Jews and affiliation: Where do we go from here?

Longtime Jewish communal professional, author and educator Ron Wolfson speaks at the Can We Talk? discussion event at the JCC. 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

When the Gellers, longtime congregants at their synagogue, arrived at services to find the seats they’d been using for decades occupied by strangers, it could have been an awkward situation.

“Sometimes regulars aren’t wired to be welcoming,” said Ron Wolfson. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, you are sitting in my seat.’ That’s probably the most off-putting thing to happen to a guest or someone looking for spiritual community.”

But the couple chose a different route, instead opting to sit with the newcomers, visitors from Toronto, and strike up a conversation.   Now, 15 years later, they still correspond, visit, and even vacation together.

 “You never know what can happen when the culture of the congregation is welcoming, where you hear each other’s stories, where everybody tries to know everyone else’s name,” said Wolfson, co-president of Synagogue 3000 and author of “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Com-munity.” 

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What’s the mission?

As a leading figure in the field of Jewish communal innovation, Wolfson has had a front-row seat to some of the most effective and creative techniques synagogues and organizations are using to change the culture and build relational aspects into their institutions.

“I think the first question is ‘How does a community organization think about its mission? What is it in business for?’ That’s where it all starts,” he said. “In my mind, the most exciting places around the country are synagogues, JCCs, federations and other communal organizations that have a very clear idea of what that is.”

One technique is to pay greater attention to the handling of prominent Jewish lifecycle events. Wolfson recounts the story of one New York congregation troubled with increasingly gaudy and over-the-top bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. 

“They were concerned that they weren’t reaching the families with a message of what’s the real value of the bar and bat mitzvah experience,” said Wolfson.

In response, the congregation revamped the preparation process starting with special meetings at the homes of families as early as fourth grade. The gatherings not only allowed parents and children to get to know the clergy but also to become acquainted with other b’nai mitzvah families. Celebratory parties did become more low-key but the idea was also a community building experience, creating connections that would act as glue and stem the flood tide of families who leave the synagogue after their youngest child was put through the ceremony.

“After this relational approach got going, they found they were retaining 80 percent of their families,” he said. “They are sticking around.”

The key is for the congregation to build linkages between members and the institution. Sometimes technology can help. Wolfson said that one Oakland, Calif., synagogue membership director began actively reaching out through social media. 

“She got 400 members of the congregation to friend her,” said Wolfson. “She reads them carefully and learns a lot about the lives of the families that she’s trying to reach and engage.” 

A faucet in the wall

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., likes the idea of relational Judaism. But he cautions against viewing Wolfson’s ideas as merely tactics to be pursued in isolation. The author’s ideas go much deeper into the philosophy of the institution. Building relationships isn’t about programming or strategies. Rather, it is a function of the values undergirding the synagogue.

“It’s like the guy who sticks a faucet into the wall and thinks that if he turns it on, water is going to come out,” said Feinstein. “It’s not the technique. It’s the whole approach to the institution and the technique is the expression of that whole approach.”

Feinstein said it is important for the synagogue to exude an inclusive atmosphere.

“It’s not just the rabbi’s job or the president of the synagogue’s job or some designated greeter’s job,” he said. “It’s everybody’s job to make a guest feel welcome and make everyone feel they belong.”

At Valley Beth Shalom, the synagogue created a special “covenanting ceremony” for newcomers. Rather than simply signing a contract, families get to know each other, are introduced to synagogue leadership and invited to hold the Torah before saying a special prayer regarding their entrance into the community.

“It’s a very warm and loving ceremony that helps people understand that belonging to a synagogue isn’t the same as belonging to a health club,” he said. “This is a covenanted relationship where they are invited to become part of a community of families.”

Another rabbi at the synagogue, Noah Farkas, pondered how to hold a prayer service when his young children seemed incapable of sitting still, a common problem for parents.

The solution was to abandon the main sanctuary, commandeer a preschool classroom and leave the door to the playground open so children could run in and out while adults pray. Labeled the “playground minyan,” the sessions have become very popular.

Even traditional Shabbat dinners can be reinvigorated to create connection. Wolfson said a synagogue in his hometown of Omaha, Neb., began a program called Our Shabbat Table in which the congregation provided kosher meals for Friday night gatherings at local homes where families could interact.

“They are matched and meet each other in the neutral turf of the synagogue because it is hard for a stranger to walk up to a stranger’s home,” he said. “Matches are made on shared demographics and interests although the groups are intergenerational.”

Bringing people together

Rabbi Jonathan Blake of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., noted that his institution has focused on trying to promote intergenerational services. These bring different age groups together rather than the segmented approach of setting up different events for different demographics.

“We actually make that a selling point and say, ‘Come with your children,’” he said. “‘Come with your grandchildren.’ We make a service that is approachable whether you are 5 or 85 years old.”

Like Wolfson and Feinstein, Blake believes that Jewish organizations and congregations err when they look for solely programmatic solutions to systemic or relational questions. Instead programming should be mission-driven and come from a sense of connection.

“If it is not creating relationships while we are in the moment, then it doesn’t have much sustaining power,” he said.

One example is the construction of the sukkah at Westchester, which was once done by the temple brotherhood. More recently, the synagogue has expanded it into an exercise in community creation with the 10th-grade confirmation class and their parents lending a hand.

“It became an opportunity for the whole congregation to come and celebrate Sukkot together,” Blake said. “When people are empowered to make it clear that this thing is not getting built without you, people show up. There is a sense of buy-in.”

To further that idea, some Reform congregations have instituted a “proneg,” an oneg Shabbat done before services that acts as a “social hour” for congregants. When the congregation enters the sanctuary, they march in as a group.

But Wolfson warns that no ideas are one-size-fits-all. 

“It’s not just about best practices because – I say this over and over and over again – I can list you 10 great ideas and they may not work in St. Louis the same way they work in Los Angeles,” he said. “The challenge is really to apply the best principles and adapt the best practices.”

 Accessibility and inclusion

Locally, Rabbi Ze’ev Smason at Nusach Hari B’nai Zion in Olivette said that he’s had success by making Jewish customs and rituals more accessible to congregants. In addition to the regular Shabbat worship, NHBZ holds special learner’s services in English to introduce elementary concepts.

“Basically, the focus is on the whys,” he said. “I’ve found many people are familiar with the details of Judaism, the whats, the nuts and bolts but many people don’t understand the whys behind the things we do. Particularly when a service is all in Hebrew, for many people it is like going to a movie in Portuguese without subtitles.”

Smason said he’s also had success with an adult bar/bat mitzvah initiative, which focuses on various Judaic topics over a period of weeks. One recent class met on the night of the second game of the World Series. Yet Smason was pleasantly surprised to see all 20 attendees show up.

“The enthusiasm of being able to be given the opportunity of understanding why we do the things we do for people of all religious and educational backgrounds is something that I’ve found is successful in engaging people,” he said.

Rabbi Carnie Rose of Congregation B’nai Amoona said that his institution has worked hard to create connections and engagement through what he calls “radical inclusivity.” The congregation was even honored by the Ruderman Foundation recently for its work in including the disabled in synagogue life.

But the concept of inclusiveness goes far beyond that. Even non-Jews are welcome to come to synagogue classes and events. 

“On some level, we’re pushing the envelope a little bit and saying it is a place where anybody who is interested in Judaism can connect,” Rose said.

But accessibility doesn’t mean watering down the message. Rose said that B’nai Amoona highlights an idea of a timeless, relevant and profound religion that is both “thick and deep.”

“That’s done in a very existential way meaning ‘How does this text really relate to your individual life?’” he said. “We’re trying very hard not to teach a namby-pamby kind of Judaism.”

Rose said there may be a lot of rewarding methodologies out there and a gestalt of all of them may be what’s needed.

“You have to find ways to tailor-make the experience for the individual,” he said. “Sometimes that’s easier and sometimes it is harder but we try to meet people in both physical and psycho-spiritual ways, where they are at.”

At Jewish Community Centers of North America, president and CEO Allan Finkelstein said that individuality is indeed the watchword, a marked contrast with the past when everything was about programming to groups.

“Today, people have so many different opportunities that now it is about engaging the individual,” he said. “It is about creating the right experience for that individual, which might change from day to day.”

He said part of the answer for JCCs is an integrated strategy that doesn’t just focus on fitness but also the arts and education. The overall idea is to provide access points for individuals interested in Jewish life.

Moreover, those access points are being looked at differently by many JCCs.

“There is a lot of conversation about the word membership and whether that is welcoming or whether it is a barrier,” said Finkelstein. “I don’t even want to call anybody a non-member.”

That does not, of course, mean that anyone can use the fitness center for free. Still, Finkelstein said the old model of people paying for membership that includes all services is increasingly being replaced by buying only the services that interest them.

Meanwhile, the JCC movement has begun to develop increasingly sophisticated benchmarking tools to determine which programs are being used and what that may mean.

“If you come in and buy fitness, that’s not the end of our engagement,” he said. “It’s our job to tell you there is a lecture at the theater, the book fair is coming, we have a trip here or whatever. The idea is making it easier to get them into the building in the first place. Don’t put up a wall. I believe that engagement model has to apply to the entire Jewish community – synagogues too.”

One conversation at a time

One vital area of innovation, Wolfson said, is in how synagogue leadership chooses to engage with congregants. Often, especially in big congregations, the personal touch can be lost as rabbinic calendars fill with the banal logistics of day-to-day synagogue life.

“The bottom line is that they need to have personal encounters,” he said. “They need to take the time in their very busy schedules to be out of the building or to sit down for 45 minutes with somebody to hear their story, take note of their talents and passions and connect them in some way to the life of the community.”

That may mean rethinking how a rabbi’s time is allocated. Does the rabbi really need to be at every committee meeting?

“Sometimes the answer is yes. Oftentimes the answer is no,” he said. “If the answer is no, then it is a good opportunity for the rabbi to take that time and go out to lunch with somebody, hear their story, learn who they are and find how to better connect with them.”

Wolfson said he knows of a congregational leader who switched to a software platform that allowed him to put his office hours online. Those who want an appointment can simply logon and block out a time.

“I don’t have to go through three layers of administration to get to the rabbi,” he said.

That kind of accessibility is exemplified by Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington D.C. He defines his job simply.

“I talk to people,” he said. “That’s what I do.”

Zemel said it is all about the culture of the congregation. Even a journalistic query looking for innovative best practices prompts a sharp response from the rabbi. That, said Zemel, is the wrong question.

“I don’t like the word ‘innovative’ and I don’t like the term ‘best practices,’” he said. “I think that the Jewish world is obsessed looking for gimmicks. I don’t think that way and I don’t work that way as a rabbi.”

 But, he noted, creating a relationship is labor intensive. It’s not a quick process.

“Religious life is built one conversation at a time, one-on-one, and I don’t think that can be emphasized enough,” he said.