Today anyone interested in Jewish learning can find most everything on the Internet including independent rabbis and teachers to perform weddings, train b’nai mitzvah students and conduct funerals–a sort of fee-for-service practice or what some call “transactional Judaism.” So why join a synagogue?
“Once upon a time, rabbis and Jewish educators held exclusive access to the wealth of Jewish practice and tradition,” writes Dr. Ron Wolfson author of the book “Relational Judaism”–a book that has synagogues taking a look at how they have been “doing business.” People are not joining synagogues the way they used to and Wolfson attributes that to a membership model that is no longer sustainable. He suggests we move toward “relational Judaism” a term that refers to a Jewish life based on community connections on a deeper interpersonal level.
It is the kind of model Chabad has been following for years. Instead of asking for dues up front, Chabad offers hospitality and programming first–determining what the community needs and wants. Then they ask for money and people respond. Most of their funding comes from those grateful for their relationship with the Chabad rabbi and his wife and family, almost always non-Orthodox Jews. And it works. It is estimated that Chabad raises well over $1 billion annually.
Just about every synagogue in Orange County has embraced the idea of “relational Judaism” tailoring it to their particular congregations. In this article we focus on what the Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues are doing. A future article will look at the steps the Orthodox, Conservative and unaffiliated congregations are taking.
“You can fill a calendar with programs,” said Miriam Kaufman Van Raalte, Executive Director of Temple Beth Tikvah, “but if people don’t connect with people then they leave feeling empty.”
“It’s not enough to have a beautiful campus,” said Scott Seigel, President of Temple Bat Yahm. “If you come to services, programs and events, and yet never meet anyone, you will never feel as though you are a part of something.”
“People will come to synagogues, Jewish community centers, federations, and other organizations for programs,” writes Wolfson, “but they will stay for relationships.” He goes on to say that there is nothing wrong with programs but serious thought has to be given to figure out how the experience will offer participants a “deeper connection to each other, with the community and with Judaism itself, otherwise it will likely be another lovely evening, afternoon or morning with little or no lasting impact.”
Seigel goes on to say, “We need to give congregants a reason to connect further to our temple community and to hear their stories.” For a weekend in February, Wolfson visited, spoke and worked with Bat Yahm’s membership and board. “At our next board meeting we asked what resonated with the individual board members,” said Seigel. “The members all shared their ideas.” What came out of that was a time set aside each week where congregants could come into the sanctuary, hold the Torah and share their personal Jewish journey with other members.”
“At Shir Ha-Ma’alot we have a series of pre-onegs,” said Rabbi Leah Lewis. “People who have something in common, like those who had been on an Israel trip, maybe they are longtime members, parents of our junior congregation or new members, meet with either Rick (Rabbi Richard Steinberg) or me. We mostly listen to what they want or are looking for in the synagogue.” This also gives them the opportunity to meet each other and initiate or renew relationships.
Pre-onegs are also a part of a program at Temple Beth El of South Orange County. “About five years ago we realized we weren’t doing any favors having religious school on Sunday,” said Rabbi Peter Levi of Temple Beth El of South Orange County. “We decided to make Shabbat the emphasis and wanted it to be about celebrating this holy time together.”
And so began “Shabbat Chai”—a Shabbat-based religious school model that meets two Friday afternoons a month and includes community Shabbat services. Pre-onegs are held after school at 5:30 and before services. “Now everyone has such a great time,” commented Levi, “that some of our families stay even after services have formally concluded.”
“We also developed a second Shabbat for empty nesters,” said Levi, “who are connecting as individuals. Our BOOMERS group (Being On Our Midlife Energized Renewal journey) consists of a dynamic group of lay people working on social and intellectual activities to address the needs of adults who are looking forward to 30 or more years of active life.
Addressing the needs of special groups within a congregation is also a significant part of this relational approach. University Synagogue in Irvine has had a very strong chavurot program for almost 20 years that has resulted in lifelong friendships with new members being welcomed into existing chavurot or forming new ones.
“And then of course there are Shabbat dinners,” said Rabbi Arnold Rachlis of University Synagogue, “an almost sure fire way to get people together.” The dinner begins by folks introducing themselves, finding common interests and breaking bread together. “By the end of the evening, they have traded stories and look forward to seeing each other at future synagogue events.”
“We were delighted to discover how phenomenal our Shabbat dinners turned out to be,” said Lewis. “Time after time people stayed for hours after the dinner and these relationships were being translated into friendships.” Some Shabbat dinners are at one of the rabbi’s home and others were dedicated to a particular demographic: women, teenagers, etc.
“I am always thinking of ways to get people connected,” said Rabbi Nancy Myers of Temple Beth David in Westminster. At one congregational meeting Myers did a mixer in the middle of the meeting. Everybody got a card with a Judaic symbol, and had to find other people with the same symbol. Groups consisted of people who usually didn’t sit together and may not have known each other very well. They were asked to discuss what brought them to the synagogue as well as what they would like to see implemented at Beth David. “It may not have been terribly creative,” said Myers, “but it was hugely successful.” But that’s the point.
Relational Judaism isn’t about new programs or innovative ideas. “What we learned from Ron and the book,” said Rachlis, “is that it’s not about ten new things to introduce to the congregation, but to do many of the things we have been doing in a more intensive way, bringing in the one on one connection. We also began to recognize the value of small events.”
Rachlis points out “how very conscious we are about how we greet people.” Greeters are at the outer doors to help direct people through the building (not just at the sanctuary door). During the service, new people or visitors are asked to stand up and introduce themselves and then given a part in the service; they are usually called up to the bima to open the ark for Aleynu.
“After several of our leadership returned from the Union for Reform Judaism Conference in San Diego where Wolfson spoke about Relational Judaism, we were all very enthusiastic about it,” said Van Raalte. “The first thing we did was provide name tags for every member which are put out every Shabbat. Name tags are also presented as gifts to each bar and bat mitzvah. The name tag recognizes each member as part of the community.
“We also reach out and make phone calls a few times a year to say hello,” said Van Raalte, “and thank them for being part of the congregation.”
Every University Synagogue member is also called several times a year. “We don’t call asking for money,” said Rachlis, “but just to wish happy holidays and ask how people are doing; do they have a place to go for Thanksgiving or Pesach.”
But it’s not just about reaching out to our membership. It’s also about outreach into the community. Temple Beth Sholom, which is in the process of rebuilding after a horrific fire, is focusing on building a center for Jewish life in Orange County. “The narrative now,” said Bill Shane, Executive Director, “is about the people and what we are going to be as a community. It might take the form of the rabbi going on a retreat with students in New York or doing a Shabbat service at someone’s home.”
“We received a grant called ‘Beyond the Walls,’” Shane said. “It is about building community in other areas—having programs where people are and not necessarily within synagogue walls.”
However, when people think synagogue, they think dues. Membership dues have always been a stumbling block for the organizational structure of the synagogue. On one hand it is necessary; on the other hand it can turn people away.
When Sam Backer, President of B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley was asked about relational Judaism, he said, “The one thing that came to mind was the elimination of dues. To make membership more enticing and welcoming, the board voted last October to do away with required dues, implementing a program called Brit Kehilla which asks members what their commitment will be.” While it is too soon at this point to see results, as of January 1, B’nai Tzedek has seen an increase from 60% of its membership, which puts them at 90% of their necessary funding from dues.
“In an indirect way we removed the obstacles to membership,” said Van Raalte. “We don’t have a dues structure for either high holidays or temple membership. Congregants received letters expressing our appreciation for their membership and how much we appreciate them. They were asked to pledge what they could. “So far it has been very successful.”
University Synagogue has a sliding scale based on income that remains confidential while other synagogues are looking at new ways to manage their financial obligations.
But as Wolfson says, “All this begs the central question facing Jewish institutions: ‘What’s the value-added of joining?’ If the ‘offer’ of affiliation is not truly attractive, the membership base will continue to narrow as young people find alternative ways to ‘do Jewish’ and aging baby boomer/empty nesters opt out.” It’s all about perceived value.
“There is certain model that people cling to,” said Seigel, “to determine success we count the number of members, make calls and invite people to Shabbat or a program. But I have come to understand that it is the relationships that attract people to our congregations.”
“I don’t think the idea of relational Judaism is new,” said Levi. “From the time of the destruction of the temple it has been about Jews working with and relating to each other.” However, in our world today, we have lost that urgency and are not always panim el panim, “face to face with each other.”
“In our rush to turn out numbers,” says Wolfson we lost sight of our real goal. “It’s not about gaining more members; it’s about gaining more Jews.”
Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine since 2004.