Shul Shopping

by Sherri Morr

I think I have spent my whole adult life shul shopping. Because I have relocated more than a few times, I have had to look for appropriate temple/synagogues for spiritual connection. Being an older single baby boomer with no children in the house I do not have to consider religious school, bar mitzvah preparation or confirmation. Without those life cycle events my search over the last 12 years or so has been different, and challenging in a less traditional way.

Once when my sons were young we chose a temple whose religious school was only once a week, and on Sundays. No traffic to consider and of course more than half of the usual HSB (Hebrew School Bickering) which surely affected our weekend milieu. They complained all the way there, but came out looking happy, and I had had 2 hours of peace on a Sunday morning to loll around.

“What, we have to go to Hebrew school tomorrow? On Sunday? When it’s our only day to sleep in.” Most weekends they were up anyway, the real loss was missing Sunday morning sports TV.

“I wish we went after school; that was better. If we have to do it, it would be better to do it with our school friends. Does it matter to you that I do not like it, no matter how many days? I just see no good reason to go to Hebrew school. We know we are Jewish.”

Now things are different. I only have to please myself. For some years I belonged nowhere and it did not bother me at all. I could accompany friends for the yomtovum (a real tag along I was), or find an eclectic interesting independent service. One that was brief and to the point, no excess allowed.

Over the last 7 years I did attend one synagogue, and one that was a very traditional reform temple. Traditional in that they had regular services, classes, havarah opportunities, and much more. On my first visit a friend had invited me to attend a Saturday morning Torah study class. I thought to myself, ‘9AM on a Saturday, when I could be sleeping, or reading the paper with a second cappuccino.’(Ah the historical voice of my children) Well that was in 2001, and had I not relocated (in 2011) my shul shopping days would be over. So as I begin the process again, one more time I think, it reminds me of how I came to be so loyal to one synagogue. Not just loyal, but wondering why all synagogues especially the struggling ones were not following this model. This temple made you feel connected, and what more can a single baby boomer want than to feel connected, needed and catered to by way of learning and thought?

I did not join immediately; in fact I had no reason or thought to join. I loved the Torah study, went to a few other programs; I would listen though, to others in a class, or the Torah study group talk about programs, book groups, political and Israel speakers that I did not even know the temple offered. The topics were all issues I wanted to know about; they all pertained to me in some fashion. I felt left out. I wanted to join. I wanted to be a member. I had attended a few Shabbat services and felt spiritedly lifted. There was singing and very few responsive readings (which cause me to yawn, my eyes water, then my nose begins to run, and I know I am in the wrong place); the rabbi’s remarks meant something to me. So I joined. I filled out the forms, paid the dues which were reasonable for the first year of membership. It went up considerably over the years, but I always thought the ROI was more than worth it.

I am a professional fundraiser. I ask people for money … in the Jewish community and out. So always, when strategizing about a major gift solicitation, I ask myself and other staff questions like what is the return on investment (ROI). How will the donor benefit? How will the donation be tracked and paced? What will the plan be for cultivation and stewardship? For recognition? Who is the key connection? How will involvement or volunteer opportunities be presented?

As a practice I use this model for myself when I consider joining any organization. That’s the only way to truly connect, to buy in, and to be a loyal and productive member. My reasons to join the museum and the temple are very different, however thinking and reviewing what my ROI is is part of my process. Understanding the expectations, what’s expected of me, and what I can actually give is good healthy critical thinking when joining a synagogue.

Is this the process for membership in synagogues today? I am not sure. Since I have begun yet another shul search I am pondering if I have expectations that are part of my past that might not be fulfilled in a new synagogue atmosphere. Is it possible synagogues are not out of the same muffin tin? That they are all different, according to membership, mission, and financial priorities. Maybe the mission is different for diverse population groups.

How do synagogues market themselves? How do they review retention? Do the staff and or rabbinical staff know the congregants? Is there a rational and realistic expectation of how to have individuals with diverse needs connect to an institution that has a mission? If I had the answers to these questions I would be a magician, and command huge sums of money to help synagogues set their priorities and mission. I am just a congregant, but more and more I wonder if new people in temples are heard or listened to. Certainly reaching out, instituting focus groups, using member studies, and mirroring what other successful synagogues do is a huge step in the right direction.

Once many years ago I visited a rabbi at a synagogue; after a tour and conversation, I asked for a membership packet. The rabbi said, “I’ll get you one, but don’t take it unless you are serious about joining”. I think about that conversation now in my ongoing shul shopping. I do know I took the packet, although I knew I was not joining.

Sherri W. Morr has spent the last several decades working and consulting in the Jewish community as a fundraiser, a teacher, and trainer, most recently as Director of the Western U.S. at the Jewish National Fund for 12 years. She has completed an MA and received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Her work outside of the Jewish world at independent schools, the Baltimore Symphony and Tufts University have given her an awareness beyond practice in the Jewish community. Sherri has 3 grown sons and lives in San Francisco.