Tell Me Your Story

by Alan S. Halpern

I confess to a prejudice. When a synagogue or church website proclaims, “We are a warm and welcoming congregation,” I am immediately skeptical. Why tell me you are warm and welcoming? Just be warm and welcoming. When I visit a friend’s home, my friends don’t claim to be warm and welcoming. They open the door, they smile, they say “hello,” and they invite me inside. Synagogues must do the same.

At our congregations, someone has to answer the phone, open the door, and greet our visitors. Someone has to write the newsletter, maintain the website, post to the Facebook page or feed Twitter. Often, this person is supervised by the executive director. Although we may not be the face of our congregations, we are often the doormen, receptionists, greeters, and voice of our congregations. As such, we and our clerical, administrative, building, and support staff help to create warmth and extend our welcome.

Those approaching our congregations have different expectations, preferences, and needs. They are not just interfaith and Jewish. They are young and old, straight and gay, married and single, male and female, religious and cultural, knowledgeable and uneducated, confident and insecure. They grew up in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, non-observant and non-Jewish homes. They belonged to synagogues or were unaffiliated. They liked or disliked those experiences. They have expectations of us which may be incorrect (or unreasonable) or they may have no expectations at all.

But most of us have one message, one website, one newsletter, one greeting.

Many of our membership packets include information on every program, service, and offering of the congregation, and we send these packets to everyone – those with children and without, those with spouses or partners and those without. We send Sisterhood information to single males and Brotherhood information to single females. We send senior adult programming information to young couples and singles information to those who are married. We need to target our message to the individual, but we are small, often understaffed, unsophisticated “marketers.” We don’t always have the tools to specifically address each individual. Our websites may try to answer every question instead of being an invitation to visit or call.

Perhaps we should start with a question or invitation. “What are you looking for from a synagogue?” “What brings you here now?” “Tell me your story.” “How can I help you to be or become the Jew you want to be?” “How can I help you, a non-Jew, find what you seek?” We should be listening before we start explaining, telling, and sharing.

I try to meet with every new or prospective member. Face-to-face, I find we ask better questions of each other, learn more, and really meet one another. In person, new and prospective members can better share their motivations, needs, and hopes. I can better help them find their place in the synagogue. Some people seek specific programs or temple services: they have children to enroll, or the High Holidays are near. But many others want “only” to be part of a Jewish community. And “being part” of a Jewish community means something specific and different for each of them. Finding out how each person defines “being part” of a Jewish community is part of the challenge. And responding individually to their expectations and hopes is the rest of the challenge.

A member recently told me,

“I’ve engaged this year because you took the time to talk with me and introduce me to the rabbi when I first visited temple five or six years ago. I didn’t want much then, but when I came to the occasional class or service over the years, you smiled, acknowledged me, greeted me. You made me feel welcome and recognized. Your welcome kept the door open so that when I was ready, I felt comfortable coming in.”

I’ve met interfaith families who are living full and committed Jewish lives, and I’ve met Jewish families that are religiously ambivalent, flirting with or embracing non-Jewish customs that intrigue or satisfy them. When we open the synagogue door, answer their calls, and meet them for the first time – and every time – we must greet them openly, embrace their questions and their quests, and find ways to help them along their way, in whatever directions those paths may lead.

Alan Halpern is the Executive Director and Sh’liach Tzibur of Temple Israel in Dayton, OH.

cross-posted on Blog