What do you have to lose?

Transform your synagogue’s High Holy Day appeal (Then finally focus on the important stuff)

Transform the High Holy Day Appeal now and your synagogue just might nurture a greater culture of giving. Then, defying the prognosticators of the decline of the synagogue, yours might find itself with the funding to forge ahead, fashioning a future filled with hope and excitement. At least that’s how one temple transformed itself.

In just six years, by intentionally instituting a strategic process, Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, California) increased its annual High Holy Day appeal by 141%. In doing so, Or Ami developed relationships that unexpectedly led to three multi-year program sponsorship pledges of $50,000 each, an additional commitment of $100,000 over 10 years, and birthed a culture of benevolent giving that sustained the Reform synagogue through the COVID-19-caused economic recession.

Three Disruptive Decisions

Or Ami made three decisions to disrupt its current trajectory and begin maximizing its High Holy Day Appeal. Each required slaughtering synagogue sacred cows, substantial risk, and an initially uncomfortable rebalancing of responsibilities in the months before the High Holy Days.

  1. The HHD Appeal speech at services would be made by people with poignant personal stories of communal care, instead of the synagogue president or rabbi.
  2. Appeal fundraising would begin four to six weeks before Rosh Hashanah, through personal calls made by the rabbis and by an expanding team of lay leaders, led by the synagogue president.
  3. Appeal solicitations would continue after Yom Kippur through an evolving constellation of follow-up opportunities, including online service donation buttons, mailed letters, emailed video appeals, and perhaps even a gofundme campaign

By focusing on the High Holy Day Appeal with as much creativity as we did for the High Holy Day preparation, the synagogue leadership – a sacred partnership between clergy and elected leaders – were able to ensure that the balance of the year would be spent building spiritual, social, educational, and justice endeavors instead of primarily perseverating on balancing the budget. Through the six most recent years, that strategic gamble paid off as we increased pledges from $121,500 to $293,690.

Why a High Holy Day Appeal?

More Jews and Jewish families attend High Holy Day services than any other gatherings in a synagogue year. Current partners (aka members) and their relatives and friends, former members, and other worshippers feel compelled to show up. Each recognizes something significant is supposed to happen on these days even if some struggle to articulate just what that is.

Many (most?) will not show up in the shul’s spiritual space again except to fulfill a transactional need – B-Mitzvah of their or their loved one’s children, memorial moments of yahrzeit or shiva – or for pastoral advice in a pressing life struggle. But for the High Holy Days, they arrive for a variety of spiritual, communal, familial reasons, and for some, to hedge their bets in the hereafter. Most consider this synagogue theirs, whether they are officially paying members or not, and most will turn to these clergy people for help.

When worshippers arrive to fulfill their needs, synagogues need their support to meet those needs on that day and whenever it erupts. Synagogues must sustain themselves for the regular and the episodic needs of the community, pushing beyond the traditional prohibition of asking for tzedakah on holy days by creatively reimagining the High Holy Day Appeal. Done well, a creative Appeal can ameliorate the discomfort by wrapping the ask in poignant stories and heartfelt music.

Who Asks At High Holy Days?

In many synagogues, the president and sometimes the Rabbi make a HHD Appeal speech during one of the main services. Because presidents have ultimate fiscal responsibility for the financial health of the synagogue, the argument goes, they are best positioned to explain why the money is needed and for what. Plus the Appeal has become a traditional responsibility and kavod (honor) passed down l’dor vador, from president to president. In other shuls, the rabbi or another board leader makes the ask. Unfortunately these synagogues erroneously assume that people will give most substantially to the leaders of the congregation’s sacro-business.

Yet, consulting with some giants of Jewish philanthropy, including New York’s David Altshuler of the David Altshuler Co. and Los Angeles’ Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin of Stephen Wise Temple (z”l), we realized that the best people to make the case in the bimah-based High Holy Day Appeal are those who have personal experience receiving the compassion, support, and spiritual sustenance that the synagogue uniquely offers and for whom the synagogue has been a lifelline.

What’s the Message?

Who can forget those heart-wrenching St. Jude’s Hospital videos, those personal gofundme appeals, or those timeless TED Talks about persistence, resilience and grit? Who doesn’t feel the pull of pledging when we are uplifted by meaningful stories?

Other organizations have raised this appeal to an art form. Stories told touch us deeply. We smile proudly when hearing about the compassion felt by the speakers along the way; we kvell when that kindness comes from or through our community. We feel greater hope for humanity. And hearing about tribulations overcome, even non-believers, in that hidden chamber deep within, think, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

When well crafted, appeals like these can amplify the meaning of the Holy Days. They easily integrate with the message of the rabbi’s sermon and the cantor’s anthem, and have the potential to sustain the synagogue through the season to come.

That’s why Congregation Or Ami annually invites different people to speak who have a story of struggle, success, and hope. The words need to be passionate, compassionate, and true; the delivery can be measured as long as the congregant conveys the unique gifts that the community and its clergy provided. Wrapped in uplifting music, they burrow through our brains into our hearts.

What Stories Touch Hearts?

Over the years we have heard from people who:

  • Fought cancer or other illness successfully (or for a time) and were recipients of the synagogue’s support
  • Struggled through fertility treatments to then kvell as the resulting gifts from God became B’nai Mitzvah on the bimah
  • Raised Judaism-loving teens with special challenges, who were intentionally embraced by an inclusive religious school
  • Found new meaning in Judaism as women or LGBTQ individuals, after previously growing up in a male-centered traditional Jewish community

With permission from and creative control by the parents, we also welcomed young people to the bimah. When those youth spoke, their parents usually spoke afterward, offering a parental perspective and heartfelt thanks, and then making the Appeal ask. These youth included teens who:

  • Once contemplated suicide, but reached out to the rabbis who helped her speak to her parents, and now fully in a healing process, has since shared her story at URJ camps, youth retreats, and her own middle school
  • Accepted a scholarship to a URJ summer camp, went on to become youth group president, whose life was transformed
  • Healed from pediatric cancer and, because of a religious school faculty who became dedicated germ-fighters, was welcomed back into a safe learning environment

All appeal presentations are written by the individuals, edited (sometimes heavily) by the rabbi (and Appeal team), and are practiced repeatedly. As hoped, people give graciously and dig deeply when moved by the message. They feel the need to support a community that truly reaches out and shows up in times of need, for others, and perhaps one day, for themselves.

Where Might We Integrate the Appeal’s Theme Throughout the Service?

Sometimes we tease the appeal story theme in the rabbi’s earlier sermon and/or in kavannot (prayer introductions). This elevates both messages. Some years – like when the teen and her mother spoke about her struggle with suicidal ideation – the story and its message were so inspiring that the rabbi’s message – about our commitment to mental health and wellness – reverberated more widely because their stories evidenced what the rabbi’s sermon tried to explain. As it could because they were intentionally integrated.

We often precede and follow each Appeal story with uplifting songs, followed by a standard rabbi-crafted brief appeal ask, spoken by the same speaker or their family member.

Because the stories are so personal, we now have two speakers – one at the Erev (evening) and then a different one the Shacharit (morning) service. This allows us to capture the attention of people – sadly an increasing number – who choose to attend only a single service. We insert a sentence in the Appeal Ask thanking those who already gave and appreciating their patience in recognition.

When Does the Fundraising Begin?

At Congregation Or Ami, we begin asking four to six weeks before Rosh Hashana. Our long term strategic goal was to walk into Kol Nidre services with pledges equal to 60% of the budgeted amount. (Through rigorous efforts during the pandemic, we raised 92% of that goal, leading to an additional 55% raised during and after services).

We rabbis make most of the asks. Initially it took courage, risk, and proactive planning. It required us to rethink how and when we wrote our sermons; I now try to draft two early in the summer. We administratively plan ahead to release the rabbis from certain responsibilities that others can do instead. It required us to learn the art of asking, which we did through executive coaching and in the Shekels Fundraising Seminar offered annually by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (I attended twice). While time consuming, it is extremely effective. And success frees us up from the pressures of year round fundraising.

Why Personal Asks?

We learned that people give and give generously when individually asked. Personal meetings produce the best results, followed by personal phone calls. Letters, group speeches, and emailed campaigns do collect donations but often as to a lesser degree and often missing a significant swath of potential givers.

Six years ago, during the first two meetings with my executive coach Diana Ho of Management Arts Inc., we crafted a strategic process to meet the overwhelming financial needs of the congregation by increasing the High Holy Day appeal. Initially we set a modest goal even as we laid the groundwork for the total transformation of our approach to Development. Quickly we raised the goal as the pledges rolled in. Our success is undeniable; the synagogue is soaring because of these early, exhausting, risky steps.

We learned that most successful fundraising begins with a quiet phase when givers of large gifts are individually approached and asked for their pledges. So we solicited those gifts first, to provide confidence and heft to the Appeal campaign, and sometimes to serve as matching gifts for the more public phases of the pledge drive or event. We slowly increased the number and breadth of our calling. We did most of it by phone.

How Might We Prepare for the Calls?

Prior to the calls, our bookkeeper prepares a confidential spreadsheet of each congregant’s (and non-congregant giver’s) previous donations and partnership (membership) level. This allows the rabbi to appropriately thank them and to divine the best level of asking for the current year. Conversations with the bookkeeper ensure that people newly struggling are still called but not asked.

In time, people have come to expect these annual calls. Just before the High Holy Days, they enjoy the opportunity to check in and connect up. We intentionally engage with these and other congregants at other times throughout the year, so that while everyone knows that these are also fundraising calls, they reflect the warmth and connection built throughout the year.

Some people pledge before we ask so that we can spend more time shmoozing. Others wait to hear the thanks and a request to meet or match last year’s gift. For four years running, the growing group of people we call increased their aggregate giving by 25% to 32%. Even when some could not pledge because they faced other financial pressures, the aggregate pledges increased.

What Happens after the Bimah-Based Appeal?

Envelopes are filled out and are passed to ushers. With the help of Livecontrol, our live-streaming service, a big donate button shows up tastefully on the livestream screen.

On the two Sundays following HHD services, we send out emails which include a video of one of the appeal speeches, a thank you to those who gave, and short written request to donate. A large “Donate” button is prominently placed to make the message clear.

Later that first week, we send a snail mail letter to those who had not given. It includes a message, simple link to the appeal story on our website, and an invitation to speak directly to the rabbis if they prefer.

Our bookkeeper knows that collecting on pledges is the highest priority in the 30 days following Yom Kippur. Those years that we intentionally begin right away to ensure that we annually collect 97% of the gifts.

Don’t Forget to Thank

Finally and most importantly, we thank the givers and care for them during the year. Thank you letters go out to each giver, with a personal handwritten note from the rabbi. Givers over a certain level are invited to a post-Holy Days gathering at one of the rabbi’s homes. During the year we also send them some additional synagogue swag.

We ensure that all givers receive our Chanukah, Purim, and Passover Holiday Essentials Gift Bags during the rest of the year, even if they don’t come by the synagogue to pick them up. Their pledges and the potential of future giving far outweighs the cost of the boxes and postage to ship the Essentials Bags to them.

What’s Next?

We are contemplating a follow-up gofundme campaign focused on our younger congregant families.

We are slowly developing a lay team of compassionate callers to connect and solicit pledges from those who have given in previous years but, because of sheer numbers, the current team cannot call. Each call includes an invitation to an upcoming event and our next Mitzvah Day. Each caller receives a thank you call from the rabbis. We hope this helps raise the total participation level in the years to come.

Should We Try This? Four Questions to Consider

Congregation Or Ami long did not have a culture of giving and, in comparison to the demographics and relative economic level of our surroundings, was not reaching our potential to fund our programs and pastoral work.

Yet, the pressure to fund raise was all-encompassing and I will admit to losing more than a few nights of sleep worrying about the synagogue’s future. Now the lost sleep comes primarily in the days before I begin the annual appeal asking. But that’s just inertia: needing to motivate myself to begin.

You might ask yourself four questions:

  1. Do we have the necessary funds to fund our operation? (Most of us don’t)
  2. Is there greater capacity in our area (even 10% more) for giving beyond what we are getting? (Most of us do)
  3. Can we lighten the rabbis’ responsibilities so they have capacity to connect and ask? (Perhaps you should anyway)
  4. What do we have to lose? (Hmmm…)

Finally, as rabbi I now spend more time planning, thinking, learning, and supporting and supervising our staff than I did previously. I am less stressed and more hopeful. Our leadership is too. Because with this energized Appeal process we are ensuring the financial sustainability of our synagogue.

What do you have to lose? Take a risk and try it!

Rabbi Paul Kipnes, spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas), is a public speaker on spirituality, co-author of Jewish Spiritual Parenting, a spoken word poet, synagogue disruptor, spiritual journeyman, trekker, and regular meditator. He blogs at paulkipnes.com and at midrashicmonologues.com.