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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DUES AND DON’TS

Just a year ago, Temple Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Jupiter, Fla., had a membership of about 420 families. Now? It’s 500. And all it took was one simple experiment.

“We just eliminated the concept of dues,” said the synagogue’s rabbi, Alon Levkovitz.

As a three-year pilot project, the synagogue committed to not requiring any particular amount of money from anyone.

This has not meant going broke. “We’re very honest with the community, telling them we need money to operate,” Levkovitz said. “At the same time, we said we know there are some who can give more and some less.”

And that’s what has happened. Some give more than the sustaining amount — $1,000 per family — and some can’t swing it. But doesn’t knowing who paid what make a difference to the rabbi?

Levkovitz says no. “There’s only one person at the synagogue who really knows what people give,” he said.

And it’s not him.

TAKEAWAY: Eliminating dues can eliminate a big barrier for a lot of people.

SO ASK!

At the Stanton Street Synagogue, in Lower Manhattan, Rabbi Josh Yuter said, “We have our motto, ‘All are welcome.’” That goes for questions, too.

Though the synagogue’s affiliation is Orthodox, “the membership has a wide range of observance. We set it up so that people are free to come as they are and engage as much as they want, and everything will be discussed,” Yuter said. That’s especially true during the part of the Sabbath morning service called “Ask the Rabbi.”

The questions can be about religious law, ethics or current events — as they relate to Judaism. The rabbi’s favorite question was, “Why do we have to listen to the rabbis when it was the rabbis who told us we have to listen to the rabbis?”

TAKEAWAY: Give congregants a chance to ask questions instead of just being lectured at.

GOOD SHABBOS, NEBRASKA!

This could be the wildest new idea of all.

At Beth Israel synagogue in Omaha, Neb., an Orthodox congregation, Rabbi John Gross has replaced his pulpit with a desk. On it? A mug. Behind him? A backdrop of the city. Yes, he has turned Saturday morning service into a late-night talk show, complete with an opening monologue, interviews and two schoolgirls holding up “applause” signs.

“It’s phenomenal,” Gross said. Until he did his first talk show service, which was just this past October, the congregation was “getting 70 people on a good Shabbos. This past Shabbos we probably had over 250. People love it!”

What’s more, his operating budget has gone from $5,000 to $75,000 in 15 weeks.

“Onstage” Gross and guest discuss that week’s Torah portion, but Gross makes sure his interviewee has a personal connection to it. For instance, to discuss the Exodus, he invited Boris Gulko, a chess grandmaster who talked about his experience trying to exit the Soviet Union.

Just don’t go searching for “Good Shabbos, Nebraska” videos. There are little teasers, but not whole shows. If there were, the rabbi says, “Everybody would sit in their office and watch it on Monday morning. I don’t care if a Jew in New Jersey sees my synagogue. I want the Jew in Omaha to see it! To come to it!”

That’s exactly what Omaha’s Jews are doing.

TAKEAWAY: Consider different formats for the service. Really different.


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