Thursday, February 24, 2011

Chapter Four: Growing a Synagogue Part One: Welcoming - Programming

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 falling off is because synagogues are not welcoming to every Jew anymore. 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 each family has is decreasing. We can no longer build our synagogue programming around a demographic that is no longer the central pillar 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 half a century ago. .

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, then we have to have programming that will interest singles. Does every event have a “family price” but not a price for singles? It is hard for singles to attend events where there will only be couples. Not only is it uncomfortable to be one of only a few who are present who do not have a partner, but often the couples attending are not happy having the singles around either and they tend to shun singles when singles are present. 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 who 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 who may “inaccurately” report their age.

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 very 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 all day and all night. Singles, on the other hand, have similar needs as couples do, to create meaning and direction in their lives. It is a far more successful plan for a synagogue to create social action projects and political action projects that are open to all members of the community and invite singles to be a part of that program.

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 kind of thinking all across the Jewish community. If we want a service to be family friendly, but don't start babysitting until an hour into the service, then we have effectively said to that family “you are not welcome in our service until an hour after it starts”. If we have a population we want to reach that doesn't have English as their primary language, then why not have a reading or two, or create a siddur with instructions in their primary language (Spanish, Russian, etc.) or have an auxiliary service that is conducted entirely in that language? What about Jews with disabilities? Is 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 who have intermarried? Are the non-ritual programs made so that the non-Jewish partner feels welcome? Often a congregation is so set on what parts of the service a non-Jew must be excluded from, that we forget to consider the parts of the service where a non-Jew can be included. How are non-Jews welcomed into services? What role in the service can they participate in when there are 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 may have. We have to be sensitive in our programming to be as inclusive as we can. No Jew should be left behind.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chapter Four - Growing A Synagogue Part One - Welcoming - A Welcoming Building

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 who 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 easier if they had 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 there were 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; these signs needed to be written in a way that that any visitor, especially one who does not know church lingo, can 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 their way to minyan?) Can a visitor find the Gift Shop and the Rest Rooms? Remember if these rooms are “named” would a visitor be able to find them if they don't know the “name”? (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 who work in your office have name tags that identify them by name? Besides 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 are they too busy to notice someone in the lobby? I was once visiting a hospital that I had never been in before. I don't think that I walked more than ten steps in any direction without someone on the staff offering to help me find what I was looking for. 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 is the experience of someone calling on the phone? Do they get a live human being or do they go directly to voice mail? How many numbers do they have to push to hear a live human voice? What about the website; is it warm and friendly? Synagogues have a tendency to put pictures of their 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? The President? From someone asking them to join a committee or a project? If you don't invite someone to participate, then don't be surprised if they are not so quick to volunteer. 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 they want to join. 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, the feeling that the stranger is welcome here. It should be easy to maneuver around the building. There should be plenty of people who are 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 show them where there is information about other synagogue events. Making someone feel welcome is all about how you reach out and make them feel as if they are among friends.

The hard part of welcoming people in our congregation, is that there may be many strangers who attend on Shabbat who are guests of somebody who is celebrating a life cycle event at the synagogue and who may have little or no interest in becoming a member. There could be dozens of guests for an anniversary or a special birthday. There could be hundreds of guests invited to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. How do you know if the stranger who arrives is a potential member or just the guest of the family who is celebrating? The answer is: It doesn't matter. When we cultivate a culture of welcoming, even to those who are there for reasons other than potential membership, they will remember how welcome they were made to feel and will carry that with them for a long time. If someone should ask them what to do 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 stranger, they should be able to step up and help that person feel welcome, and make sure that they did not slip past the usher and miss out on the information they were supposed to receive when they arrived. No system is perfect, but the goal is to make welcoming strangers the responsibility of every member every day.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Chapter Four: 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 have this book and read it often. Dr. Wolfson does not break any new ground, but his method of visiting any place that has a successful membership culture and seeing what they are doing and asking why we can't do it, cannot be overlooked as we try to attract those who rarely if ever cross our doorsteps. Much of what I will 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 and has the duty to say to every customer “Welcome to Walmart”. The reason that this person is there is because people come back to the store that they remember as being welcoming and friendly. Churches and Synagogues are no different. Those who walk in the door will remember forever their first experience, for good or for bad.

You don't have to take my word for it. Just ask any of the involved members of your congregation why they chose your synagogue to join (assuming that yours is not the only synagogue in the area). Virtually every time, they will say that when they arrived, somebody met them, greeted them and made them feel welcome. I used to tell my congregation that if somebody 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 and nobody said “hello” to them, greeted them or asked their name, they would never be back and we didn't deserve to have them join. I usually end services by asking those who are new to take a few moments to join us at the Kiddush after the service so we will get the chance to greet them. There is no reason that someone new in 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 who they can ask 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 needs to be ushers who will help visitors find a tallit, whatever Siddurim/Humashim they will need and assist them to find 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 who sat in the same seat for over 30 years and regularly chased away anyone who dared to sit there. The kind people who sat around him often spoke to visitors, asking the visitor to join them in a different seat, that, 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 shoo them away, so they can learn more about the service. Saying “Come sit with me” is much better than, “You can't sit here”. I don't want to spend more time on this but it is the number one complaint that 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 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.