Reform Judaism magazine - World's Largest Circulated Jewish Magazine 1st Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism and a Benefit of Membership in a Union Congregation

Feature Story: Courting New Members
by Annette Powers

In Jewish tradition, hachnasat orchim , the welcoming of guests, is a spiritual imperative ranked among the most important mitzvot . And collectively, congregations that create a truly welcoming atmosphere for newcomers often are rewarded with higher membership numbers.

How, then, do we make prospective and new members feel welcome?

What better way than with food—and not just any food, but a traditional Jewish favorite…blintzes! That was the thinking behind the creation of “The Blintz Brigade” at 60-family Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick, Georgia (www.bethtefilloh.org). In January 2009 the membership committee drew up a list of about a dozen potential blintz recipients from three target groups: new members who’d joined in the past year, prospective members who’d made inquiries within the last two years, and Jewish friends of members who had expressed interest but not yet joined.

In phase one, temple volunteers bought the ingredients, cooked together at members’ homes, decorated the pans with ribbons, included store-bought sour cream and preserves, and thendelivered the blintzes to recipients’ homes. “It was easy and inexpensive, and everyone loved it,” says Immediate Past President Holle Weiss-Friedman.

The preparation, presentation, and delivery offered the opportunity for long-time members to interact personally with prospective members. The volunteers stayed to chat. And the blintzes often became a focal point of conversation, eliciting reminiscences of childhood memories and shared culinary connections.Delivering the blintzes was not the closing act of the Blintz Brigade. In phase two, volunteers invited recipients to meet for coffee or join them for a synagogue activity. As a result, when the recipients later attended services, they felt more at home or, as one person said, “It was like being at a reunion
with old friends.”

In phase three, after the prospective member joined the temple, a board member or committee chair who lived nearby visited the person or family. “We got to go into someone’s home and have a delightful conversation, and they often heated up the blintzes we brought while we were talking,” says Temple President Dr. Mark Friedman (no relation to Holle Friedman). The new members felt so connected to the temple they wanted to give back. One Brigade recipient later ran a 12-week Torah study group; another co-officiated at a community seder.

More recently, the Blintz Brigade delivered blintzes to 32 homes. “I gave blintzes to major donors, including some who never attend services,” Friedman says. “We hope it will remind them of what a great community we are. We dropped a plate off for a 92-year-old woman who is homebound and can’t make it to services.
I even gave a plate to the architects who are making repairs on the synagogue, so they get to know us
a little better. ”

“We envisioned the Blintz Brigade as a recruitment tool,” says Friedman, “and not only did it succeed in bringing in ten new families, it also became a community-building experience.”

Temple Beth Israel of Longboat Key, Florida ( www.tbi-lbk.org ), situated in an area mostly populated by retirees and snowbirds, faced a declining membership. “We have a lot of attrition, and no religious school to attract young families,” says Rabbi Jonathan R. Katz. He urged the temple’s board to come up with some innovative ways to welcome people into the community. That’s when Membership Vice President Bill Sandy and others on his committee came up with the idea to create a brochure—available in print and online—showcasing the 50 Reasons to Join Now.

To target those snowbirds who visit but haven’t joined the temple, the brochure explains why membership is so important. As reason number 12, “The Commemoration of Life’s Highs and Lows,” states: “At such times, you want a congregation you know, a rabbi and congregation that knows you.”

Filled with photographs of smiling temple members, the brochure demonstrates “the incredible hospitality and energy of our members,” Sandy says. It also includes temple programs, but excludes dates to keep the piece evergreen. “We really tried to capture the personality and uniqueness of our congregation,” Sandy says. “Not everyone will respond to the same 50 things, but if you put enough reasons down, everyone will respond to something.”

Partnering with the local Jewish federation, the congregation sent the brochure—along with an invitation to a wine and cheese gathering before services and a gourmet Chinese Shabbat dinner afterwards—to Jewish families in five area zip codes. About 75 people came for wine and cheese before services, 140 families attended services, and 105 people stayed for dinner. Temple members worked hard to make the attendees feel welcome. “You can have great marketing materials, but if you don’t have engaging personal contact, it’s all for naught,” Rabbi Katz says.

At the end of services, Rabbi Katz invited new members to lead the prayers over wine and bread and then offered them a blessing of welcome. During the dinner that followed, two members performed a song they’d written to welcome new members. After the event, longstanding members followed up with prospective members (to whom they were assigned). “This engagement takes a significant amount of time,” Rabbi Katz says, “but we strongly believe the investment will pay off.”

In addition, all members of the congregation have been asked to become “TBI Talent Scouts.”
“Everybody has their own orbit [of contacts],” Sandy says. “Now our membership committee is truly
our entire congregation.”

Because of these welcoming strategies, 28 individuals have joined this year.

“If any congregation wants a copy of our brochure,” Sandy says, “we are happy to share. It might
help them, too.”

It all began in 1999, when 12 people meeting in a living room in Austin, Texas resolved to create a warm and welcoming Reform congregation. Within a year, Temple Beth Shalom ( www.bethshalomaustin.org ), situated on the Dell Jewish Community Campus, had about 60 members. Within three years, the congregation had hired a full-time rabbi. By 2011, Beth Shalom had grown to 1,300 individual members (approximately 420 families)—largely attributable to its emphasis on hospitality.

The welcoming process begins before services, when members introduce themselves to anyone they don’t know. “We don’t assign greeters to make everyone feel this is the responsibility of all congregants,” says Past President Gail Miller.

Members invite newcomers to sit with them during services, and everyone is asked to share something good that has happened to them during the past week, such as a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary or a six-year-old with a wobbly tooth anticipating a visit from the tooth fairy. The congregation then sings the Shechecheyanu , expressing communal gratitude for these and other personal milestones and blessings. And now that people know something meaningful about each other, “there is a buzz of interaction at the oneg ,” Miller says. “Rabbi Alan Freedman and his wife Lori are always mixing and introducing folks, and Cantorial Soloist Abby Gostein never misses this opportunity to visit with everyone. Often you hear folks making plans to continue on to dinner together.”

Miller explains that “Creating a warm, welcoming religious home is an integral part of our culture. Our values statement reads: ‘We foster enduring relationships and mutual respect among our members by providing opportunities to support one another in times of challenge, by engaging in social activities, and by creating a sense of connectedness.’”

Member Joan Edelstein affirms that Beth Shalom lives up to its values statement. “When my husband and I first joined, we were still pretty new to Austin and had not yet developed friendships,” she says. “We never had to initiate a single hello. Every time we attended a service or temple event, we were welcomed and asked to join people where they were sitting. Soon we felt so at home that we became ‘welcomers’ instead of ‘welcomees.’ It is truly a blessing to be part of such a wonderful congregation. As our membership grows in numbers, we are working very hard to keep ‘warm and welcoming’ as the hallmark of our community’s culture.”

This past year, the largest (2,000 member households) and oldest (founded in 1874) synagogue in the Rocky Mountain region made internal changes to build membership and keep people enthusiastic about congregational life. “For the first time in 60+ years our congregation hired a new senior rabbi, so it was a good opportunity to celebrate,” says Janet Bronitsky, executive director of Temple Emanuel in Denver ( www.emanueldenver.org ). “We came up with a ‘Celebrate Being Jewish’ theme, and have been incorporating the theme in our music, education, and social activities, creating a buzz about Jewish life that makes both old and new members more excited to be a part of the congregation.”

Member Mitchell Brodsky believes that “our services really reflect the theme because they are extremely joyous, moving, and spiritual. We don’t just observe Shabbat; we celebrate it!” February’s “Shabbat Unplugged,” in which the clergy led the congregation in singing Debbie Friedman’s songs, was “the most incredible service I’ve been to.”

Before the High Holy Days, the temple sent “Celebrate Being Jewish” name­tags in lieu of tickets and encouraged members to wear them throughout the year. And whereas “in the past, we had ‘gatekeepers’ asking for tickets,” Bronitsky says, “this year we had ‘greeters’ who met people in the parking lot and welcomed them to the temple, either by name or by offering nametags to those who didn’t have [a tag].”

From August to December 2010, membership increased by 57 households—which Bronitsky attributes to “a welcoming atmosphere, an identifiable brand, and enthusiastic congregants.”

“During the past five to six years of being an active member of Temple Emanuel, I have seen us grow into a more welcoming and vibrant congregation,” says member Fredi Novin. “The Shabbat ambassador program has initiated a friendlier, more welcoming atmosphere during services, and not only has the nametag initiative made it easier for our rabbi to quickly get acquainted with a large number of congregants, it also has helped to initiate a positive and caring sense of community amongst the members. Simply put...strangers become friends.”

At Temple Judea Mitzpah in Skokie, Illinois ( www.templejm.org ), “members and leaders are considered ‘unofficial ambassadors’ at services, onegs , and temple events and are asked to make sure that no one is ever sitting alone,” says former temple president Arlene Berke. While the process is not formal, any member who sees someone new or sitting alone at any synagogue gathering will quickly come over to introduce him/herself and also encourage other members to make the newcomer feel welcomed. “Several new families have said that the fact that we were so welcoming, and remembered their names when they came back to visit, made them join and feel a part of the congregational family.”

Brooklyn Heights Synagogue in Brooklyn, New York ( www.bhsbrooklyn.org ) hosts a “Welcoming Shabbat” program for toddlers in the neighborhood every Friday morning. Rabbi Serge Lippe sits on the floor with the children, strumming his guitar and singing Shabbat songs and blessings while temple staff members meet and greet the adults. Challah and grape juice follow. At least a dozen families have joined in the past two years as a result of the program. The new members then are invited to a New Member Shabbat, during which they are introduced and honored with an aliyah —“a recognition that leaves them feeling welcomed into the community with open arms,” says Executive Director Randi Jaffe.

To assist member congregations in implementing innovative projects designed to attract and engage both new and existing members, the Union for Reform Judaism recently awarded incubator grants—each up to $5,000 (see http://urj.org/cong/membership/grants/winners )—to 20 synagogues. Among the recipients is East End Temple in New York City ( www.eastendtemple.org ), which is offering a welcoming Shabbat BaGan™/Shabbat in the Park experience aimed at potential members. In summer 2010, they held three Friday evening services in a local park, folks sitting in a semicircle on chairs and blankets. Members acted as greeters and stayed to mingle with newcomers during a potluck picnic dinner afterwards. About 75 people attended each service, a 60% higher turnout than is typical in the summertime.

With the grant money (for ads, etc.), the temple plans five more Friday evening services in the park this summer, with Tot Shabbat in the Park services as well.

Another URJ grant recipient, Congregation Kol Chadash in Solon, Ohio (www.kolchadash.org), is sponsoring nine outdoor family-friendly activities, such as tubing, canoeing, and rock climbing, along with a Jewish ritual or learning opportunity.

And grant recipient Temple Israel of Columbus, Ohio ( www.templeisrael.org ) plans to connect its members with trustees to help facilitate deeper relationships between the board members and the membership. The 600-family congregation will be divided into subgroups; each trustee will be responsible for active, ongoing relationship-building with the households in his/her group through one-on-one conversations, informal home gatherings, holiday celebrations, discovery of shared interests, spiritual practice, and community service. “We anticipate that developing and deepening personal relationships will enhance our sense of community,” says spiritual leader Rabbi Misha Zinkow.

The URJ offers a host of resources to help congregations engage potential members and create meaningful relationships among existing members. A highly recommended print resource is The Life Cycle of Synagogue Membership, the URJ-CCAR Commission on Outreach and Membership’s complete guide to creating a comprehensive membership strategy: assessment activities, board exercises, tips, fact sheets, checklists, and sample congregational initiatives. To order: http://urjbooksandmusic.com/product.php?productid=1953&cat=0&page=1. Many other resources are available at http://urj.org/cong/membership. If you'd like more information, or to follow up with a specific question, please call the URJ Knowledge Network at 855-URJ-1800 or email URJ1800@urj.org.

“Affiliation can become a sacred covenant between member and congregation,” says Kathy Kahn, former URJ membership specialsit. “As we engage new members in our congregations, we follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah, opening our tents to the stranger and offering sustenance and comfort to a huge diversity of people.”


Annette Powers is the URJ Communications and Public Relations Manager.




 


Union for Reform Judaism.