What synagogue does not think of itself as warm and welcoming?
About 99-point-something percent of shuls assure us that they are.
But how many of them have taken any concrete steps to ensure that there’s any emotional truth to that slogan?
Lisa Harris Glass, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s chief planning officer, director of its Synagogue Leadership Initiative, and also an active member of her own shul, is an immensely practical person. The workshop that she taught last week offered synagogue lay and professional leaders an overview of how to make their synagogues visible, approachable, and genuinely open to seekers who might well end up as stalwart members.
The workshop itself was an example of outreach. It was held at B’nai Jacob Congregation in Jersey City. The federation’s relationship with Jersey City and the rest of Hudson County is fairly new; holding the program there was a way of signaling that the relationship is important. B’nai Jacob has a parking lot, and it’s also just a few blocks from a light rail station. That’s important for people from Hudson, which is far more urban than Bergen and has more people who have freed themselves from cars.
It is that kind of specific, street-level understanding — who are your members? Who are potential members? What do they need? What do they assume? What do they want? — that Ms. Glass advocates. There are broad generalizations that can apply to many if not most if not all shuls, and there are some other truths that are absolutely specific to each shul. The workshops offer both. Part of what Ms. Glass offers is a way for synagogue leaders to analyze what they have and then to decide what to do with that knowledge.
Take, for example, a synagogue membership form. Ms. Glass gave the people at the meeting — about 20, representing Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and unaffiliated shuls — a copy of a membership form and asked them what was wrong with it. There was a lot to talk about. As it turns out, a poorly designed, ill-thought-out form can transmit all sorts of unintended (and perhaps all-too-accurate) messages.
Each participant at the workshop gets a packet; just as each synagogue is different, so too is each packet. “We are very cognizant of who is in the room,” Ms. Glass said. That plays out in a few different ways.
First, there are denominational differences. Across the span of the Jewish streams, the understanding of who can be a member varies and cannot be ignored.
Other issues are perhaps less denominational than they might seem at first.
No synagogue, no matter what movement it represents, can assume that all its prospective members are part of a nuclear family. It is unwelcoming and therefore unwise for any synagogue to present a prospective member with an application that labels the male applicant as primary and the female as, well, not primary, as secondary and therefore somehow minor. There are unmarried, divorced, or widowed women joining synagogues across the Jewish world. Some have children. Some do not.
Gay men and lesbians, coupled or not, also join synagogues, although how frequently and how openly varies by movement. And in the near future, liberal synagogues will have to figure out what pronouns to use for transgender people; in the more distant future, so too will Orthodox ones.
There also are differences based on location. Synagogues should use signage to make their presence known; how and where to do it depends on where in town their buildings are, and how suburban or urban their settings.
When it comes to making their presence known, synagogues no longer can afford to ignore the online world. When prospective members look for synagogues, they google; the results they see often determine whether they follow up with a shul or look elsewhere. Sometimes the synagogues are bedeviled by unfavorable press; sometimes their towns are too. There are ways to deal with that — ways to make neutral or favorable stories come up on top in search results — and Ms. Glass and SLI’s manager, Joshua Keyak, can teach them.
Each participant gets a so-called report card, based not on what the SLI staff knows about the shul, but about the information that’s available online. That’s what prospective members would see. That’s what synagogues can improve, or at the very least deal with.
“You can’t be a master of everything,” Ms. Glass said. “That’s why we help by bringing people at these workshops best practices and real solutions.” That practicality “is a hallmark of our program,” she continued. “We are very aware of who’s there, and we offer something for everybody to take home.”
The SLI team puts its own advice into action. “Best practices are important,” Ms. Glass said. “Everyone who walks in gets a personal greeting. You are given a placard with your name, and there are no typos. We check carefully. And it’s never crooked. That matters to us.” It sends a message, the kind of subliminal first impression that matters.
Ms. Glass discussed ways that synagogue members can meet other members and inspire them through their own example to join the shul. People who love a place can be its best ambassadors, once they are empowered to take that initiative. Places where people tend to gather — parks, playgrounds, nursery schools, libraries, Starbucks — all are good places for synagogue members to strike up conversations.
It’s never about poaching, Ms. Glass said. It’s never a question of persuading a member of one shul to go to another. It’s about finding people new to a town or newly open to the idea of synagogue membership. There are always larger numbers of those people than anyone not attuned to it would know.
How do you know with whom to broach the subject of a shul? “You’ve heard the term bageling?” Ms. Glass asked. “It’s a way of signaling that you are a member of the tribe.” Once that’s done, once those connections are made, then it’s safe to proceed.
Ms. Glass often brings her own experiences as an active member of a Conservative shul, the wife of a former president, and the mother of teenagers who have been active in the youth group and one who sings in the choir into the conversation. She never foregrounds it — no one would ever think that her talk is about her — but she alludes to it in ways that make it clear that she understands both the dilemmas and the satisfaction that participants experience. “I am one of them,” she said. “It is authentic for me. My synagogue makes a difference in my life. I know that you can be better when you are part of a sacred community.
“It has enriched my life, and I want everyone else to have the experience. That is why I do this work.”
It’s another form of bageling, she added. “I want to signal to people at the workshops that I am one of them, and that we all are doing God’s work.”
The workshop is one of 10 or so the federation offers each year. “We always offer one that that has to do with membership, and another that has to do with fundraising or budgeting or dues,” Ms. Glass said. She’s generally runs them in the evening, but she always pays close attention to the response she gets, and she has noticed that increasingly people are reluctant or unable to get to those meetings. Therefore, she’s offering a half-day conference, SynaCon, on Sunday, October 29, beginning at 8:30 in the morning.
For information about SLI evening workshops, the SynaCon conference, or SLI in general, email Joshua Keyak at email@example.com or Lisa Harris Glass at LisaG@jfnnj.org.