagogues and churches are doing. Ask people that use the internet regularly to suggest their favorite sites. Go to those sites and look at the style and content of the home pages. Examine how they divide up the different areas of the congregation, putting them on different pages. Pay attention to how easy or difficult it is to find a particular piece of information, like a map showing the synagogue’s location, a list of who to call for information, a calendar of current activities or the times that services will be held. Look at what pictures are used, what graphics are used. Look further and pay attention to what colors are in the background and what color is used for the fonts. If the site was professionally designed, often the designer will have the company name at the bottom of the page in very small letters. If you like what you see, you can contact the designer (at the designer’s website) and inquire as to how they can be of service to you. If you have a professional design your website, make sure there is a mechanism for synagogue staff or volunteers to easily updating the content without intervention from the designer at an additional expense. This often means having a content management system [CMS] which enables those unfamiliar with code to update the text on a website.
A common mistake congregations make on their websites is putting a picture of the synagogue building on the home page. Your community may be very proud of the synagogue building but the building is not the most important part of your congregation. Synagogues (and churches) are all about people and it is much better to have pictures of people on your homepage–especially people having fun, smiling, cute children and lots of activity. You can add a guided tour of your building to the site for those who are interested, but it does not belong on the home page.
If you have a website already, open it in your browser and see what it looks like when it opens. Like the synagogue tour above, take a tour of your own website. Does the homepage make you look like a place you would want to visit? A website is like the large window of a department store. It is the face that the world sees when they look at your synagogue. It needs to be kept fresh, up to date and have all of the most important information. A website that is out of date will never get a second look. It is better to have no website than to have one that is out of date with old, useless information. (If you really can’t keep a website up to date, consider having a “brochure website,” with the name, address and contact information for your synagogue- at least until you can establish a more dynamic site).
Most synagogues overlook this but metrics (statistics) are a vital part of a website. There are a number of companies that offer free metrics (such as google analytics) for websites. Typically, there is a counter to record how many hits the website gets. But also included are metrics to display how visitors found your website, what pages they visited, how long they spent on each page and how long they were on the entire website. You can access demographics with regard to where these visitors live, what company provides their internet service, which browser they are using and a host of other details that can be very helpful in planning and updating the website. Businesses use metrics all the time and they can be of great help to synagogues and churches as well. Make sure that if someone is looking for a synagogue or rabbi in your area and googles these terms, your site will show up in the search listings. If it doesn’t appear, or is ranked lower than other less relevant results, consult someone competent in search engine optimization (SEO) to help you correct the problem.
Some congregations have a password protected area on the website for members only, for parents of the religious school only or where committees can share information privately; this is a place where more personal information can be shared. In some of these areas, social networking has been built into the website itself. By separating the public and private sections, members can have more information available than they could on a public site. Not only can they share synagogue information but can inquire about local service providers, share information on babysitters and give away unwanted furniture or theater tickets. A private area on a web site for members only can be a wonderful community tool.
Email, Listservs and Social Networking.
We are working from the inside out when it comes to publicity. Once you have an attractive and up to date website, you need to get the word out that you are open for business. When Ikar, the successful young synagogue in the Los Angeles area was ready to start, it sent an email to friends of the founders describing the congregation and explaining how they were different from other congregations. The email stated that “if this kind of a synagogue sounds like something you would be interested in, join us for a service on Shabbat and pass this email on to others you think might be interested.” Over 200 people came for that first Shabbat.
If you have a core group of members of a particular demographic and want to increase participation in that group, email can be a very effective way to spread the news. Everyone that inquires about your congregation should be asked to leave an email address in addition to more conventional contact information of address and phone number. Instead of a weekly announcement sheet, (or in addition to that sheet) there could be a weekly email about what is happening at the synagogue. This email should mention that recipients are welcome to forward the information to anyone who might be interested. Try not to make these announcements just plain blocks of text. Include graphics, the synagogue logo, and even pictures if possible. Included should always be both a phone number for information and a link to the synagogue website where more information can be found.
This announcement should go out to every email address you have on file. You do not, however, want to end up as spam in somebody’s email box. There are several things you should do to show consideration for those receiving your email. First of all, never send an email out with everyone’s name in the “To:” box. Email addresses should be as private as snail mail addresses. You would not sell your snail mail list; don’t publish your email list either. Emails from the congregation to the list should only have the synagogue’s email address in the “To” box. Consider using a mass mailing/marketing service such as Constant Contact. If you do send the email directly, all the other addresses should be sent out as “blind copies” (BCC). If you don’t know how to do this with your email client, get someone to show you! Avoid sending attachments and links to untrusted websites. Be considerate of your users and try not to send more emails than they want to receive. Having someone’s email address is a privilege; don’t make them regret giving it to you. It is also proper web etiquette to include an opt-out link at the end of every email so users can remove themselves from the list. Don’t take requests to be removed personally, but it is a good idea to try and find out why they left the list. Perhaps they have moved to a different community or have joined another synagogue and no longer need your information or perhaps your email is not meeting their needs. Consider having a variety of mailing lists focused on different groups so you can target parents with small children for one type of program, and for another, reach everyone that has participated in a food drive. This ensures you are making the most of your email list and reaching members with the information that is of particular interest to them.
A variation on the email list is a Listserv. This is a forum where everyone on the list can contact everyone else on the list with one email. This can be used for announcements but is usually a way that members can stay in contact with one another. The list is usually private, for congregational members only. They can share ideas, look for babysitters, recommend a plumber or give away tickets to a show they can no longer attend. It’s a good idea to establish guidelines and policies for use of the list. Make clear what sort of communication is welcome and what is not. Also be clear about what the consequences are for unwelcome behavior. A Listserv can be a way to discuss interesting articles or lessons with the group. Like the mailing lists above, your Listserv does not need to include all members. You can have targeted lists for college students away at school, for the youth group, for the Sisterhood or Men’s Club. If you have multiple minyanim at the synagogue, each minyan can have its own Listserv to stay in touch with its group and to assign parts for the service in advance.
There are also a number of other social networking sites to which members may already subscribe that you can utilize to enhance communication and keep members informed in real time. Social networks are a great way to extend relationships or start new ones. Instead of reaching members only when they are inside your building, you can further your scope and develop a constant presence for the synagogue. Social Networks are often the first place people post their news, both good and bad, and presents many opportunities to hear from, help, and be there for your members. It is also a good place to ask questions about what things they might like to see in the future from the congregation, survey members as to which programs they might attend and have them give you a hand in planning the next program to ensure a greater turnout.
A common objection to social media is that it opens up the channels of communication and creates the possibility of negative publicity or a forum for those who are dissatisfied to let others know about their unhappiness. This objection is rooted in a misunderstanding of the medium. Whether you are on Facebook or not, the conversation is already happening! Isn’t it better to keep track of issues and use a negative post as an opportunity to fix the relationship and let others know what you are doing to resolve the situation? Making this shift can be difficult, but it is very worthwhile.
If you’re not familiar with the variety of social network options, take the time to learn about each of them. One common mistake is to treat them all the same. Instead, determine your goal and then choose the right tool to meet your needs.
- Do you want to bring more people to your building? Consider using Foursquare to offer a promotion for anyone that checks-in at the synagogue.
- Do you want to establish a professional network to help congregants find jobs? Start a group on Linked-in.
- Do you want to send out short blasts to the public? This may be a good use of Twitter.
- Do you want to establish mutual relationships with members? Start a page on Facebook.
Each of these methods can be a very powerful tool when used correctly; make sure to familiarize yourself with the method you’ve chosen. Social media users can be very forgiving so don’t be afraid to try new things or take chances.
Texting is mainly for personal communication. Since texts can cost the recipients money, ask for permission before sending group text messages. They are certainly effective in specific circumstances, for example, when time is short, such as notifying parents of an emergency.
Instant Messaging (IM) is also often personal, but consider having someone in the office staff an IM account to answer questions. The more entry points you have, the more you enable your members to connect.
One last thought, consider finding out what mediums and tools your congregants are using and meet them there. Don’t jump in just because it sounds cool to be on Facebook or Twitter. Starting a Linked-in group if your congregants don’t use it doesn’t benefit anyone. Make sure you are where your people are.
Growing A Synagogue Part Four: Building and Rebuilding
Perhaps it is due to the weak economy, or a result of our new awareness of environmental concerns, or maybe it reflects the shrinking number of children in need of our religious schools, but the size of synagogue buildings is definitely decreasing.
In the 1950’s, a thriving congregation aspired to have a large building, perhaps designed by a famous architect, located in an upper, middle class suburb. Today, many congregations housed in these “designer” buildings are finding they are expensive to maintain and no longer as useful for what modern Jews need from their religious space. A rabbi I know had his congregation move into a new sanctuary in the 1970’s that featured a Ner Tamid, an eternal light, that was not electric, but rather a real flame, burning butane (basically it was a somewhat oversized cigarette lighter). Shortly after the building was opened, the first oil crisis in this country occurred and the cost of butane shot up. What seemed like a good idea at the time became an expensive headache. Similarly, as styles of worship changed, large sanctuaries with fixed pews, once a standard in religious buildings, suddenly condemned the utility of the largest room in the building to one or two days a year.
Today’s modern synagogue is a very different kind of a place. Sanctuaries are significantly smaller. Where once it was common to see sanctuaries seating 600-700 people and expanding to seat 1500 on the High Holidays, today the standard sanctuary seats fewer than 400, expandable perhaps to 1000 on the holidays. But the size of the room is not the only feature that has changed. To keep energy costs down, there is a lot more natural light being used; in some cases, the sunlight actually helps keep the building warmer in the winter. The bima, the raised platform where the service is conducted, is much lower, dropping from 7-8 steps up, to just one or two steps above the floor of the sanctuary, giving everyone the feeling of being part of the “action.” It also makes the bima more accessible to those with disabilities. Instead of narrow stairs leading up and down, the entire platform can be accessed from any direction, with a simple step up. Bima furnishings, once very ornate and dark, are now simpler and lighter in color.
In addition to changing decor there is a trend to return to the “older” synagogue style of placing the bima in the middle of the room. Where this is not possible, the seats will often be on three sides of the bima, not just in the front facing forward. This circular style, where the worshipers can one another lends a feeling of everyone being together in prayer. Rabbi Eli Kaunfer, in his book, “Empowered Judaism” notes “The other layout popular in independent minyanim, and the one that I advocate, is that used in many traditional Orthodox synagogues; all rows face forward, and the prayer leader stationed in the center, also facing forward. This sends a few important messages. First that everyone is facing the Aron Kodesh (the holy ark) rather than facing a leader who is davening toward (at?) the congregation. The unity of purpose is clearly reinforced by the direction of the community. Second, the charismatic role of the prayer leader is diminished – half the congregation sits in front of the leader, while the other half sit behind her. While at first blush this may seem impersonal, it actually allows both the congregation and the leader to avoid self-consciousness, putting the focus on sound rather than sight. A third advantage is that the prayer leader experiences a different relationship to the congregation by being in their midst. She can better gauge to what extent a melody is “working” and can feel supported by the more active daveners in the congregation. She is simply closer to the entire congregation than in a standard synagogue layout, and she draws strength from that closeness.” (p.114) Kaunfer admits that the feelings of “self consciousness” that can occur when a congregation prays in a circle, with the leader in the middle, is what predisposes him toward the forward facing model. But he admits that some find davening in a circle, being able to see one another’s faces, actually fosters a connection with God and other human beings. While we may differ regarding feelings of “self-consciousness” and I tend to prefer the more circular seating, we both agree that theatrical seating, with the bima in front and everyone watching the “show” is no longer a workable model for prayer. The need for participation and inclusiveness mandates that we put the bima in the midst of the congregation regardless of which way the daveners may be facing.
Synagogue seating is better when we get away from fixed pews. Moveable seating has many advantages. Firstly, the room can be reconfigured to fit the size of the congregation you are expecting. Hadar, the independent minyan in New York City, sets up fewer seats than the number of worshipers expected so that everyone will sit together rather than spread out all over the room. The feeling of being in a room with everyone nearby helps lift the spirit of the service. If you have moveable seating, and you find you need more seats, you can bring them in as needed.
Moveable seating also allows for flexibility in the arrangement of the chairs. One week there can be semicircular seating, perhaps the bima in the middle the next week, and a front facing arrangement the following week. Aisles can be wide or narrow. You can have seating in two rows, three rows or just one inner circle. Ansche Chesed in New York had very old hard pews from almost 100 years ago, all set facing forward with a very high bima. They removed the first 10 rows of pews in the front and replaced them with moveable seating in a semi-circle, moving the bima to the center of the circle. Now more people sit up front, the action is closer to the congregation and it is a wonderful, participatory service.
Additionally, moveable seating makes the room usable for more than just services. One can hold a number of discussion groups on a weekday, there can be multiple Torah readings on Simchat Torah, it creates room for dancing for Kabbalat Shabbat and the room can be used for larger meetings as needed. Rearranging the seating can have a great impact on a program—an impact that takes effect as soon as people come into the room and have to find a chair. [While I know that it is customary that people want to sit in the same seat each Shabbat, by reconfiguring the seating, people will sit in different seats and meet different people than the crowd with whom they usually sit.] I’m not a fan of folding chairs. There are many comfortable seats, with pockets for books and information that can be used without having to bolt the chairs to the floor. It is a wiser use of space and resource to scrap the pews and switch to moveable seating.
There was a time in this country, where the rabbi spoke from “on high” and everyone literally looked up to see and hear him (there were no women rabbis then). There was an invisible wall between the congregation and the bima. Just as in the theater where there has been an attempt to break down the wall between the actors and the audience, we need to break down the barriers that separate prayer leaders from the worshipers.
When one of my congregations moved to a new building, we gutted the sanctuary to completely refurbish it. I insisted that the bima, seven steps high, be removed and lowered to no more than two. The building committee came back to me and said that, for some strange reason, the bima in the old sanctuary was made of poured concrete. It would take a week of jack hammering and then the removal of the debris to lower the platform. It just did not make economic sense. So I had them take out the narrow steps up and replace them with steps that spanned the entire face of the bima. No matter where someone sat in the congregation, they had direct access to the bima. It also freed me up to come down from the bima and speak from the floor of the sanctuary for a more informal discussion on Shabbat. As I mentioned before, Ansche Chesed in New York moved the bima to the center of the circle on the sanctuary floor and congregants only ascend the bima when they need to open the ark and take out the Torah. Otherwise, it simply serves as a nice backdrop for their service.
These days, on Friday nights, for Kabbalat Shabbat, our congregation does away with a bima altogether. The service is held in one of our smaller social halls. The hazzan stands in the middle of the circle with only a music stand to hold his siddur. I wander around through the aisles and around the back, encouraging the congregation to sing and participate in the service. I enter the center of the circle only when I have something I need to do in the center, i.e. give a d’var Torah or lead a reading. I encourage others to lead readings from their seats.
Beyond the Building
My good friend Rabbi Edwin Farber told me the story of the sanctuary renovation at his synagogue. The plans called for the Torah reading table to be built into the bima, right on the edge next to the steps. Rabbi Farber tried to explain to the builder that there had to be room for four people to stand around the table: a Torah Reader; a person called to the Torah but who couldn’t read the Torah so the Torah Reader would read for him; a Gabbai who made sure the Torah Reader did not make a mistake and another Gabbai who made sure that a mistake did not slip past the first Gabbai. The builder listened carefully and asked, “How many classrooms are we including in this building?” “Seven,” said the rabbi. “That’s a good thing,” replied the builder, “since none of your people can read!”
A synagogue is more than a sanctuary. It needs office space, classrooms, meeting rooms, perhaps a smaller chapel, a kitchen and a space for dinners and social events. The key is to be able to use the space effectively and efficiently. Moveable partitions between classrooms can give more room but could be noisy when both rooms are used. Early Childhood classes can be converted to Religious school classrooms but that change could be more work than the time between schools allows. A secretarial pool is an efficient use of space but makes it difficult for members needing a private meeting with the rabbi to find a quiet space. Designing a building requires a lot of thought and consideration.
For start-up and small congregations, one must consider whether a building is really necessary at all. Meetings and adult studies can be held at the homes of members. After school classrooms can be rented from a public/private school that has empty rooms after the school day is over. A storefront with moveable chairs, some office space and some moveable partitions may be all a congregation needs for awhile without requiring a mortgage and full tilt capital campaign. This could allow financial resources to be concentrated on people and programs and not on maintenance of a building. Building maintenance can be an expensive overhead that makes future budget cuts difficult. In these days of home offices, conference rooms that rent by the hour and local copy shops serving as an email, snail mail and package offices with computer equipment to boot, there may be fewer reasons for small congregations to own a building at all.
Another possibility, in this time of large synagogue buildings with shrinking congregations, is to rent space from a different congregation and run two separate congregations out of one location. You can dramatically reduce the cost of running your operation by sharing office and janitorial help. If there is a significant age gap between the two congregations, there will be little reason to fear that one group might “steal” members from the other. The mission and atmosphere of the two congregations would be far too disparate to allow for this. If possible, foster the idea of moving from one service to the other, which can enhance both services in the long run. I think it is wonderful for a minyan to move into an empty space in a larger synagogue, provided the details of what is and is not permitted are negotiated in advance.
A small orthodox minyan from a local Young Israel affiliate once asked to meet in one of my classrooms on Saturday morning. After speaking to the rabbi at the Young Israel (I was not looking to create a rift in his congregation) I gave them the green light to meet in our building. In the spirit of cooperation, we offered, gratis, the use of the room. A couple of years later, the Young Israel rabbi told me they were ready to spin off the group using my space. We then renegotiated with the group; they would act like a congregation and charge nominal dues and we would give them the space for only the cost of the maintenance to keep the room clean. That group was mostly older men and slowly they were no longer able to attend. Sometimes they came into our service to look for men to help them make a minyan. There were some in my congregation who were offended by this but no one was required to join them; some were happy to help out and go to the other service. The only other restriction we placed on this minyan was that they could not “denigrate” our Conservative congregation because we did not agree with them on issues of egalitarianism and participation. After many years, the group was no longer able to continue and the remaining members joined our congregation. We were happy to have them.
I said earlier, that the “one size fits all” type of service is way out of date. Offering multiple services that have multiple options is a way to be more things to more people. Bringing in other smaller groups can be a way of helping them and offering more to the community. It is important, however, to make sure that the concerns of both congregations are addressed in advance. There will need to be excellent, open communication between the different groups to make this kind of an arrangement work.
Virtual Buildings and Virtual Community
Modern technology does not require a community to actually be inside the same building all the time. Technology allows us to create “virtual” buildings. This works particularly well when it comes to educational programs. Classes can be recorded as MP3 files and posted on the congregation’s website so that congregants can listen at their leisure, or even posted as an MP4 file, a video of the class, for those that missed the session. An internet “forum” can be used to encourage discussion among those who may be taking the class later and questions can be posted so that participants can see what other learners are thinking. Prior to an advanced text class, basic information can be posted to the web as a “prerequisite” for those who missed the beginning semester. Together with the List-serve, a virtual community can be set up, so that in addition to learning, questions and answers, day to day information like finding a baby sitter or asking for the name of a qualified painter, can be provided; members can reach out to one another even if they can’t physically get to the synagogue. There may be some who think that this kind of community is impersonal and cold, but given people’s busy lives, making ideas, lessons and communal information available after hours can make the difference in keeping active members involved. Young adults today are more familiar and less put off by virtual community. It can be a wonderful way to get them interested in the shul and ultimately keep them connected.
Growing A Synagogue Part Five – Staffing A Modern Shul
There are kehillot (communities) that are blessed with a wealth of talented members who don’t need the guidance of a rabbi or cantor in their congregations. If rabbis are involved, they are teachers in the adult studies program or advisers to the leadership team.
Full disclosure: I am a pulpit rabbi and have worked in and with a variety of congregations that have used my talents in different ways.
There are some who think that rabbis should no longer be the spiritual leaders of congregations. I disagree with this assertion, but I do agree that the basic role of the rabbi in a congregation has changed and continues to evolve. Some rabbis have been able to work in this changing environment and some feel they need to hang on to the older, more conventional, style of synagogue. Some of my colleagues have confided that they are uncomfortable with new ways of leading a congregation and wish to keep things the same for as long as they can. While I understand the need to sometimes be the one who holds the line where halachic changes are concerned, as we have discovered, the issue is not halacha at all; it is the very nature of the organizational structure that is changing. There is still a great respect for rabbis and for Jewish tradition. Young Jews who create meaningful communities do not reject Judaism; they embrace it in some very traditional ways. I think that issues like egalitarianism and pluralism are crucial concepts in the creation of new communities, and once these communities come together, they are not opposed to keeping kosher or observing Shabbat.
My colleagues need to understand that halachic issues are rarely the crux of the problem; they are really only a symptom. When people are unhappy with programming and prayer in our congregations they may say things like “Services are boring” or “Why do we have to pay so much for X?” or “Why can’t you talk about current events?” The fact is, many of our current members don’t really know at all what they want, only that they are unhappy with what they have. If we press them to tell us exactly what they are looking for, they usually don’t have an answer or tell us that they want us to do what we are already doing but somehow to do it differently.
I believe that a rabbi must be constantly looking at models of successful congregations throughout the country and striving to bring these strategies and programs home. Naturally, there will be extremists: those who don’t want anything to change and those who want everything to change. Reality is still somewhere between the two poles. Leadership is not easy. My sister is a hazzan and long ago she told me that a hazzan that doesn’t introduce new melodies and liturgical configurations to the service is just being lazy. The same applies to rabbis (I know, I know–who am I calling lazy?!) I mean no disrespect to any of my colleagues. We have many responsibilities as rabbis. But growing our congregations is one of the most crucial. If you look at congregations seeking a new rabbi, it does not take long to see that each of them wants help with “change.” They want to change and they don’t want to change simultaneously (“change what I don’t like and don’t change what I do like”) but that, we know is impossible. An executive director once reminded me “nobody likes all the focus on the bar mitzvah boy at Saturday services, except the members of the family. Yet the family makes up over 75% of the congregation that morning, and they want the focus to be on the boy.” So how do you make the regulars happy without angering 75% of the people in shul that morning? When we give blessings at the Torah for those celebrating a birthday or anniversary, everyone complains it takes too long, except those who are receiving the blessings! (It is always too long unless it involves me.)
Congregations have histories. Congregations like to chronicle their histories and invite others to read it. Often synagogue websites have links to the histories of their communities. These histories often point back to the wonderful days when the congregations were small, or when they were in their glory, replete with members and alive with programs. Sometimes, however, there are darker secrets in the history of a congregation that the members don’t like or want to recall: problems with clergy, financial problems, members and staff who are arrested and the synagogue is implicated, sexual harassment of a employee, sexual abuse of a child in the school, embezzlement, misappropriation of funds, the sudden death of beloved rabbi or president. All of these can devastate a congregation and produce years of upheaval. The problem here is that the members of the congregation want to get past their problems and return to the way things used to be. But going backwards is impossible. Things will never be the way they used to be. We only nostalgically see those days through rose tinted glasses that blissfully filter out the problems and difficulties that we endured. In synagogue life, the past is interesting and should be recorded and remembered, but we can’t live there. We need to constantly employ foresight and focus on what lies ahead. One colleague reminded me that this is the reason cars have a large windshield and a small rear view mirror, so we can see more of where we are going and less of where we’ve been. What would success mean in the 21st century? Life moves on and we must not let our history cloud our vision of the future. The question we need to ask is, “What are we doing now that we want to continue and what needs to be changed/updated/renewed or created?” This is not a challenge exclusive to synagogues. All modern organizations and businesses have to look to the future or face difficult consequences that come from living in the past.
Jack and Suzi Welch in the article I mentioned earlier, write, “When a team is infused with trust, people play to their better angels. They share ideas freely. They help their colleagues when they are stuck and need an insight. What they do every day then become about the group’s success, not their own. The candor-trust connection has another benefit: it promotes and environment of risk-taking. Who wants to try something new if they sense they’ll get a stick in the eye (or worse) should they fall? Leaders of winning teams encourage their people to take on huge challenges and let them know that they’re safe no matter what happens. And they make good on their word.”
I have seen boards so averse to risk that they quash any new idea that arises. I have seen rabbis and directors tell excited lay leadership that what they propose can’t be done. Anyone who has ever served on a synagogue board or professional staff has heard the phrases that kill new ideas: “We tried that once and it didn’t work.” “Who will you get to chair that project?” “That may work in big cities but in our town it would never fly.” “That is not what our congregation is about, if you want to do that, you should join a different synagogue that does stuff like that.” We have thousands of ways that leadership, both lay and professional, can squelch new ideas. What we need is a culture that encourages new ideas, new programs and forward thinking. It’s not about who gets the credit, but what is good for the congregation. If we try something and it fails, then we’ve learned something and, if we think the idea still has merit, we can try again with an eye for where we went wrong. If it really doesn’t work, then we will try something different. The payoff for an idea that finally DOES work is worth the all the prior failures upon which it is built. We can cultivate new ideas from our existing talent and by actively searching for ideas that have proven successful in other places. All we need to do to make these ideas our own is to be open to possibilities.
I therefore believe the best approach to achieving the success we seek is for both rabbi/staff and lay leadership to create a working dialogue. Often the rabbi only hears good things and the president hears all the complaints. That needs to change. Both rabbi and president need to share their points of view with one another. Together they need to identify the real needs of the congregation (not just the personal needs of the chronic complainers) and investigate how other congregations deal with these issues. We need to see what may be working, what clearly is not working and what would never work here! Complaints about things being too long (services, religious school) are symptoms of programs that do not engage the participants. “Boring” (services, programming) is a reaction to the lack of change. Declining membership is a symptom of people voting with their feet to find something meaningful somewhere else. It means we have misunderstood or just completely ignored their needs. If young Jews are not joining, it is because they just don’t see anything for themselves in our congregations. And that is why you are reading this book.
Cantors have an even more difficult time. New hazzanim are trained to be not just singers, but auxiliary staff members. They are often recruited as teachers, education directors and even executive directors. Older hazzanim were trained to lead services with classical cantorial melodies. The problem is that many of those melodies are anywhere from 50-150 years old. In the movie, “100 Voices: A Journey Home” The featured hazzanim understand that these old classic melodies, many of which came from Europe, are just not meaningful to younger Jewish audiences. I recently wrote in my congregation’s bulletin, “I still love the song that Michelle and I danced to at our wedding. Sometimes, if we are out dancing, and I feel really romantic, I ask the band to play it for us to dance. I would never expect my radio station to play it anymore. Music has moved on and while there are still some of us who like “oldies” it is not the way for a radio station to stay on the air. Even my favorite station that played music from the 1950’s now plays “oldies” from the 60’s and 70’s. My music is now older than the ‘oldies’!” Musical styles change. That is a fact of life. A cantorial concert can be the showcase for classical hazzanut, but the liturgy deserves more modern influences. Hazzanim that can’t keep up may find themselves left behind.
Music is a very complicated aspect of synagogue life and a vital part of prayer and spirituality. Through it, we can express our deepest feelings and emotions and good music can help us identify both the joy and the sorrow in our hearts. After the destruction of the Temple by the Roman’s in 70 CE, Judaism faced a complicated outlook toward music. In the dark days that followed the burning of the Temple, the sages banned music from all Jewish services as a remembrance of the destruction. Today there are many who feel that since the rebirth of the State of Israel, this ban on music should be lifted. The historical reality is that in almost every generation, there were those who ignored the ancient ban on music. How could it be otherwise? Music is just too important to leave behind.
There has been a lot of discussion about bringing back the use of musical instruments on Shabbat and on holidays. We see from Christian churches that musical instruments can have a tremendous effect on the worshipers, bringing out in them strong spiritual feelings. Some congregations have had much success in bringing people to prayer with the use of keyboard, drums, piano, guitar, flute and/or clarinet. Other congregations continue to draw people to the service with just a capella singing. I don’t believe that either one is a necessary part of worship. To use musical instruments or not is a choice that each community has to make. The REAL issue is not the instruments, but the music being played. If the music stresses the singer or the musicians and makes the service more of a performance, then it will kill all attempts at spirituality. If the music inspires the listeners to sing along, to join in , clap and dance, then it can be the perfect choice. Services should not be a performance by either the rabbi or the cantor. It should be an opportunity for the congregants to express their connection to prayer. Sometimes the rabbi and cantor can help facilitate this connection through their singing and explanations. Sometimes the rabbi and the cantor just have to get out of the way and let the congregation sing.
It is crucial that the rabbi and hazzan work together to create a meaningful service. There should be no reason for rabbis and hazzanim to feud or work at cross-purposes. While each needs to respect the role of the other, and must treat one another as colleagues, there will not always be agreement on everything. What is important is to try new things, and then come back and assess how these changes are received. What is important is to talk about what can be done to make that service unique. Sometimes it may be a reaction to something in the news. Rabbi Sharon Braus said after the 2004 tsunami that devastated the countries of the eastern Indian Ocean, “If your service before the tsunami is the same as the service after the tsunami, then something is very wrong.” We have to be sensitive to what is happening in our world and how it affects those who are worshiping with us in our sanctuary. Our service has to reflect whatever is important and on their minds. Sometimes a service may be built around a moral issue in the community; sometimes it will be built around getting more participation from the congregation. When the rabbi and hazzan work together, it creates a better atmosphere for good things to happen.
If we are to change the focus of learning in the synagogue from school for children to learning for adults, this will require a change in education staffing as well. Rather than an “education director” what will be needed is a “director of life-long learning.” Certainly we will need to oversee the Jewish education of children, but the main focus has to be on adults. There will need to be a movement away from lectures and more to “hevruta” learning. There will need to be more texts and more discussion. There will have to be higher-level learning and ways for those who are just beginning to “catch up” without dragging the whole program down. Educational programs must also reflect that some learning will take place outside the synagogue: in people’s homes and perhaps in the work environment as well. Coordinating study groups can be a full time job alone once the program becomes successful. There can be ongoing study programs that feature Yeshiva type learning for those who work during the day. There can be special week-long programs of learning based on the “Limmud” program each winter in England. There can be weekend and Shabbaton programs that can offer a wide range of topics to give everyone the opportunity to try something new. These shorter programs should segue into a longer program if enough people show an interest in the topic. Teachers can be the rabbi and cantor and any other staff member with an educational background. Often the same teachers who do so well with our children may also be able to teach adults. Many congregations are blessed with lay members that have a solid education background or a strong Judaic background and are also equipped to lead these study sessions. Many communities have colleges and universities with a Judaic Studies department that can outsource teachers, as well as students in the program. All of this, of course, requires the investiture of money as well as time. Just as the religious school for children has school fees, so too adult education, if it is to be credible and challenging, will also require fees from the participants. It may be possible to find outside money from foundations and donors, and a designated fundraiser in the community could initiate a patron’s program, where people with an interest in adult studies can help fund the program. There are opportunities for endowments and legacy gifts as well. There may even be corporations that would sponsor events in exchange for publicity to help raise money for the program. The key to a successful Adult Studies program is to create it with high caliber talent so that adults will want to join and actively participate. Clearly we need educators that are up to the task of creating serious adult learning.
Finally, we need to ensure that the entire synagogue staff is involved in the overall program and adds to the goal of engaging the membership. We are no longer in an age where people say, “you should hear my rabbi/cantor etc. In the future, we will want to hear: “This is what I learned/taught in shul this week.” Our professionals must be able to put their own egos aside and let the members sing and the students learn. It is not about the staff; the purpose of the synagogue is to teach Judaism, spirituality and how to find God and meaning in life.
Growing a Synagogue Part Six – Synagogue Finances
It is easy to be inspired by the creative thinking going on in the Jewish world today. It is easy to think of how a synagogue can be changed for the better and what that would mean for the members of the congregation and for those in the community looking for a spiritual home. I can hear the financial people in the congregation saying, “But how much is all this going to cost?”
I started out this book with the issue of financial problems that congregations are facing. I really hesitated as I started my writing because I didn’t want either the Jews or the non-Jews to think that synagogues are all about money. But in some ways, that is a big part of the problem. We have become so focused on fundraising, dues and budgets that we are in danger of forgetting our mission and our core principles. A synagogue is not about money; it is about people: teaching them, sharing with them and advising them on how to live better, more meaningful lives. The reality eventually hits us, however; to do these things, we need to raise the money. That is not a bad thing. The problem in American synagogues has been, over the past five or six decades, that money has been the main focus of our synagogues. We continue to struggle because we are so focused on the finances that we have forgotten our values. Now we are facing a future where no one wants to buy what we are selling. We are selling memberships but we never make clear why membership is important. The value, we say, is belonging to a community, but what kind of a community? What meaning does it hold in a person’s life? What type of asset will it be when members are faced with life’s ultimate challenges? These key issues we fail to state clearly, up front.
Financial managers in the private sector teach us that money is not a value; it is the means to attain our values. If we say that we are saving money, we reveal nothing. If we say we are saving for retirement, for a special vacation, for our children’s college education, then we have stated the value. Retirement, college and vacation are values; saving is the way we attain that which we value. The same applies to the non-profit world. What is it that we are trying to accomplish? If we are creating a new adult education program, if we are bringing in a Scholar in Residence, if we are planning a weekend of intensive study, we are raising money to help educate our members. If we are raising the money to create a program to help educate migrant workers, to support Habitat for Humanity in our neighborhood or to take out an ad in the local newspaper in support of Israel, it shows that we value social and political action and the money is simply the tool we use to support our causes.
The same applies to membership. On what are membership dues being used? We have many good causes in our congregations. We are paying dues in order to conduct beautiful services with the help of a rabbi and hazzan. We are supporting Jewish education for children by subsidizing the cost of our religious school. We are also showing our concern for those who are in need in our community, making religious services available even for those who may be suffering financial hardships. Those are also values.
All too often, we get caught up in the details of fundraising and forget the values that are important. Congregations get so upset that someone might be not paying his/her fair share that they begin to deny membership to those that can’t pay. High Holiday tickets must be bought if you want to pray on the Holy Days. On the one hand, seating is limited and we need to know how many will be attending the service, but we forget that we also have to be welcoming at our High Holiday services and to make those attending feel at home. All too often, we treat members and non-members as just another ticket and we wonder why they don’t connect spiritually with the service. Sometimes we get so caught up in making a building beautiful that we forget that the building is to be used, not just for decoration. It is important that we don’t become disconnected from our values.
If the programming aspects of synagogue life have changed drastically, so too have the financial aspects of a congregation. We live in a world where the best intentions die due to lack of funding. All the hopes and dreams embodied in these pages will be useless without the financial backing to make them a reality. Let me say this right here and now: there is nothing evil or non-spiritual about raising money. Money is not the root of all evil but another tool we can use to advance our goal of a more spiritual and meaningful Judaism. What is worthwhile is worth paying for. We must not forget this. Fund raising is not a necessary evil, but the way we prioritize the many important aspects of our lives. Money is not the reason a spiritual program exists, but it is one of the many devices we use to bring God into the lives of others. The Torah teaches, “Six days you shall labor and on the seventh day you shall rest.” this means that work and raising money may take up 6/7 of our time. To be sure, some things are beyond money, but an under funded program will never help us grow..
The usual synagogue model is to charge members annual dues. This is the fee that is required in order to belong. In most congregations it is one fee for the entire family. The dues for singles and those without children are often half the price. Membership does have its privileges; there are discounts on other fees and some programs are open for members only. Only members can vote on matters vital to the community and members have a hand in selecting clergy for the congregation. When a family joins the synagogue, they are usually asked in which areas of synagogue life they would like to get involved. Sadly, far too few congregations have anyone from the Membership committee actually read the application or contact the family about their interests. The more likely scenario is that a new member will have to show interest in an area of synagogue life and persist in inquiring about the program to get involved. As I mentioned in the section of cliques and fiefdoms, breaking into a group in a synagogue can be not just hard, but nearly impossible for a new member. I believe that for this reason alone, we are seeing the greatest percentage of disinterest by Jews in synagogue membership. Synagogues are asking for significant sums of money but never invite new members to be a part of the inner circle. After a while, the money is not worth the expense anymore and ignored members take their money elsewhere. It is not that families are poorer today than in the past. It is rather that they are more careful how and where they spend their money. One financial adviser noted that if you only join a synagogue for the High Holy Days and only use your membership three days a year, it is a poor investment. But if you get involved and take part in the ongoing programming at the synagogue, it is a really good buy. A membership committee has to make sure that new members are “getting their money’s worth” from their dues.
By laying out reasons for people to get involved: the learning and social action programs, the many spiritually fulfilling services, the school, we give people in our community a reason to want to join. This is not as easy as we might think it should be. It is not a matter of creating a website, printing a membership brochure or knocking on doors. These membership activities may have worked in past decades, but they will no longer work today. Why? Because there has been a fundamental shift in how and why people join a synagogue. I noted before, that in the past, people would join and then look for a way to get involved. Today, people need to be engaged, they need to be connected to the synagogue before they will give their money and become members. This means that the first contact with our synagogue will be through events open to the community. We will have to invest in engaging Jews in Jewish activities if we hope to bring them into membership sometime in the future. How can we hope to achieve this fundamental goal?
If we hold adult studies programs and open them to the public. If we take our ongoing study groups and open them up to all those who are searching, we will find that there is a great, untapped group of Jews willing to commit to an ongoing study program. If we make public our social action/political action programs, we will soon attract those from the larger community who share our goals and who will be willing to give their time and effort for the cause. Once they are engaged, they will be willing to pay for what they are doing. Nobody in this country really expects anything for free. If we show them the value of what they are getting, they are usually happy to pay their fair share. Once they have strong ties to our program and to the current members, they will affiliate and they will remain active. They will come to understand that the dues and other fees are worth the investment. That is how people get connected today. It is all about doing something important and making the personal connections that eventually bring in the commitment.
This is also why I believe that denominations in Judaism are not as important as they once were. My teachers once told me that there are really only two kinds of Judaism, fundamentalist Judaism, and non-fundamentalist Judaism. I believe that most Jews don’t know the difference between Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism and really don’t care. Only the leadership and scholars really know and argue the fine points that exist between movements. Once a Jew finds a group that meets his intellectual, spiritual and social needs, he or she will join and adjust to Jewish life in that denomination. If the congregation then fails to live up to those needs, the Jew will eventually quit the congregation and will find a place where he/she feels fulfilled. If that congregation is a different level of religiosity, our spiritual seeker will adjust.
This is also why I believe that denominations in Judaism are not as important as they once were. My teachers once told me that there really exist only two kinds of Judaism: fundamentalist Judaism and non-fundamentalist Judaism. I believe that most Jews don’t know the difference between Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism and really don’t care. Only the leadership and scholars truly know and bother to argue the finer points that exist between movements. Once a Jew finds a group that meets his intellectual, spiritual and social needs, he or she will join and adjust to Jewish life in that denomination. If the congregation then fails to live up to those needs, the Jew will eventually quit the congregation and find a place where he/she feels fulfilled. If that congregation is a different level of religiosity, our spiritual seeker will adjust. For some synagogue leaders that may sound like heresy, but you can see the truth in this almost every day. Jews who affiliated with one denomination, will move to another community and affiliate with a different denomination because they prefer the programming to that of synagogues in their new community. Certainly there are some Jews who could not imagine themselves belonging to a congregation, for example, that is anything but egalitarian, or one that does not have a social action program, or lacks a kosher kitchen. By and large, most Jews are looking for a welcoming place, a place where people care about causes that are important to them, a place that offers them a way to find meaning and purpose in their lives. When they find that place, the place that feels like “home,” they join. Christian mega-churches grow so very large by getting their membership to find meaning and purpose in any combination of the myriad choices they offer. No matter the denomination with which they were originally affiliated, they STAY because they find fulfillment in their lives and a common purpose with the people surrounding them. If there are some religious details to observe, things with which they may not always be familiar, like dressing conservatively, eating vegetarian at events, or separate seating for men and women, then they simply adapt. It is the purpose that drives the commitment. Most Jews today don’t really care about the use of microphones on Shabbat, if swordfish is kosher or not, who wrote the Bible and whether the building has stained glass windows or not. The real issue for these “seeking” Jews is, at the end of the day, that they feel that their participation has made a difference in the world.
As I noted, for some Jews, there are some exceptions to this rule. Egalitarianism can be a deal breaker. While there are families that will even connect to an orthodox synagogue if it meets their intellectual, spiritual and social needs, I suspect that the women in the family will eventually be less than enthusiastic about the limited role they play in orthodox congregational life. There are families that don’t mind the different gender roles, and some orthodox congregations work hard to keep the genders separate but equal. When we look at long-term commitments however, if there is a marked inequality of genders, it may serve to alienate members that don’t feel a true part of the synagogue.
Kashrut can be another important issue. Families that already keep kosher want their synagogues to be kosher as well. This may include only a small minority of Jews, but they are adamant about kashrut. They are surprised and disgusted if they find a synagogue serving food that is treif. Most of the people who don’t care about kashrut will not care if the congregation is kosher or not. If they join a kosher synagogue, they will easily embrace the rules and live by them, perhaps not in their homes and personal lives, but certainly in their Jewish communal life. If the family has children, they may keep their membership with a kosher congregation longer so as to be consistent with the rules they have taught their children. Once the children have gone, if kashrut is not important, it will not be a barrier to changing communal commitments. Once again, it takes a special commitment to belong to an Orthodox community since the laws of kashrut are far more demanding and change more frequently. One has to be current on what is considered kosher, what items have been rejected, whose authority and certification is considered acceptable and a host of minutia that make keeping kosher a challenge..
Shabbat can be a third area of some concern. If there are affordable homes in the area around the synagogue and families can easily live within walking distance, then those who are already Shabbat observant will feel welcome. Since most non-fundamentalist congregations allow driving, most Jews will not find this an issue. For those who want to walk on Shabbat, this could be an issue that keeps people away. It is a small part of the community, but often a vocal one. Often it is the rabbi who leads this group. If the rabbi lives within walking distance, he or she sets a good example. If the rabbi rides to shul on Shabbat, it is up to others to create this desired “walking community.”
But even with these few areas of concern, many Jews, especially young ones just beginning to form their ties to the Jewish community are less concerned with the details of the congregation’s level of observance and more concerned about getting what they need from the synagogue programming. If all they are looking for is a place to have their children complete bar/bat Mitzvah, these Jews will not be concerned with the shul specifics. They will have their ceremony and proceed to have a party elsewhere. They will pay for the service and move on. Such Jews have no interest in long-term communal relationships. If we work to engage Jews at a younger age, when they are in their mid to late twenties, we will find them more open to what we offer to enhance their lives and eventually open to the way we connect to Judaism and Jewish ritual. If the first thing we ask from these young Jews is thousands of dollars in dues, we will find them uninterested. We must first seek to engage them in Jewish activities and only later will they see the value in joining.
Fee for Service
There is a great fear both in synagogue leadership and at Federations, about adopting a “fee for service” approach to finances. What would happen to American synagogues and to the rest of the structure of the Jewish community if Jews were allowed to pay only for the programming and services that they needed? Could a synagogue exist without dues? If we pause to think about this question we should see how absurd it is. Why should it be that Jews should pay for programming they don’t need or want? Are we so paternalistic that we know better what Jews “should” want? Unless we sell them on a program, why should we require them to pay for it? And yet, this is the way we run most of our Jewish organizations. I have heard communal leaders say over and over, “Why don’t young Jews care about us anymore?” Just because it was important to a previous generation, if we can’t convince a new generation of its importance, then we can’t expect them to pay to keep it running.
Synagogues are not doing very well with a financial structure that relies heavily on dues. Shrinking memberships and increasing expenses are forcing congregations to look to other means of fundraising to make up the shortfall in dues. Dues used to represent just about half of a congregation’s budget. Today, it can be as low as one quarter to one third of the budget. It is also a number that is shrinking so fast that calculating the amount a congregation will collect in dues can be somewhat of a guess at the beginning of the year. Often this budget line falls well below expectations.
Synagogues do charge fees for religious school, bar/bat mitzvah and a variety of other services but often these do not cover all the costs involved. Dues are used to make school and other services more affordable for families, in effect charging those without children to help cover the cost of education so it will not be prohibitively expensive for those who might not be able to afford to pay.
Even in the best of times, fundraising can represent at least half of the annual budget. Most of this is relatively mundane stuff. It is collected from dedications that are in memory of the departed or in honor of special life cycle events. Many congregations have an annual fund raising event that the whole congregation gets behind to make ensure success. This portion of the budget is often estimated low and when all goes as planned, there may be extra monies raised. I know of congregations that just assume that whatever the shortfall will be in other areas, they will make up in fundraising from large donors in the congregation. Sometimes this works; sometimes the shortfall is so large that no one person can cover the debt.
This model of dues, fees and fundraising clearly is not working. There are far too many variables and without an endowment, synagogues find themselves running serious deficits. Congregations that have been in existence long enough to have endowment funds find themselves in better positions as the restricted funds cover most standard programming as well as capital expenses and the unrestricted funds cover innovation and new ideas. But as the recent financial crisis in the world showed us, endowments are also subject to falling interest rates and sometimes the principle has to be raided to cover unexpected problems.
I recently heard of an organization that did financial audits on synagogues and discovered that the dues model was not as effective as once believed. There are so many “hidden” costs in a synagogue that some of the programs thought to be carrying the budget were in fact losing money when all the actual costs were combined. Synagogue budgets often list staffing costs, insurance costs, publicity costs, maintenance costs and utilities in other parts of the budget, effectively hiding the real cost of running a religious school, a preschool and even High Holy Day services. It turns out that these programs are not as cost effective as we’d like to believe.
A fee for service model, if priced according to real costs, could resolve many of the issues caused by hidden expenses. In much the same way that costs are factored into the price of a restaurant meal or the retail price of groceries, so too we can determine the cost of a Shabbat dinner, A bar or bat mitzvah or the cost of educating a pre-school student and set the fees accordingly. In this manner, each person in need of what synagogues offer will pay his or her fair share of the expenses. In a capitalistic approach, this makes a lot of sense. If the congregation does not create services worth the cost, then Jews will go elsewhere and the synagogue will have to improve or close up. Good organizations will rise to the top and those that are being mismanaged will either have to reconstitute or merge with a more successful neighbor.
In a fee for service model, expensive, annual dues are reduced since everyone is only paying for what he or she uses. This could create substantial savings for Jewish families.
This model also has its pitfalls. Already, the real cost of a Jewish education is almost beyond the reach of middle class Jews. Is the actual cost of hiring a rabbi or cantor, using a synagogue building or buying Kosher meals so great that they are easily undercut by untrained practitioners, hotel ballrooms and treif catering? How can a synagogue justify high costs when similar services are found in the secular world at substantial savings?
Toward a New Financial Model
Next Dor, a synagogue renewal project of Synagogue 3000, insists, as part of its program that congregants first “engage young Jews” in the life of the synagogue and only later bring them into the congregation as dues paying members. The focus is not, at first, on membership. Membership is for those Jews already engaged and committed to the work of the synagogue.
Next Dor already recognizes the new realities of synagogue commitment. This approach also has financial ramifications. By concentrating on the relationship between Jews and the synagogue first, these newly engaged Jews will come to see the importance of all the congregation does and will be more willing to invest in the ongoing program. To pay for the outreach, we could use a fee for service approach. As newly engaged Jews become involved in study, social action and ritual, they will come to value membership and have the desire to want to be a part of the organization and invest in its mission. This engagement eventually brings with it dues and donations. These Jews are less “members” and more “investors” in the mission of the synagogue. The return on investment is in the educational advancement, the feelings of having a meaningful life and the spiritual feelings that are all part of what a commitment to the new synagogue model should look like. Don’t get me wrong. Dues and donations to a synagogue are not “real” investments, (this is not a place that the SEC should need to investigate) but rather than asking people to pay dues first and become active later, why not encourage everyone to become active first and THEN join others who believe in the mission?
This kind of an approach to membership would not only stabilize income but should create larger groups of volunteers willing to donate time and effort to further the synagogue mission. Would everyone who came to our programs eventually become a member? Probably not. There will be those who only have a short term need and will, in the end, only pay for what they use. But even these Jews are valuable assets to the congregation. As “alumni” of a synagogue program, they walk away with feelings of goodwill and are grateful for the efforts of the synagogue in their time of need. This can translate into future donations and word of mouth publicity, both of which are very valuable in today’s “social network” economy. I don’t know if Angie’s List has a section on synagogues, but to have a number of satisfied former “clients” posting good “reviews” of our services (in both meanings of the word), is another way we can capitalize on our good works. It is not a perfect system but one that can be a viable financial model.
I know that there are some who say that if we really want to bring in Jews, we need to offer them learning and activities for free. I respectfully disagree. If we are offering the public something worth having, they will have no issues about paying for it. Nobody in this day and age expects something for nothing (and when offered something for nothing, they usually consider it a scam.) Let them pay a small price for their activities today and later, if and when they are fully engaged in the community, they will hopefully join and invest in dues and ongoing charitable giving.
A rabbi, cantor, Jewish educator or teacher can only be in so many places at once. Because these professionals are so important to the Jewish world we need to acknowledge what precious resources they are and utilize them wisely. The principles of community organizing teach us that if each professional can train 5-10 others as par-professionals, who in turn lead another group of 5-10, the growth in Jewish activities increases exponentially. Our trained Jewish leaders can have a far greater impact on the wider Jewish community. Over a series of years, this leadership core can become an important part of how the new Jewish community operates.
Rabbi Harold Shulweiss first talked about rabbinic para-professionals about 20 years ago. Their roles were to be like the judges of parshat Yitro, trained to address the everyday concerns of the Jewish people, allowing the rabbi to address larger or more difficult issues. In the world of cantors, volunteers would be trained to lead daily and Shabbat auxiliary services freeing up the cantor to both compose new music and bring new musical possibilities to the congregation. These cantors would not just be beautiful voices, but true music professionals coordinating all the musical resources the congregation had at its disposal. The same kind of system could also be used to create Jews to lead others in learning and growing Jewishly.
This community organizing principle can work in the area of fundraising, as well. The more people a congregation can touch, the more opportunities there will be for contributions and volunteer activity. As I described earlier, a community of different vaadot (different missions) housed under one roof, can work together to provide for the common institution that oversees them. The wider the net we spread, the greater the participation in our mission and the greater the possibilities for financial success.
What is important is to put people before finances and involvement before dues. I do not for one minute believe that synagogues can operate without proper financial funding. But it must not and can not be the motivating factor if we are looking to increase participation and interest in our programs. One thing is certain. We can no longer mortgage the future of our synagogue to big, beautiful buildings. We need to use the building we have more efficiently and perhaps partner with those who have extra building space to keep our costs down. We cannot afford to take literally anymore, the slogan “If you build it, they will come.”
1. Non profit organizations are complicated institutions. I know that sounds obvious, but we also must understand that no two organizations are exactly alike and no two synagogues share exactly the same issues. While there are problems common to all congregations, they also differ significantly. Congregations in an urban setting have fundamental differences from synagogues in the suburbs. Large city synagogues are different from small town shuls. Congregations with large memberships do not see the world the same way as do congregations with smaller memberships do. I have tried to keep things relatively generic throughout my discourse in the hope that leadership of the individual organizations will choose to read critically the sections that speak most directly to their pertinent issues and overlook sections not relevant to them.
It is important to be aware that while your congregation may not “feel” like it shares some of these problems, your leadership is likely falling into complacency if they think they are immune from some of the problems outlined above. It is very easy for congregational leadership to want to stick to what they know and ignore the signs that times have changed and that they are falling behind. Sometimes everyone on a synagogue board acknowledges the problems at hand and each is ready with a personal pet project that will solve all the problems in one swoop. Sometimes, they do come up with good solutions. One or two may even work for your congregation. What I am proposing, however, is not a “cure all pill” for synagogues, but a long-term program for synagogue renewal and growth. Nothing worth having happens quickly. A synagogue does not find itself in trouble overnight; it takes years to find oneself in trouble and could take years to dig out of the hole. Anyone who promises a quick fix should be greeted with a raised eyebrow.
The first step before using any part of this book is to take a good hard look at your community demographics. Some suburban areas don’t have the influx of singles that can be found in urban or near urban areas. University towns and those with large population of transients, like tourist destinations or large medical school/hospital, will have different needs than those located in more stable communities. Congregations also get pegged for being the place where one demographic is preferred over another. One congregation may have a great deal of success dealing with retirees or those nearly retired and then may find it hard to attract a younger population. As I mentioned earlier, congregations with couples and families often have a difficult time integrating singles into their community. If an established synagogue suddenly finds itself surrounded by a growing community of Jews who are radically different than the current population, i.e. immigrants from Israel, Hispanic Jews, gay and lesbian Jews etc.; it can be hard to welcome those who somehow were never welcomed before. What is important is to recognize the changes and challenges that the new realities present and face them head on. Prejudice and bigotry will kill a congregation. Turning away members because they don’t fit a stereotype of “those who are members here” could explain why your synagogue is struggling. If we close our eyes or our hearts to those who are seeking Jewish community because they don’t look or act like us, or because they have new ideas that we don’t like, we will be turning away our best members. As Rabbi Akiva said, “Don’t look at the flask, rather pay attention to what is inside.”
We need to establish that our congregations are open to all, to singles and couples, families and childless couples, young and old, men and women, gay and straight, black, white and yellow, Jew by birth and Jew by choice. It is not good enough to have the community segmented into different groups that never speak to one another. Social Action projects are one way to unify the community and complete much needed work at the same time. We need to build bridges between communities–not keep them apart. If we can reach out to all groups of Jews who within our community, we will be blessed with a strong membership, one that is loyal to the congregation that has given them a spiritual home. In the 1960’s, there was one congregation on Miami Beach that welcomed Jewish refugees from Cuba after Fidel Castro came to power. These refugees were so thankful for the welcome, they continued to pay dues long after they became successful and moved away and even after they joined other synagogues. It is important that we not overlook the kind of loyalty engendered by being a welcoming and accepting place.
2. Synagogues must continually motivate their staff and volunteers to work for the institution. One would think that rabbis, cantors, educators, youth directors and executive directors as well as teachers and classroom aides would need no more motivation than their monthly paycheck. This is a completely erroneous assumption. Every member of a synagogue staff could easily make more money in some other related occupation. Clergy and staff work for synagogues because they believe in the work that is being done in synagogues and have dedicated their lives to it. While everyone needs to make sure that they are taking care of their families, synagogue work rarely pays enough to really compensate for the hours and stress that come with congregational work (full disclosure: Just a reminder, I am a pulpit rabbi who has spent almost all of my working life in synagogues and my wife’s career is in Jewish Education. My knowledge of staff motivations comes from my own family and from the motivations of those with whom I have had the pleasure of working over these many years.) Contract negotiations can be difficult for both the congregation and the staff. If we treat our staff with respect and appreciation for the work they do, it will make a profound difference in the way they conduct themselves on behalf of the synagogue. I know that there are staff members who have not fulfilled their responsibilities and congregations that not only don’t appreciate the work the staff does, but treat them like hired help. Both situations are bad for the synagogue. We need to employ staff that are dedicated to the mission and goals of the synagogue and then pay them a living wage and show our appreciation in word and deed when they go above and beyond the duties outlined in their contracts.
Rabbi Charles Simon of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has written a whole book on how to motivate volunteers (Building a Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish Community: Jewish Lights Press) This is just a reminder that volunteers need to be thanked “early and often.” You can never thank volunteers enough. Working for a synagogue is not their full time job; it is an act and labor of love. This includes board members who serve each year; they too deserve a verbal and written thanks for their service. All the more so this applies when a volunteer steps down from the board or a committee. If we hope to have them volunteer again someday in the future, we better show our appreciation on the day they step down. If they tell you they don’t need any thanks, then don’t go overboard, but make sure they get a personal note anyway. They may not need to be publicly awarded a plaque for their service, but they do need to know how much the leadership, staff and lay leaders appreciate their service.
It is also important, when it comes to volunteers, not to let any volunteer get too connected to any one position. Some work is skilled work; not everyone can answer a phone, make table seating arrangements or put together the pages of an ad journal. Still, it is important that every volunteer train his or her eventual replacement. No matter how crucial a person may be in a job, no one is irreplaceable. Volunteers on committees should be asked to chair the committee. Committee chairs should be asked to join the board. Board members should be asked to become officers and officers should be asked to serve as different officers and eventually asked to be president. Two terms in any office is enough. When someone is given “life tenure” in any position (other than an honorary one), whatever the synagogue might gain will ultimately because good, competent people will not be able to rise beyond their present positions. Such a decision creates a wall that blocks new, up and coming talent from serving the congregation and doubtless, they will take their dedication and energy somewhere it will be better appreciated and utilized. While the immediate past president should have a voice and vote on the board, past presidents generally should be consulted and venerated but should not have a vote on the board.
3. It is not uncommon to have other congregations in the same town or nearby. Some of these may be start up groups, others may be congregations in decline and some may be going strong and are widely accepted as “cross town rivals” to your community. Whenever and wherever possible, try and build bridges rather than enter into competition for members or programming. We need to work together and avoid duplicating services or programs. It should not be difficult to create an agreement between congregations to end the rivalry, i.e. to not solicit membership from those who are already members of another congregation. The return on this cooperation is very large. By sharing resources and programming, both congregations save time and money. It creates the impression that the Jewish community is united and supportive of one another and the environment is welcoming to those who are thinking about joining. It opens up new opportunities to engage Jews not yet connected to the community and lets them know that their participation, regardless of which building or organization is running it, is appreciated. Large congregations with empty space should invite new or smaller kehillot to share their space and perhaps some administrative help. Even when two congregations share space in a building, it does not mean they are competing for members. If the two congregations are different in halachic approach or in age of the members, there will be little serious movement of members between them. If they are very similar, it could be the beginning of a merger that will strengthen the overall community. There is no good reason to build rival buildings and congregations. If there are those who are “angry” with one congregation for some reason, outside arbitrators could be brought in to help heal the rift before it becomes untenable. We need to work together whenever possible.
I also believe that any congregation that insists on “going it alone” and refuses to participate in communal programming and fund raising should not be a part of the community and should not receive communal funding. Those organizations that work against the communal agenda for their own promotion or purposes are free to do so, but the community should be free to stop supporting them as well. For example, Federation funding should not be shared with those that do not participate in the campaign. (I find it rather weird that synagogues are often asked to participate in the campaign but are then refused funding for their programs because “Federations do not fund synagogues.” It is well documented that when there is full cooperation between Federation and synagogues the entire community is stronger and the fund raising is stronger as well.)
National synagogue organizations have been in the news a lot lately. At one time these organizations were vital in providing services to congregations that they could not provide for themselves or services that would make congregational life easier. The largest areas of assistance focused on professional searches and educational/teen activities. These organizations also helped congregations by publishing necessary books for congregations and offering advice on standard practices so no congregation was forced to exist in a vacuum. These national organizations were mostly reactive to the expressed needs of congregations that paid membership dues.
For a number of reasons, the need for these organizations has changed over the years. Similar to the congregations they served, they too fell behind the curve, and were not always able to provide the leadership and resources needed for the changing role of synagogues in the 21st century. Because they operate in a reactive manner, reacting to the issues rather than anticipating them, they were not always helpful when synagogues needed them. They also, over the years, became over staffed and bloated and needed larger and larger dues contributions to continue operating. It is no big surprise that the congregations began to resent the fact that a lot of dues were being paid and no real help was coming from the national offices. These national organizations are now experiencing the same type of soul searching as the congregations. They are trying to become leaner and provide more resources, especially in the area of technology. They have had to take a new look at their mission statement and regional structure.
It is not my intention to critique their struggles nor help them chart a new path. Each organization will do what is best for themselves and for synagogues. I will only say that congregations need to follow closely what is going on nationally. There are many advantages to being part of a national organization and they are trying to find ways to be helpful. It is not a good idea to reinvent the wheel every time we have a new issue to address. National presidents list-serves, Rabbinic list-serves, Regional offices and nationally known advisers who are part of these national organizations can be a source of good ideas, solutions to problems and advice on “what NOT to do” to address an issue. (Like all of life, sometimes the obvious answer is a wrong answer.) I am a big believer in getting good advice from every source and these organizations can be a good source for issues that congregations face. But they will never replace the local synagogue board of directors who know their community better than any outside agency. If a congregation needs outside help in creating a mission statement, organizational remodeling, leadership training, advice on websites, social networking or web hosting, a good place to start is with national synagogue organizations.
4. There has been a lot of talk about living in a “post denominational” age, where people don’t care any more about the denomination of their congregation. They will attend the synagogue that meets their needs. As I have mentioned before, this is true, especially in congregations serving a population of Jews under the age of 35. I am not under the age of 35 so I am not sure that denominations are ready to be cast into the dustbins of history. I think that what a denomination defines may be more amorphous today than in any other time in our history. We live in an age where most Jews define themselves as “Just Jewish” rather than Conservative, Orthodox or Reform. In fact, over the past half a century, there have been all kinds of new “denominations” that have come onto the scene: Reconstrucionist, Renewal, traditional, Modern Orthodox, liberal, spiritual, havurah, ultra-orthodox, Jew-Bu, gay/straight congregations, senior congregations; each has its own issues and offers contributions to the overall Jewish community. But the titles of the denominations have hidden the real differences between them, differences that more often than not were differences of “degree” and not differences in “kind.” Forty years ago it was apparent that there really were only two kinds of Jews, those who were biblical literalists and those who were not. We might say today that there are congregations that are egalitarian and those that are non-egalitarian. Other than this, most congregations specialize in various kinds of programming and that is how they differentiate themselves from the other congregations. It has been my intention from the outset of this book to show these differing programs began to take center stage away from the real business of synagogues. We began to be social centers, fund raising organizations and architectural wonders. Synagogues forgot about their core mission of Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim (learning, prayer and social action). As synagogues return to their “roots” we will see that the different denominations will slowly coalesce into larger generic groupings. The ties will be looser to national differences and more about the needs of the local community. Learning will demand that we follow either the literal understanding of Bible or the Non-literal approach. Egalitarian synagogues will not have a following that is non-egalitarian even if both groups meet under the same roof. There may be differences in approach to the community as well. For example, Chabad has long held itself outside the local community, working only for its own national organization. Other congregations remain committed to the local Federation, Jewish Family Service and Community Day School. The national organizations will try to cast their nets as widely as possible and the meaning of Reform or Conservative may represent less and less the differences between congregations. We will still find ways to “classify” our synagogues, but I predict (and I know predictions are always dangerous) that the classifications of tomorrow will not be the same as the denominations of today.
5. Synagogues remain the foundational and fundamental unit of Jewish involvement. I have no reason to doubt that what has always existed in Jewish History will change in modern times. But I also understand that there are many other worthy organizations, both secular and Jewish that should share our time and efforts. Some of these are active in the world of political action. Some are social action oriented. Some are dedicated to raising funds for worthy causes and some are the worthy causes who fill important needs in the community. In an age where government is getting out of the social agenda due to budget concerns and political sniping, it will fall more and more upon the religious community to help support those in need. Jews should be a large part of this movement. I have encouraged congregations to partner with outside organizations that could help the synagogue with its own agenda. For example, a congregation that has a core of members interested in political support for the State of Israel could forge alliances with Israel Bonds, Zionists organizations, political organizations and tour operators. A congregation that has a group that wants to work with the local community on economic issues could forge bonds with a soup kitchen, food pantry, job bank, homeless shelter or thrift store. Any of these organizations could be the recipient of both financial and/or volunteer support. Just as I advocate congregations joining forces and combining resources, we do not need to create new organizations to compete with existing organizations. We should look for ways to collaborate–not compete.