7 Secrets of Highly Successful Synagogues — and Churches

Applying Lessons of Megachurches to Jewish World

kurt hoffman

By Lenore Skenazy

Published February 11, 2014, issue of February 14, 2014.
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Less than one-third of American Jews belong to a synagogue, according to the Pew Research Center study of 3,475 Jews. And while a third is nothing to sneeze at, it does leave plenty for the picking.

Ah, but how? While some synagogues are bursting with everyone from babies to bubbes, it’s no secret that others could use some new blood. Are there some surprising ideas for getting folks into synagogue that should be shared? Maybe even some new tactics from our friends with that newer Testament?

I asked Jewish and Christian leaders and consultants for their best congregation aggregation tips. The broad conclusion? People want to be part of something. They long to be moved, they like to be surprised and they love being fed. Once folks feel connected, they are yours. Reach out, try some new ideas and lower the barriers to sampling your synagogue. Good luck!

kurt hoffman

The Schlepping Point: Little Things Make a Difference In Getting Folks to Shul

CHUPPAH CHUPPAH HOORAY

Whenever a rabbi from North Shore Congregation Israel, a Reform synagogue in Highland Park, Ill., marries a couple, that couple automatically receives a gift: one year’s free membership.

“The biggest benefit is tickets to the high holiday services,” said Drew Barkley, North Shore’s executive director. “But then they get the bulletin and the emails, too.” As the young (or not so young) couples begin their married life in tandem with hearing about the synagogue, the two intertwine. What’s more, the synagogue deploys one of its rabbis to downtown Chicago, to connect with the young adults who have finished college and moved to the city — for a spell.

“These young professionals eventually are going to get married and move back to the suburbs,” Barkley said, “so [the rabbi] is staying in touch with them.”

Then, of course, if that rabbi marries them — well, the circle begins anew.

TAKEAWAY: Grab potential members on the cusp of adulthood.

IT’S A BIG WORLD, AFTER ALL

B’nai Jeshurun, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is legendary — so popular, so zesty, so iconic. If it were a food, it would be falafel. But if it were on your FM dial, it would probably be a college radio station — at 2 a.m.

“We are pretty committed to traditional forms of prayer, but within boundaries we have done a lot of experiments and brought a lot of global Jewish music from all sorts of different parts of the world, from Hasidic to Iraqi to Moroccan, to [Shlomo] Carlebach… ” said J. Rolando Matalon one of the three rabbis at B.J.

Along with the global music come the global instruments, “and all those things add up to making things interesting and not predictable,” Matalon said. “I think that one of the reasons for attracting people is that we always try to surprise — not for the sake of surprise, but for the sake of renewal. We have not always succeeded, but we try to keep ourselves fresh.”

TAKEAWAY: Jews are from all over, and so is their music. Don’t limit your repertoire.


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