Orange County Jewish Life wanted to gain perspectives about membership from executive directors of congregations. We asked five of them a few questions. We’ll be asking Orange County Jewish leaders for their input on various issues on a rotating basis.
This month’s participants – all executive directors of large congregations in alphabetical order are: Susie Amster, Temple Beth Sholom, Santa Ana; Sandy Klein, Congregation B’nai Israel, Tustin; Bill Shane, Temple Bat Yahm, Newport Beach; Beth Shikler, Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot, Irvine; and Al Welland, Temple Beth El of South Orange County, Aliso Viejo.
What do you think is the key reason why people join a congregation?
Amster: People affiliate for various reasons, but the most prevalent is to feel like they belong someplace – to have a place to call “home” with other like-minded individuals searching for religious expression.
Klein: People join for a sense of belonging and connection to the Jewish community – for life cycle and holiday events, Jewish education for children and to socialize. Most want to know what Judaism thinks about current events that affect their lives and to be spiritually fulfilled.
Shane: The primary reason that people join a synagogue is for a sense of community. National and local studies — and our own Temple Bat Yahm research — have consistently shown that people join a Temple in order to meet and develop a connection with others in the Jewish community, and they feel that the synagogue is definitely the best way to do this.
Many people are under the mistaken impression that there will be financial barriers that would cause them to NOT join — but virtually all synagogues, and definitely Temple Bat Yahm, understand the varying needs of individuals and families and will work closely with them in order to achieve their goal of finding “community.”
Additionally, people join a Temple in order to remain connected — or restablish a connection — to their roots. Religious, cultural and educational opportunities at a synagogue, including holiday, festival and lifecycle events, all provide the opportunity to do this.
Finally, many people are interested in developing a special, personal relationship with the rabbi, or one of the rabbis, and certainly the synagogue is the obvious path toward this objective.
Shikler: Beyond the traditional reasons of maintaining a Jewish home and enrolling children in religious school, people are joining for connection and affirmation, to be elevated and to know they matter.
Welland: People join a congregation to build meaningful relationships. They join for a sense of community, to be spiritually fulfilled, for worship and educational opportunities, for social, cultural and intellectual discovery.
What do you think is the key reason people join your congregation?
Amster: People come because of the location, but they stay because they make friends and appreciate the welcoming flavor of our congregation.
Klein: Most were brought up with Conservative Judaism or find our clergy engaging. Some start their children in our preschool, form relationships and then become members.
Shane: People join Temple Bat Yahm because they find the people, including the rabbis and the cantor, to be warm, welcoming, friendly and inclusive. People are able to quickly feel that they are part of a community that values them, welcomes them and provides the opportunities they are seeking for themselves and their immediate and extended families, no matter their backgrounds and Jewish orientation.
Many people also feel that because Temple Bat Yahm has three rabbis and a cantor, there is a unique opportunity to develop a personal relationship with one or more members of the clergy. Because of this exceptional breadth of experience and perspectives among the clergy, many people also feel that the broad range of spiritual, educational and social programs, including the extraordinary music, are what they are seeking at a synagogue.
People find that Temple Bat Yahm provides “Strength of Tradition plus Warmth of Community”— a remarkable and challenging balance of which we are so proud.
Shikler: Clergy, community, our school and a sense of belonging are key reasons why people join SHM.
Welland: Folks join Temple Beth El because we are an open and welcoming Jewish community where our congregants can come and have their religious, spiritual and cultural needs met. They affiliate with Temple Beth El because we are the center of Jewish life in South Orange County, offering the finest schools, programs and religious observance, with a caring and committed team of clergy, and professional staff who are here to meet the needs of all of our families. Temple Beth El is committed to providing affiliation regardless of a family’s financial condition. Every family is welcomed to the extent of their ability to financially participate in the community.
How has your congregation changed its marketing efforts in the face of changing demographics?
Amster: The best marketing comes from happy people talking to their friends and acquaintances. We can actually see this in progress in our restructured preschool program.
Klein: We have been doing more online marketing, especially for our preschool, as that is the place most young parents turn for information.
Shane: “Changing demographics” requires a deeper level of discussion and understanding. We are providing services and personal connections that work with our senior-most members. We most certainly have MANY programs and activities for younger people marrying and starting families later. As innovators with cutting edge “young adult” and “young family” programs and structures, we feel that we are not only meeting the needs of these younger adults/families, but that we are constantly working directly with them to anticipate and address needs.
We have Sunday school, religious school, Hebrew school, Bar/Bat Mitzvah programs and post-B’nei Mitzvah programs that directly address the realities of children who are heavily programmed. Our on-line and Skype approaches are designed specifically for families that have challenges balancing Hebrew School, sports/other activities plus school and family obligations.
Shikler: In conjunction with our regular programs, we have put a greater emphasis on social media. However, our experience is that the strongest marketing tool is word of mouth, from friend to friend, because temple is relational – people to people.
Welland: Temple Beth El’s goal is simple: to serve the Jewish people. We do this by creating space and time for our community to be actively engaged in Jewish life: study, worship, service, tzedakah and acts of loving-kindness. Our goal is to enhance the spirituality, healing and growth of and relationships among members of the congregation and to deepen the Jewish identity of our community. This is our message and we are always looking to share it.
Do you have special programs for younger people (21-39)?
Amster: We have a new membership category with reduced dues for people in their 20s and 30s. We also have several young staff members that bring an exciting vibe to our programming.
Klein: We have Tot Shabbat services for young children and their parents, Jr. Congregation on Shabbat twice a month for elementary school aged children, young family Shabbat services and dinner every month and other young family celebrations.
There are no specific programs for 21-39-year-olds, but we do have Havarah programs and interest groups: Israeli Dance/Mah Jongg, Social Action: Sunday Suppers at St. Paul’s Church, hikes, social programs on Sunday, adult education and book clubs.
Shane: We have special programs for younger people, although I challenge the easy categorization via age. A 60-something with young children may have MUCH in common with “younger” people whose children are the same age; a 20-something who wants to have a “later” Bar/Bat Mitzvah may be in a class with a 70-something.
It is essential to consider “special programs” for people of varying ages, lifestyles and backgrounds. With three rabbis, a fully invested and ordained cantor and a professional staff of Jewish educational professionals, we feel that we are uniquely positioned to work with “younger people” of all ages to determine what they feel they would like us to provide to their personal and family lives, and then create the programs and activities that meet those needs.
Shikler: Our programs are integrated; however, we have revised the point of entry, i.e., dues, for young families.
Welland: We offer a diverse menu of programs for all of the varied demographic groups within our community. We are always working to remain relevant to a changing Jewish world regardless of ages or stages.