Discover more from Jewish Work by Rabbi Jeremy Markiz
How your Congregation Can Get New People
The Problem: We are asking people to engage themselves.
Read time: 7 minutes
I moved to a new city about a year ago and, it pains me to say this, I am still not a member of a synagogue. Yes, I'm a rabbi and I'm not a dues-paying member at a synagogue.
I'm a mid-thirties, married Jewish man with a young baby. I am a halakhically observant person who cares about communal life. I basically check all of the boxes for synagogue membership. Trying to find a synagogue that fits us shouldn't be this hard.
But the journey this past year, visiting many congregations and serious reflection has also been a gift.
This year has been more helpful than ever in understanding the state of synagogues, what it means to be new, and understanding our failures in engagement.
I think there are two big steps we can and should take.
But before we talk about the institutional side, let's ask an important question:
What do we expect from new participants?
Based on my congregational experience, I believe we expect two core things:
First, we expect new people to show up... and keep showing up.
Second, we expect new people to reach out to the clergy and/or leadership… before the institutions reach out to them.
From the institutional side, a clergy or staff team might be dealing with ~500 families, which could be as many as more than 1500 individuals. It is hard to keep track of new people, especially if they come on Shabbat. It isn’t easy.
But are our expectations reasonable? Yes and no.
Yes, we hope that people will have a good experience and come back for more. We hope that the community will step in to be welcoming and inviting since there is usually not enough staff to do that work. We hope that people will reach out and introduce themselves to the leadership so they can become "known."
But what if the community isn't all that friendly? And lots of places aren't as friendly as we think they are.
What if the leadership is all sitting at a table talking to each other? And lots of places are like that where the people who know each other only talk to each other.
This is where the expectation loses its weight. Because asking new people to come back repeatedly after mediocre experiences makes no sense. On top of that, expecting them to reach out to the leadership assumes and expects a lot from people who have no relationship yet.
If I go to a restaurant and the food isn't good, why would I go back? Repeatedly? Why would I expect it to get better? Should I call the manager so they'll know me?
We expect people to engage themselves.
When we moved a year ago, we were looking for a place with people in our life stage who were engaged in Jewish life. We hoped, as new folks, that we'd easily find a place that would make it easy to get engaged, with friendly, welcoming, and inclusive folks and lots of invites to meals and programs.
Perhaps we were naive.
I worked at a synagogue before this, I tried my best to offer this kind of experience, though probably not as consistently or effectively as I imagined.
We attended about 8 different places for Shabbat morning or holiday services. Some places we went back to a few times and a few places we went to only once. We also knew that if we didn't go back to the same place regularly, it is hard to meet people and build relationships. We never really "committed" to one.
We never really experienced what we hoped to experience.
Were we expected to engage ourselves? If our experiences weren't that great, are we supposed just to hope it gets better?
We are already outliers, we weren't going to get turned off from Judaism, but many of our contemporaries aren't going to have that patience.
In fact, we ask new attendees (since they are not participants nor members yet) to do all sorts of work upfront without any real promise that it will improve. The obligation to connect with our community specifically doesn’t exist, people will find meaning elsewhere.
Fundamentally, there is a core tension:
Congregations expect attendees to do the hard work first and attendees expect congregations to do the hard work first.
So, what can we be doing differently?
We’ve focused a lot on the problem, though there’s clearly more to unpack.
There are many strategies worthy of implementing and I think these two steps have an outsized impact. Congregations would benefit from building systems to implement this at scale.
Build a new real relationship quickly.
One of the big challenges is entering a big room and not knowing anyone. This is one of the largest hurdles and someone who is coming into a synagogue for the first time has already started to manage. For someone like me, who is relatively comfortable in synagogue regardless of knowing anyone, it can be demoralizing anyway.
As a result, the first thing we can do to help new people feel connected is to facilitate the building of a relationship. Not a friendly face who introduces themselves and walks away, but someone who will be happy to see them return and be willing to invest in a new relationship. Ideally, someone who is in a similar life stage, but that isn’t absolutely necessary.
This is also part of the work required by members and leaders rather than the clergy or staff themselves. We’re talking about friendship building and staff-congregant relationships are hard enough already.
This new relationship will reduce the first challenge of not knowing anyone. In truth, one or two real connections are enough to get started in a meaningful way.
An observation: In many communities, but certainly not all, locals who grew up in the community are less willing to put in this effort to invest in new relationships. This leaves the new relationship-building work to relative newcomers, people who joined the community as adults, to do this work. I think this is a major underdocumented weakness in our welcoming and engagement strategy worthy of exploring more deeply.
Show that the community has depth.
Relationships that only exist around the kiddush table are fine, but new people want to know that their investment in time will come back to them.
The strongest congregations have a culture of community that extends beyond the “walls.” Getting an invite to a Shabbat meal or a coffee can make a difference. The follow-up is key.
We were invited to a Sukkot meal last year at a rabbi’s house and it was filled with other people in our life stage. We made wonderful connections and as we were walking away, we made plans with one of the couples for an additional hang-out. As a result, I felt great, not only about the new friends we made but also about the new positive association I have with the rabbi’s house.
Many congregations have a person at services who are identified in announcements with “go to this person if you are hosting or need a meal.” These folks help make these kinds of connections possible and I think this is a great starting strategy.
That being said, I know that personally, I have never gone up to that person requesting a meal (which might say more about me than anything else) out of tremendous discomfort, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Additional systems and structures will have to be developed for the different kinds of folks who might be with you.
Just like many congregations have systemized having greeters to make their communities more welcoming, however fleeting those interactions might be, I think systemizing these two steps will help tremendously.
People have a lot of demands on their time and attention. For many, they don’t “need” congregations to build community and relationships, but they want the connections.
We ask our new people to do all the work upfront and hope for improvement. This expectation is making it hard to grow our communities.
Instead, our first encounters with them should do as much work as possible to build a scaffold for their future relationships.