By Barry Mael
Last January I wrote in this publication about the need to focus on in-reach in our congregations. The point of that article was for communities to ensure they are showing interest in current members and not exclusively focusing on prospective members.
- Treat members like donors
- Learn to use membership data
- Program for different demographics such as couples Friday night dinners
- Recognize volunteers
- Create a membership engagement committee
While programming is very important in attracting new members and retaining and engaging current members, there is another area that is as important if not more integral to keeping members happy – enabling them to connect and care for others in their community and providing them the skills to do so.
In many USCJ kehillot (Jewish communities inside and outside the walls of a synagogue), this area is handled by the clergy or a specific chesed or bikur cholim committee. However, it is really important, especially in a sacred community with a healthy culture, that members feel inspired to take on some of the below responsibilities:
Bikur Cholim (Visiting the Sick) – Over the course of the year, there are likely several members of your community who are dealing with health related issues. Some may be laid up for a brief period of time while others might be homebound or in the hospital for a significant amount of time. Obviously because of basic derech eretz as well as HIPA regulations, you need to be careful that no personal information about a health issue is shared without the consent of the member. Also you should never encourage members to visit anyone unless the sick person has explicitly asked for or agreed to visitors and/or callers. This is an area in which the kehilla can offer classes for members on how to make a visit to someone who is ill whether in the hospital, a rehab facility or at home. Topics can include when to visit, recognizing when the patient needs to rest and it is time to leave, knowing how to listen and offer comfort and understanding and what is and isn’t appropriate to ask.
Meanachem Avel (Comforting the Mourner) – Here is another opportunity for members to perform a wonderful mitzvah. As many people are uncomfortable attending funerals or making a shiva visit, here too is opportunity to teach valuable social skills: how to set up a shiva home, lead a shiva minyan, make a shiva visit, etc.
Providing Meals for Lifecycle Events – It is customary to provide meals for families during lifecycle events, such as the birth of a child or the passing of a relative. These traditions offer a great opportunity to allow more people to participate in these mitzvoth and to teach them the laws of kashrut to understand what is and isn’t proper to send/bring to someone’s home.
Welcoming and Ushering in the Synagogue – Many kehillot have greeters and /or ushers for Shabbat and holiday services. Do you take the time to create talking points or tips for them on how to welcome people when they enter? Do they greet congregants with a friendly “how nice to see you?” Do they hand siddur or chumash opened to the correct page? You can’t assume that everyone is well versed and skilled on how to be welcoming.
Chevra Kadisha (Caring for Those Who Have Passed Away) – Some kehillot have actually created and run their own Chevra kadisha societies which prepare bodies for Jewish burial. These people receive training to perform this very important mitzvah, chesed shel emet (kindness of truth). Why is it termed a true kindness? Because you are performing a mitzvah that you know can never be repaid. If they were aware, how many of your members might have an interest getting involved?
By providing these opportunities and training sessions, you will encourage more and better participation in all important communal mitzvot and efforts. You will also show prospective members that your community really cares and that, if they want to be involved in hands-on caring, there are multiple opportunities to serve with others.
Barry S. Mael is Senior Director of Kehilla Affiliations and Operations at USCJ.