I’ve worked in nearly a dozen synagogues professionally and in nearly every one I’ve heard a combination of the following things said when thinking about increasing participation and membership (so this should not be seen as a reflection of the LJS where I currently work). This is a list of the ten things that I think should be banned from being uttered by community professionals, rabbis and lay leaders:

1 Why don’t they come
This is the typical question from lay leaders and professionals after they put in a huge amount of effort into their programme. I know, I know, volunteers sometimes put their life and soul into an activity only to feel let down by the poor turn out. It’s the same when rabbis and professionals sheepishly have to admit that they were disappointed there were not more people to hear the stellar speaker who had gifted their time to the synagogue. I’m sure the programme, service, activity, event was/is outstanding – the model of excellence. But don’t ask ‘why didn’t they come?’ Instead ask, at the very least, ‘why would they come?’ Then ask yourself if the idea came from a well meaning committee, authorised by a well meaning council or rabbi and then ask whether you really think a council and committee are representative of your community for the purposes of programming. Or indeed if the model of programming that works best is to sit in a committee and come up with a list of your pet interests or what you think ‘they’ (the uninvolved) ‘need’. We’ve all done it – been swept along by a brilliant idea and then had our dreams dashed when we realise that actually (a) it was only me that was really interested and (b) felt the urge to blame the ignoramuses who missed out on the most important event of the year. But PLEASE, PLEASE don’t ask ‘why didn’t they come?’ Why would ‘they’ and who is ‘they’ anyway?

2 We should do a survey
On the back of a mildly unsuccessful event you decide to raise the issue of poor attendance at the next committee meeting. This is another familiar trope – let’s do a survey to find out ‘what people want’ or ‘when it’s convenient’ etc etc. Think about it. You’re going to do a survey of people’s interests which will probably get a tiny percentage of responses (unless you’re a time and resource rich community or have volunteers willing to contact every member). But then, based on people’s replies, you’re actually going to assume the, doubtless, well intentioned and honest answers will translate into reality next time you have an event in your community. If you’ve ever joined a gym, or been a member of a club, or even promised yourself that you’ll do something and then never fulfilled those well meaning intentions then you’ll know that good intentions do not, in and of themselves, translate into the motivation to action. So why would your survey change that. Here’s  an idea – if you have the time, money, people to do your survey then why not use that time, effort, money to do something different – like phone a dozen members and meet them for coffee instead. I can assure you it will be more worthwhile than a piece of paper that no one will ever have time to input into a spreadsheet or data that will never be crunched.

3 We just need to market it (activity/programme) better
This, and the next three points are connected. By market you probably mean a fancy flier that doesn’t look like a child produced it for their computer coursework at school (though your children are probably better at design than many synagogues). The success of your endless programmes is not dependent on how well you market them. I’m not completely ignorant of marketing strategies and some of the basic ideas I’m sure could be of benefit to most communities. But think about how much you are bombarded all the time by multi-million pound industries who have whole departments devoted to marketing. Did you ever think that what you’re trying to do is compete with all those leaflets and adverts. Your brilliant idea to save the Jewish people is just not going to hold its own because you have no idea how to really talk and listen to the people who are throwing your A5 flier in the bin before they even read it. Marketing something that no-one wants/needs/has any emotional and intellectual connection to might just as well mean having a bonfire with all the paper fliers and trying out smoke signals instead.

4 Perhaps we could tweet it and put it on facebook
This is all connected to the marketing and PR. But aside from all the pitfalls and traps of social networking – about which there are many useful resources (and lots of brilliant media folk who understand better than me) – let me ask you – are you personally connected to the synagogue on facebook or twitter? Do you know how many people are? Have you ever shared/retweeted/liked/favourited anything on a social network that the synagogue has produced? Putting stuff on facebook and twitter if you have no followers, no friends and no interactions gives you an online presence but that’s about it and it’s like standing on Mount Everest and shouting into the wind. No one hears or reads what you’ve said and chances are…no one cares.

5 Could we put an announcement in the newsletter?
I love synagogue newsletters, e-bulletins, and service flyers (and noticeboards for that matter). I love them because most of the time I know the content and therefore it’s one thing I don’t need to read. But please – work on the assumption that whilst some people will read these publications, most people won’t read most of what you produce. So you’ll probably put a question/request in the newsletter and receive not one single comment in reply. Or if you do get replies it wll be from people whom you see regularly in the synagogue anyway. No one reads it – that should be your starting point (even though of course some do). Because then you’ll be forced to actually talk to someone.

6 Maybe the Rabbi could mention it in the service
This is my favourite because if I include all the wonderful things that need support/promoting/volunteers in my sermon it would be monumentally dull for the congregation and uninspiring for me. “Why don’t we ask the people in the synagogue what they would like to change about our religious services?” is a classic sub-set of this…STOP, think about what a self-selecting group you are. Of course if you are a regular attendee your voice is important but you’re probably only about 10% of the community and you’re already in the building listening to the rabbi’s sermon. If you want to speak and listen to your community you need to speak to the 90% who don’t come through your doors and don’t have an opporutnity to speak with you weekly. Yes, of course, your stalwarts are important. But don’t then think you’ve made your ‘announcement/request for help/value statement/sermon point’ and then you’ve done what’s needed. You haven’t. At all.

7 They just join for (insert lifecycle event) and then leave
Let’s leave the big question about who is ‘they’ and what you mean by ‘leave’. This is the classic derogatory statement uttered by councils around the country to excuse the increase in the wedding fee or get up front payment for membership for two years etc etc. But more than that. A synagogue’s bread and butter is lifecycle events. Ask yourself why you’re so judgemental of other people’s choices for membership? If a family or individuals decide to join and then resign after the lifecycle event you need to stop regarding them as if they’ve abused the foundations of everything your community represents. Think about what a choice they’ve made – first to step through the door of the synagogue (yes, their Judaism is that important) and secondly think about why they’ve chosen you (I doubt it’s because you will ‘Bar Mitzvah’ a boy in a week). Then ask yourself what you’ve done to make your community so completely compelling to the individuals and families that they would retain their membership. When every family joins your community they are going to be members for a year at least – that’s your opportunity. If they resign afterwards – firstly don’t judge their choices (you would be horrified if they judged you similarly) and secondly see it as your failing not theirs.

8 We should do a social action project to attract new young members because it’s what ‘they’ want and core to who ‘we’ are
There’s so much bound up in comments like these it’s hard to know where to start. Let’s start with the activity that feels like a salve for middle class guilt. Of course it’s good to ‘do good’, but I think we need to be really very honest about for whom the activity has a greater impact – those you’re helping in the activity or the community’s need to think it’s doing something worthy? In my experience, social action (not social justice) is often regarded as more important for the image of the community than it is a fully considered response to a particular issue. We want to be ‘doing’ social action because that’s a core value – is the oft repeated statement. But that’s surely back to front – let’s assume the world was perfect, social action would not then be a core value. It’s central because you want to change the world according to a vision for how you as a community think it should be. Now ask yourself is what you are doing the best way in which you can change the world with all of your resources and ideas? Chances are it isn’t and the social action project you’re doing is more for you to show others that your community is ‘doing’ something. This is part of a wider discussion and, whilst I’ve been critical of organisations like CitizensUK in other posts, they’ve pushed the Jewish community to think differently about soup kitchens, drop ins and shelters.

Then of course there’s the question of doing these activities for outreach to unaffiliated Jews, young adults and perhaps uninvolved members. Let’s not be so cynical as to think that communities do these activities just to attract those individuals – it’s not always clear but we’ll give the community the benefit of the doubt. But, the assumption that because people feel strongly/ideologically about injustice when they see the synagogue responding to that issue it will be the natural place for them to be involved, is curious. Just because people share values and ideals with the synagogue it does not follow they will get involved. And it’s the wrong way around…again. Think about your event which was not well attended – now why would your social action activity be well attended. It’s the same problems and just because it’s social action it doesn’t follow that young adults will be your natural volunteers.

9 If ‘they’ (usually non members or young adults) really understood who we are
This is one of the interesting tensions in community work, that I recognise is a genuine tension. But I am fascinated by the way long standing members who are lay leaders feel that new members or the unaffiliated don’t really understand the community like they do. Of course there are those who don’t know what you stand for, but that’s not universal. It leaves no space for change or new ideas if you think you hold the authentic picture of the community and if you really think that those who did not grow up in your world (or have lived it for a while) need to listen to how they should think/feel/behave your community is at risk of losing touch with reality. I love the impact that new members (perhaps those who grew up in other denominations/countries/not as Jews) bring to a community – we should be open to having our assumptions challenged and to change.

10 Let’s do an event/service/talk/shabbaton/dinner/class/ for them
I can sum this up with two sentences. Don’t be responsive to every piece of feedback that a certain programme is missing for a particular group and follow this with trying to put the programme in place. Secondly, stop adding programmes to your diary to make yourself feel like you have a full synagogue and a full calendar. There’s lots written about this – but being busy just means you probably don’t have time to do anything properly and every new programme should be seen in the full picture of what you’re doing for community development. If you don’t have time to put infrastructure in place then you don’t have time to do the programme. Just stop adding to your diary. Sometimes I think there should be a moratorium on new things – think differently about what you do already and spend your energy there instead. And whatever you do, if it needs another committee then stop right where you are.

11 Let’s get a rota for council members
This takes us back to our original problem of attendance. If the solution to attendance is to make a rota for your most involved members, who are not currently attending, to attend you’ve missed the point somewhere. Because a critical mass cannot be made by making it more onerous for your most time pressured volunteers. There are very few exceptions to this – some standing activities for a synagogue (like a shiva or funeral) but otherwise if your event is that ‘stellar speaker’ and no-one is coming perhaps that’s because no-one is interested. The solution to which is not to make everyone feel more duty bound through a rota. At least it seems back to front to me.

Well I promised 10 and you got 11. In case it’s not clear, it’s rarely about ‘PR and Communications Strategy’ and hardly ever about adding more programmes. Now I’ll go back to my smoke-signals.


Dan Ab · September 16, 2014 at 2:30 pm

I partially disagree regarding surveys. I’ve used or seen surveys successfully used two ways in synagogues.

One is if a community need critical pieces of information to move forward on something big, like a major staffing or major program change. In that case, a well designed survey (and designing such a survey required some expertise) can get a very high response rate and give a much better sense of communal vision than chatting with 12 people. If people respect the survey, it can also depersonalize dissent since someone who says “There shouldn’t be a discussion because everyone in this community like the way X is done” can be responded to with, “Actually, about half the community likes the way X is done and the other half doesn’t so we need to work together to find common ground.” To get a high response rate, this type of survey needs to be relatively rare and prominently publicized within the community.

The other situation where surveys help is as a basic place to give semi-anonymous comments or feedback that someone might not feel comfortable saying in person or might not feel important enough pull a leader aside to bring up. Most people won’t fill this out, but some of those who do bother, can give critical information. For example, “I briefly entered a presentation with my young children, but there is no place for them to quietly play without getting glared at, so I left.” These surveys can be frequent, but they need to be brief and to-the-point.

The risk of chatting with 12 people is that, if it’s the same cluster of people who are always available to chat, you might actually make a community more insular.

Jason L. · September 18, 2014 at 8:23 pm

I agree that there is a place for surveys in regards to large issues (like you said staff hiring etc). I believe what the Rabbi is referring to with the 12 people, is reaching out to 12 different people. Try to get new blood involved. If every board member reaches out to 1 new person (not their golf buddy or weekly Mah Johng player) then that is 12 members (assuming your board has 12 people on it) to make a PERSONAL connection with. Then of those 12 lets say 3 come to a new service or an event. Then every 3 months you reach out to 12 more people with the same effect. At the end of a year you have had 50 people that had personal contact by a board member. 50 people who now have a feeling of “Wow this temple cares about ME!” If your congregation is 100 families or 1000 families that is a significant number of connections that were made over the course of a year that would not have been made with just a survey monkey via email.

Our board is trying this very thing this year. Our congregation membership list was split up amongst the Board of Directors for each of us to call over the next few days, just to wish them a Shanah Tova. I do not know anyone on my list. I am looking forward to calling them and then hopefully being able to shake their hand at services on Rosh Hashanah!

moderatelysurprised · September 18, 2014 at 9:11 pm

You don’t offer solutions in the post. (Perhaps there is companion piece?) An important point is that the council should be represent the community demographic and achieve the sweet spot between stability and fresh blood.moderate turnover.

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