AGUDAS ISRAEL CONGREGATION
Welcome to our Synagogue!
Many of you have spoken to me regarding your con-cerns about membership or have suggested ways in which we could enhance membership. Membership concerns range from how do we attract new mem-bers, how do we keep our members engaged, and why have some individuals left the congregation. These conversations lead me to try to better under-stand the many factors that impact synagogue mem-bership in order to try to develop strategies to strengthen our membership.
The data on synagogue membership can be discour-aging. The recently conducted National Rabbinic Survey cited declining involvement in Jewish activities as their most press-ing issue. The good news is that Reform congregations seem to be flourishing to a greater extent than Conservative congrega-tions. Agudas Israel is consistent with the data which indicates that there are about three times greater membership in the 65 and over age group than in younger age groups.
When I attended the Scheidt Leadership Seminar, membership was an ongoing topic. Many synagogues, both in urban and rural areas are struggling for survival. Within the group of Presidents of small Reform Jewish communities, membership was identified as an ongoing concern that impacts the congregation’s ability to continue to sustain itself.
So what can we do to counter these difficulties? In addition to the many activities and programs we offer, we need to focus on the broader areas of relationship building and "audacious hospitality".
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the URJ advocates auda-cious hospitality and writes that " the Jewish people are here today because those who came before us were audacious. By that I mean courageous, fearless, and bold." He talks of the lesson of Genesis that teaches us to practice audacious hospi-tality. On a blisteringly hot day, Abraham runs after three de-sert wanderers, insisting they come inside for nourishment. The point being that Abraham does not wait for the wanderers to knock on his door, rather, he goes out to meet them where they are and invites them in. I recall an article writ-ten a year ago by Linda Reihs describing her ex-periences at Agudas Israel. She said "What was so thrilling when I first joined was how totally I was welcomed here with open arms by the graciousness of everyone, the love that made me feel instantly a part of life here."
The Synagogue Studies Institute asserts that synagogues that have been program focused with little or no innovation will not survive much longer. The approach needs to be targeting "different populations to a deepening relation-ship between the synagogues and their members. The best way to root people in the life of the congregation is through relation-ships."
How do these two perspectives help us in our own quest to enhance membership at Agudas Israel? Rabbi Hayim Herring says that we must focus on the "synagogue as a communal cen-ter". We need to reach out to the diverse Jewish population within our community and offer activities that cast a wider net of interested participants. Included could be Yoga or Tai Chi that might attract some of the younger members of the commu-nity as well as our current members. We could have a woman’s support group. We could expand on our dinner for six program and incorporate an invitation to a new or prospective member. We need to speak up for our congregation out in the commu-nity. These are just a few suggestions and I think some of you have many more.
There is no easy solution to the challenges of membership enhancement. We must continue our focus on maintaining and sustaining our congregation. We need to be open to each other, strangers in our midst, and open to ideas that will cast a wide net across the community. I think, most importantly, we need to share with anyone who will listen our pride and joy with our congregation and each other.
Shalom, Dr. Linda Perkel