By Barry S. Mael
Do you know who your current synagogue members are? Do you know their strengths, interests, and what keeps them coming back or keeps them away?
Over many years I have met with hundreds of synagogue leaders, both lay and professional, regarding financial sustainability and alternative dues models. Among the major concerns expressed are decreasing dues revenues and the continued search for new members especially the “young, two adult household with children” who are seen as the future and life blood of our congregations. In many board rooms and at staff meetings a significant percentage of conversations and planning revolves around those who are not currently members.
Our focus is on who is not in the room versus paying attention to those who are; our current members. We cannot afford the luxury of taking these long-standing members for granted. This ultimately leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which we continue to wish for and recruit new young families, while several of our current members, often empty nesters, are leaving our kehillot without being noticed. Too often we speak to the importance of being “warm and welcoming” to newcomers and guests. Why are we not employing these same strategies to make certain that our current members feel this way too?
A colleague was recently in a community where they are working on strategic planning and holding a conversation on membership engagement. When asked what would make them more active in the community, the overwhelming response from congregants was: “If I was asked”; not in an email or in a congregational newsletter – but a personal ask.” These individuals wanted to be recognized for their skill in a way that felt good to them and showed that they were noticed and that their voice mattered.
Members who are active and involved are less likely to look at their relationship with the synagogue as merely transactional. The less transactional the relationship, the less likely people will be to leave the community. We also know that happy members are more likely to be more charitable and philanthropic.
In order to achieve financial sustainability and build thriving sacred communities, we need to start paying greater attention and giving more focus to our current members. I would like to share a number of suggestions about paying proper attention to those already inside:
Treat members like donors – We can’t take any members for granted. The days of assuming that once people join your community they will continue to maintain their membership and pay their annual dues bill regardless of their level of participation is dramatically decreasing. We want every member to know they matter to the community and they are valued. Think about how you approach the relationships with your community donors. Do you touch base regularly? Do you make sure they are aware of upcoming events? Do they get personal invitations to programs? Do we always remember to send them thank you notes and acknowledge their support? Now ask yourself if we take the same approach to all members of our community. A simple first step is sending thank you notes to every member as they complete their dues payments for the year. Have a nice note, hand signed by the Rabbi and President, sent out regardless of the time of year. We must understand that all our members are voluntary donors to our kehilla.
Use membership data (which should be updated every few years) to recognize important life cycle events – Are we using data that is probably in our computers from membership applications to proactively honor and recognize important events in the lives of our members? Can we make it a habit to send out birthday cards to members? Or how about calls or notes going out to members a few weeks in advance to invite them to have an honor during services for: birthdays, wedding anniversaries, bar/bat mitzvah anniversaries, special honoring etc. If we don’t have that kind of data available in our database, how do we change our membership forms to gather that information? Another fun way to recognize milestones and to even raise a few dollars is to have a monthly or quarterly milestone kiddush or oneg Shabbat. I am aware of kehillot that do this event monthly and people donate $36 per milestone to participate in a group kiddush. It allows for a nice kiddush at which people can celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, new jobs or commemorate yahrzeits without having to sponsor a whole kiddush themselves.
Program for different demographics – One of the complaints I hear from many veteran kehilla leaders is that many of their peers who attend their synagogues often feel that they are forgotten or ignored when it comes to programming. Many of the special programs announced in services relate to young children, holiday events for families, pre-holiday workshops or attempts to reach millennials. Where are the programs targeted for baby boomers, empty nesters or more mature adults? The response is usually, ‘we have lunch and learn with the rabbi or films or other adult education and they can go to any of those.’ Are we actually programming specifically with those populations in mind? Think about ideas like:
Offer a Friday night dinner for couples only. While Friday night family dinners are often fun and loud and chaotic, there are members who are looking for a different kind of Shabbat meal experience.
Jewish themed day or overnight trips.
Congregation – wide book clubs with guest authors.
A themed Shabbat to celebrate our members – In my kehilla there is an annual Rutgers Shabbat and the membership, which includes many Rutgers University alumni, who love it. People come to services in their college shirts, sweatshirts, hats, ties. A member of Rutgers Hillel is invited to speak about what is happening on campus. Honors are given to alumni. In addition, Rutgers alumni are invited to participate in the communal Kiddush. With this concept in mind, what other themed Shabbat programs can you think of? They will work because it’s something that people are engaged in and feel a strong connection to. Transfer those connections to a kehilla experience.
- Accountants and bankers being honored on Shabbat Pekudei which talks about the first audit.
- Lawyers and Judges can be honored on Shabbat Shoftim.
- Artists and craftspeople can be recognized on Shabbat Terumah or Vayakhel when we learn about the craft people building the mishkan.
- Honor alumni from different schools.
- An annual USY Shabbat and recognize current USYers and alumni.
Volunteer recognition – How can we tie in creative volunteer recognition programs and gifts to show true appreciation for the efforts of many of our congregants to help the kehilla thrive? Do we spend the time to think of fun gifts and different ways to say thank you or do we do the same breakfast or oneg every year? Let’s make sure to show our volunteers that we really are thankful for their efforts.
The Role of the membership engagement committee – Does your kehilla have a membership engagement committee? Is there a group of leaders who calendar out the year and focus on membership in-reach activities? If not, why not? Our members are what make up our community. It amazes me how many of our kehillot don’t have a membership engagement committee and for those committees that exist, many are primarily focused on identifying new members.
In-reach needs to become a part of the culture of our communities. It should be something that our leadership and staff think about all the time. Additionally, if members leave do we reach out and follow up to find out why? Do we keep bridges intact or burn them? Exit interviews can teach us things that help in the future. We need to take them seriously and not be defensive.
We need to let all our members know that they matter and are important to our sacred community. A goal of your leadership should be to focus on in-reach and connect with every member on a consistent basis in order to demonstrate their value and to let them know that they matter. Through this mindset I believe we can help build and strengthen our synagogue communities.
Barry S. Mael is Senior Director, Kehilla Affiliations & Operations, USCJ.