Making Sure the Pews are Forever Filled

In the weeks following the High Holy Days, how can one ensure the pews remain filled?


By Daniel Kraus

Just a few years ago The Pew Research Centers Pew’s study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” was released. While the results might not have been surprising to many in the Jewish community, both lay and professional Jewish communal leaders are still attempting to dissect, analyze and interpret the results.

While these discussions are certainly important and will, hopefully, yield tangible changes to and visible improvements in our community, let’s be sure not to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

If there is ever a time of year when Jews of all affiliations and denominations make themselves known en masse, it’s the High Holy Days season. Jews of all types come out and participate for what will be, for many, their annual pilgrimage to synagogue.

Many synagogues spend the last few weeks of summer completing last-minute touch ups to their buildings in preparation for the upcoming busy season. There is so much to do: steam cleaning the carpets, dry cleaning the tallitot, polishing the brass in the sanctuary and much more. The end of summer is often a key time for aesthetic renovations and decorative improvements before the hordes of Jews fill the pews. Careful attention is given to the organization and cleanliness of the lobby, the bookshelves, restrooms and other ancillary facilities – not to mention the flower displays and the elaborate kiddushim that follow the long services. Rabbis and cantors spend countless hours preparing their sermons and rehearsing their tunes.

Unfortunately, many miss the mark. Herculean effort is placed on the important “backend” of the operations, such as the office work and administrative duties, while what in theater is called “FOH” or the Front of House is neglected. Seeing this problem, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein o’bm borrowed the term “edifice complex” to describe it. The Pew report highlighted that a quarter of American Jews are losing religion, deciding not to remain actively Jewish.

The sermons, sounds and tastes of the holidays are all that remains for many. In the weeks following the High Holy Days, how can one ensure the pews remain filled?

Synagogues can take a few simple steps to keep their pews occupied for many years to come.

For the most part, synagogues and their staff, as well as regular worshippers, are not trained properly to treat a visitor or guest in a manner that provides a warm welcome and cultivates a relationship. Strategic and well-considered efforts can convert a once-a-year Jew into a regular attendee.

Customer service is a key component that will add to the positive experience of synagogue attendees. If ever there was a company that knew the core value of customer service, Zappos is that company. Its slogan is “Powered by Service.” Its executives have been quoted as saying, “Everything we do is focused with our customer in mind.” At the root of customer service is caring about people. I assume most synagogues can be more customer-service orientated. From greeting everyone with a smile to warmly welcoming strangers, there is much that we can do. Every gesture, large or small, makes an impact; even small gestures are positive and helpful.

For many, the High Holy Days represents an annual appearance in a synagogue. From the moment one steps into the synagogue, one is evaluating and assessing the experience. Everyone – from the rabbi to the security guard, from the cantor to the janitor, from the ritual director to a volunteer – can and will have an impact on that person’s experience. Everyone is responsible for setting the tone for a positive experience.

The Ritz-Carlton, a global brand, puts many others to shame in the area of welcoming. CEO Herve Humler highlights three steps to his hotel chain’s service, which he says employees carry with them at all times on a wallet-sized credo card. The Ritz-Carlton’s three steps of service:

  1. Extend a warm welcome.
  2. Anticipate and fulfill stated and unstated needs.
  3. Provide a fond farewell.

While the top priority is obviously about welcoming, in fact all three steps are about welcoming. Only if the totality of an experience is authentically meaningful can a person truly feel welcome.

What is true of a hotel is certainly true of a synagogue. How often do we proactively ask the newcomer, “How are you? Where are you from? Is there anything I can do to help you?” And, if we do ask, are we interested in a real answer about the other person’s successes or challenges, frustrations or fears, or is it a simplistic expression of a platitude. To truly welcome another requires truly caring about another. This is the Jewish way. We bless people who enter and people who leave. And we bless them while they are with us and in our care.

Guy Kawasaki, chief evangelist of Canva and former chief evangelist of Apple, suggests that it all starts at the top. The CEO’s attitude toward customer service is the primary determinant of the quality of service that a company delivers. If the CEO thinks that customers are annoying or doesn’t take time to treat them respectfully, that attitude will filter down from the top to permeate the company, prompting poor service. That, too, relates to synagogues. It all starts at the top.

This is why, above all, the success of Ritz-Carlton is due to the fact that their credo is not simply a collection of words. At every level, we are sincerely happy to see our guests when they arrive, appreciate the time they spend with us, and look forward to their return. It takes constant effort, but companies, too, can care.

A few summers ago, my wife, children and I enjoyed the magic of Disneyworld for a few days. Disney’s branding as “The Happiest Place on Earth” was more than a slogan; they did everything and more to fulfill that claim. Much ink has been spilled on what companies can learn from Disney. From their attention to detail, keeping meticulous trash-free grounds, to the happiness that every employee exudes, there is no limit to what can be learned and it certainly applies to our synagogues.

In an increasingly disconnected and impersonal society, the value of personal contact cannot be overestimated or overemphasized. We need to look constantly at and for new ways to strengthen our synagogues and the relationships therein to ensure that they remain vibrant and lively bastions of Jewish spiritual and religious life now and, indeed, for many generations to come.

Daniel Kraus is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Birthright Israel Foundation. He is also a Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York where he serves as the Director of Community Education and co directs the KJ Beginnners program. He can be followed at @rabbidkraus