Action: The Key to Keeping Members
by Ryan E. Smith

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What works to keep member retention strong in your congregation? Tell us here.


Members of a Congregation Beth Israel
Shabbat chavurah gather for lunch and study.

When it comes to synagogue membership, keeping current adult members is just as important as identifying and recruiting new ones.

Congregations that achieve a high level of membership retention create a culture where people feel connected by strong relationships to both their clergy and their fellow congregants.

Here are some tips from some of these congregations and the URJ to help you get there too.

The secret to engaging new members at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Michigan is to not keep secrets. That’s why the congregation produces two temple bulletins—the second one exclusively for members who’ve joined within the past year.

Recognizing that retention efforts must begin on day one, past president Bette Cotzin began writing the New Member Bulletin 15+ years ago, when she served as membership vice president. “My goal was to be sure that anyone who walked in our doors felt welcome,” says Cotzin, who also serves on the URJ’s North American Board. “And new members can feel lost or out of place when they don’t know much about the congregational culture and history. I felt that a publication geared towards filling in those blanks could provide some of that context.”

Her emailed New Member Bulletins, sent three times a year, cover temple history, annual events, personal tidbits about the clergy and staff, and the temple’s relationship to the larger Reform Movement, including the URJ and its camps.

Now, new members know why Temple Beth Emeth shares a building with St. Clare’s Episcopal Church. They also know that Rabbi Bob Levy cheers for Ohio State University’s football team—a brave admission in a town where archrival University of Michigan is king.

This bulletin is helping new members feel more connected and become involved. In an online survey, 75% of bulletin recipients said it led them to participate in a temple activity or go to its website. Member Annette Fisch agrees. “When I joined four years ago, the bulletin made me feel more at home in the congregation,” she says. “People are hesitant to put themselves in a situation where they’re not sure what’s going on. Because of the New Member Bulletin, I knew things I could talk about with others in the congregation—such as the rabbi’s sharing my enthusiasm for bicycling.” Early on, Fisch also took advantage of temple resources, such as the congregation’s library, where she discovered the information she needed to customize a haggadah.

“Right away,” she says, “the congregation didn’t feel like a strange place.”

Sometimes a synagogue’s biggest challenge is its size. In larger congregations, more people can end up in the periphery.

To turn that problem to its advantage, Congregation Beth Israel of San Diego has raised the chavurah (small group) concept to a new level. Small groups of members join together regularly to learn, socialize, and enjoy Jewish life. To maximize member compatibility, every new member completes a chavurah application, answering questions about age, background, interests, and more. Program director Bonnie Graff tries to match people based on similar interests and situations, such as placing young families with other young families. “This is the hardest thing I do, because there is so much sensitivity,” Graff says. “You cannot put just any people together. You have to really look at who people are, what they want, and what stage of life they’re in….If you don’t take the time to do this, it doesn’t work.”

Once she organizes a new chavurah, Graff leads an orientation meeting and hands out a 24-page guidebook offering tips, sample programs, and resources. Chavurah members are then responsible for planning their own monthly activities.

Among the 30 congregational chavurot engaging 450 adults is “Orli” (My Light), self-titled by a group of empty-nesters who joined together 12 years ago. Orli hosts all kinds of get-togethers—seders for Passover and break fasts for Yom Kippur, as well as cultural programs on such topics as early Jewish life in San Diego and local Jewish artists. Because the group formed a tight bond, when Gayle Wise’s husband George suffered a series of medical emergencies, fellow Orli members brought food, visited constantly, and watched the house when Gayle was away. “Having our chavurah friends step up has been a blessing in my life,” she says.

The chavurah also strengthened Wise’s connection to the larger congregation. “Being part of the chavurah gets me to things I might not normally attend,” she says. “When you go to temple for a concert or to hear a guest speaker with a group, it’s much more fun.”

Most importantly, Graff says, “chavurot serve as major connectors between our members and the synagogue. Long past the time families go through bar and bat mitzvah and Confirmation, the relationships developed among chavurah members help keep them connected to the congregation.”

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, Florida has also discovered that creating smaller groups within the congregation strengthens member bonds with the temple.

In 2007, Rabbi Dan Levin designed the congregation’s Community Connectors initiative with longtime temple member Susan Podolsky, turning the city’s many gated communities, subdivisions, and country clubs into programming centers where temple members in the area could join together for text study, wine and cheese socials, pool parties, Chanukah potlucks, and more. (Temple members who lived outside these areas were grouped together by zip code.) Neighborhood captains, called Community Connectors, organized the nearly 20 groups.

Once people learned who lived nearby, says Rabbi Levin, “all kinds of meaningful sharing went on, everything from ‘Oh, you live here? We should carpool’ to ‘Oh, you have a teenage daughter? I have a little girl. Would your daughter want to babysit?’” New friendships were formed, and these led to an uptick in attendance at temple events involving one of the friends, such as his/her child’s performance in a Purim shpiel. This, in turn, is tied to retention.

“Retention is all about relationships,” Rabbi Levin says. “Most often, when a member resigns, the refrain is, ‘I just don’t feel a connection anymore.’ With Community Connector events, you see some neighbors at a community Chanukah party, then at the Purim shpiel, and then start chatting at the oneg, and soon you have plans for dinner. We are nurturing the bonds of relationship members feel with one another.”

In Dallas, Texas, Temple Emanu-El has also changed emphasis to help its families form meaningful relationships.

“It’s not until people are truly connected that they feel a sense of community,” says program director Karen Hoffman. “Relationships with people are what keep them coming back.”

Programs are now viewed as portals, doors of opportunity for congregational involvement. “Instead of sitting lecture-style or auditorium-style, we’re now sitting at round tables,” Hoffman says, “and sometimes we start meetings with ‘My Jewish Journey,’ people sharing narratives about their lives.” Its Community MoVeRS (Mitzvot, Values, Ritual, and Spirituality) program brings sixth-grade students and their parents together to discuss spiritual issues and social justice opportunities; because the families are getting to know each other—some have already gathered for Shabbat dinner—Hoffman anticipates the parents will be less likely to disengage from congregational life after their youngest child’s bar or bat mitzvah. In addition, twice in the last three years, a group of 80 volunteers have called every member household to connect, and sometimes the clergy and staff deepen their relationships with members as a result, such as phoning a congregant after learning he/she is recuperating from health issues.

Hoffman believes the engagement initiatives are working. Membership has been stable, and survey reports show that those congregants who do leave (often because of relocation) are much less likely to do so because “the synagogue is not a priority.”

How can you keep your members engaged and connected to the temple? Here are six tips:

  1. Be welcoming from the start. Adult members are most likely to head for the exit door following a child’s bar/bat mitzvah or Confirmation, or upon their becoming empty-nesters—and by then it’s often too late to do much about it, says Vicky Farhi, URJ co-director of the Expanding Our Reach Community of Practice. Instead, she says, “congregations need to create a sense of community from the first hello a person hears through all the years he/she is involved in that congregation.” Rabbi Steven Kaye, who runs the Denver-based synagogue consulting firm Or Chadash, agrees. “People do not leave congregations today just because of economics,” he says. “They think that the congregation no longer cares about them or doesn’t address their unique needs.”

    Farhi recommends that congregations integrate the message of caring into every aspect of temple life, including welcoming members before and after services. “If someone is greeted before the service, but no one speaks to him/her at the oneg, the greeting at the beginning loses its effectiveness. Send the right message by making sure the staff, leaders, and volunteers greet him/her warmly throughout the evening,” she says.

    Rabbi Kaye suggests that congregations also proactively reach out to members regarding the many opportunities they have to volunteer and make contributions. He also advises calling congregants who haven’t been to services in a while. “It’s hard to walk away from any organization when your presence is made to feel important,” he says.

  2. Seek feedback everywhere. “If the leadership doesn’t know why people join the congregation, you can’t do anything about retention,” Rabbi Kaye says.

    The answer? Ask. Then ask again. Check to see if members’ needs are being satisfied as they experience changes in their own lives. “They may have joined for religious school at one time,” says Rabbi Kaye, “but now they’re empty-nesters. Is it still of value to them to maintain their membership? Are their needs being met?”

    Rabbi Kaye advises using a variety of feedback mechanisms: community meetings, focus groups, past temple presidents (“ask them to gather information on a quarterly or annual basis; they’ll know if their friends are happy or not”), and lunch discussions (“be sure to invite members who’ve resigned within the past three years”).

    Then, he says, congregations will be equipped to take action.

  3. Form a community of purpose. “Many congregations operate by an old fee-for-service-oriented model in which people join without expecting to be engaged. When they find out they are expected to be involved as well, it feels like a ‘bait-and-switch,’” says HUC-JIR professor and Synagogue 3000 co-founder Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman. “When members expect a bar or bat mitzvah, a rabbi on call, High Holiday seats, etc., and then the cost becomes too great or their needs change, they reassess and leave.”

    The key to changing this, Rabbi Hoffman says, is to turn congregations into “communities of purpose,” places people join “to find ultimate meaning and purpose through their lives.” Congregational programming can refocus on meaning—for example, when an adult education course about the medieval philosopher Maimonides helps members to build relationships with the clergy and think deep thoughts about their own existence.

    “If people feel that, because of the synagogue, their lives have taken on greater meaning, they will remain members,” he says.

  4. Look for needs and respond. “What do your members need that they can’t get anywhere else and can be infused with Jewish values?” asks Rabbi Kaye.

    Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, Massachusetts discovered that many congregants were recent empty-nesters seeking connection with other empty-nesters. So in 2009 the temple formed the BethMiddlers, facilitated by former membership chairperson Amy Tananbaum. Leaders anticipated 10 people would come to the first meeting, a potluck dinner—but 40 showed up. These days the connected group meets for a variety of social and cultural events, everything from a day at the beach to a local Jewish film festival.

  5. Discover members’ gifts and passions. “The best way to capture a new member’s enthusiasm is to ask him/her to share skills and interests,” says Kathy Kahn, former URJ membership specialist. Collect that information, and when a project arises that requires certain talents, tap that member to become involved.

    Rabbi Hoffman suggests that only two questions are necessary: “What are your gifts?” and “What are your passions?”

    “A gift is a religious notion—what God has given to you that you can be grateful for and use to help other people,” he says. “Everyone has a gift: financial aptitude, cooking, etc. Helping people to recognize their gift engages them with the synagogue in the context of spiritual purpose.”

  6. Look to the URJ. At urj.org/cong/membership you’ll discover 50+ membership tools, among them a Program Bank of successful congregational initiatives. Visit urj.org/cong/outreach/belin to learn about Belin Award-winning synagogue Outreach programs highlighted in The Outreach and Membership Idea Book (Volumes I, II, III, and IV). To discuss welcoming strategies with congregational peers, join the Talking Outreach listserv by emailing outreach@urj.org. And Vicky Farhi (vfarhi@urj.org) is available for consultations.


—Ryan E. Smith, journalist and member of Temple Ahavat Shalom, Northridge, California


What works to keep member retention strong in your congregation? Tell us below.

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