Time to Replace Programmatic Model of Jewish Affiliation

by Ron Wolfson

It’s that time of year, when Jewish institutions pull out their 2013-14 calendars and fill them with events. Many of the programs are very good, with clever names and slick marketing: Jews and Brews for young Federation leadership; L’mazeltov for expectant parents; Torah and Tacos for synagogue members who favor a certain southwestern cuisine with their Bible study.

And yet, after all this well-meaning effort, membership in synagogues and JCCs is declining, federation campaigns are flat and a generation of young Jewish adults is in no hurry to affiliate. The 20th century model of programmatic engagement is not working.

Recently I received an urgent phone call from what once was one of the largest synagogues in America, some 1,500 households. In 2000, the congregation had a balanced budget and no mortgage on a sprawling building. Ominously, young couples were moving out of the neighborhood and older folks were dropping out. The leaders knew they had to do something.

Here’s what they did: They borrowed $1 million. Nearly half was spent on a slick rabbi who lasted less than two years. The rest was spent on programs: lectures by top speakers, concerts by renowned celebrities and an array of events targeted to specific segments of the community. Lots of people came to the programs and ostensibly enjoyed them. Then they went home.

Nothing was done to address the widely held perception that the congregation was cold and unwelcoming. Nothing was done to create connections between those who showed up and the clergy and staff. By the time the leaders called me, the congregation was $1 million in debt and had shrunk to 350 households.

What’s going on? Synagogues, rabbis and Jewish educators once were the main access points to serious Jewish learning. JCCs were a comfortable place to put your little ones in preschool, join a health club and participate in cultural activities. Federations were the central address for supporting the various arms of the community.

The Internet has changed all that. Hundreds of websites feature rich Jewish content for free. Why pay to join a congregation when I can watch live streaming video of worship services, arrange for a bar or bat mitzvah tutor online and have the ceremony in my backyard with a rent-a-rabbi? Why join a JCC when I can go to a fitness center and easily find a cheaper preschool? Why give to a centralized federation when I can direct my giving to causes that resonate with me?

This begs the ultimate question: What is the value of affiliating with a Jewish institution?

In my new book, “Relational Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing), I suggest it is this: a face-to-face community of relationships that offers meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.

To create such a community, we need to turn our engagement model upside down. Rather than spending all our time planning events and hoping people show up, let’s begin with the people: Welcome them, hear their stories, identify their talents and passions, care about them and for them — and then craft programs that engage them with the Jewish experience.

Thankfully, there are organizations and individuals on the cutting edge of this relational tipping point. Chabad has grown from a small group of disciples to an army of 4,500 rabbis and their families who reject the dues model of affiliation: pay up front, then you are served. Rather, they build a relationship with individuals first and only then ask for financial support.

Congregation-based community organizing begins with one-on-one conversations designed to tease out common interests that can be the basis for communal action. Hillel is sending well-trained college students into the dorms and Greek houses to develop relationships with peers who would never walk into a Hillel House. A number of next generation initiatives like Synagogue 3000’s Next Dor and Moishe House are designed to reach young Jewish professionals by building relationships. Social media are increasingly useful as a way to build virtual communities and encourage face-to-face meetings.

The best fundraisers know that relationships are at the heart of raising money; most charitable giving is to people the donor trusts, not simply to support a particular cause.

From these case studies and more than 150 interviews with those doing relational work, my book throws a spotlight on a number of best principles and practices that any Jewish institutional professional or lay leader can use to do this transformational work, ranging from personal encounters to new relational membership models.

This paradigm shift will not be easy; this is labor-intensive work. It will not require more buildings but a reallocation of the precious time of staff and laity. We will need engagement rabbis, relationship directors, community concierges and sophisticated tracking systems to ensure appropriate follow-up and transitions as individuals traverse the life cycle of community engagement. We will not need new institutions, but to transform the institutions we already have from programmatic to relational communities. People may come for programs, but they will stay for relationships.

So as we fill out those calendars for next year, let’s embrace a new goal: to engage every member of our institutions and every interested unaffiliated person in a deeper relationship with Judaism, with the Jewish experience and with each other. Let’s begin by putting people before programs. Let’s learn who they are before we try to figure out what they want. Let’s inspire them to see Judaism as a worldview that can inform the many different levels of relationship in their lives.

Let’s work toward a rededication of our mishpachah, our people, to a relational Judaism.

Ron Wolfson, a member of the URJ Faculty of Expert Practitioners, is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and the co-founder of Synagogue 3000/Next Dor. His new book is “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights Publishing). Learn more about Ron and the URJ Faculty.

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7 Responses to “Time to Replace Programmatic Model of Jewish Affiliation”

  1. avatar
    Jordan Friedman Reply May 3, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    I deeply agree with the concept of “relational Judaism” and the importance of human community. The anthropocentric approach to Jewish group-loyalty and meaning-making has ample precedent in Tradition, but I always ask the theocentric question: “Where is God in all of this?” I believe that the thrust of historic Judaism lies in a well-balanced dance between anthropocentrism and theocentrism.

  2. avatar
    J Rivkah Tobin Reply May 3, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    Gentle Soul:

    Your blog resonated with me in many ways.

    But you don’t go far enough in explaining why the current model doesn’t work. The current model focuses on wealthy Jews and it discounts or eliminates from consideration those that are not.

    I’m nobody. I sit in a wheelchair. I don’t have a big checkbook. The furniture seems more important than I am.

    I’d love for the rabbis or the cantor to ask “how ya doin’?” Even a letter asking “what can we do for you?” would have been nice.

    Last year my Temple dues bill, again, exceeded my income. And that’s before they add in Building Fund, and several fees including one for armed guards. I feel like a criminal when I beg for a reduction every year. My disability is permanent and degenerative. My income will likely never go up. Why doesn’t my congregation know that I don’t have the money nor will I have the money? The first year perhaps is understandable but not the next and the one after that. And why is my dues bill the only personalized correspondence I get?

    The VA encouraged me to get exercise in a pool. Our JCC’s membership costs more than rehab facilities ask, and their fee includes a therapist. I don’t have the money for either.

    Questions from the pulpit: Don’t you care about Jewish education? Or our Jewish future? Or, Gun Control? Or, Israel? Shouldn’t the clergy travel to Washington or the State Capitol, or Israel for this or that? Oops wrong answer! You’re left with the implication that you’re not properly Jewish if you disagree.

    I have one question. Don’t you care about me? Or the person sitting next to me who attempted suicide a month or so ago? A hand full of us come most weeks. Though I wonder why? Doesn’t that count for something Jewishly?

    Our congregation seems focused on being a Bar/Bat Mitzvah factory, performing rabbinic theater, burying wealthy Jews, and/or having more-than-I-spend-in-a-year-on-food per plate dinners. The clergy is exhausted and overworked.

    I’m not sure if any of the clergy knows that I nearly died twice this past year. I’m not sure if they even know my name. If they do, they don’t use it even to say hi, or Shabbat Shalom. Or, ask in a passing way “How are you?” Perhaps they’re afraid I might actually tell them. Or, “do you need help getting to Shul?”

    I could go on and on. But if your congregation is like mine, they’re not listening. Perhaps in a couple of years they’ll wonder casually why did Rivie stop coming as your blog suggests?

    I think your face-to-face solution holds the key to a Jewish future. Perhaps the small group of disciples may come from those of us who only have time to give–a “force multiplier” to steal a military term.

    I once asked about becoming a lay Pastoral Care Worker and was told we have a social worker for that. I’ve noticed that churches have Pastoral Care Workers who convert away our members in hospitals, treatment centers and all those other places that “good” Jews don’t go. The Catholics, Baptists and others sure were eager to help me while in the hospital. If I saw a Jew other than my doctor, I didn’t know it.


  3. avatar

    I couldn’t agree with Ron more. One-off lectures and shows cannot foster personal or spiritual growth. A Rabbi recently said to me – “He always thought that the synagogue should be the place where the most serious and meaningful conversations take place.” He’s right.
    Ayeka is fostering this kind of personal contact through our spiritual chevruta programs. It is possible. And it is possible to grow a congregation – one small group at a time.

  4. avatar

    When I used to attend professional meetings it was always during the unstructured time between sessions and events when I would meet new people and make new friends. We need to pay more attention to creating that space between the programs at the synagogue that allows people to connect. We used to do that in the course of volunteer efforts at my shul. Now everything is run by staff and we are mostly called on for free labor but not for our creativity.

  5. avatar
    Yakov ben Chaim Reply May 8, 2013 at 4:44 am

    I MORE than agree! My “temple” has shrunk from about 1200 families and a packed main sanctuary for Shabbos services to G’d ONLY knows how few and an empty chapel.

    You know something, the temple “deserves it”.

    I’m the FIRST and as far as I know ONLY sixth generation family member of the congregation (well now former member) and the rabbi sees me and he turns around and runs away. I did the seniors group for almost five years as an officer and board member, did I get the “free dues to seniors” that a two year stint would have formally entitled me to having (we are talking a token dollar a month here folks) NOPE.

    My grandfather donated the ROOF, the paving for the thousand car parking lot, the automated lighting system for the lot and the building’s exterior, the necessary rebuilding of the roof when the contractor didn’t listen to EXPERIENCE and put the gutters inside the roofing system instead of outside where leaks wouldn’t matter well I can go on and on.

    With luck, I can still be buried out of that temple as my lot or plot is all paid for. Maybe they will want something else yes?

    Color ME sour grapes.

  6. avatar
    Tamar Bat Chaim v' Shoshana Reply June 4, 2013 at 9:44 am

    I am so frustrated with the Reform Movement I cannot begin to explain, but I will try.

    #1 I was raised Reform with a Conservative bent.
    #2 I speak Hebrew (through much effort and learning and a year in Israel)
    #3 I have a special needs daughter

    After years of trying to make it work in Reform congregations we are now unhappily at a Conservative synagogue where we feel welcome, love the people, but miss Reform services.

    At our last few Reform congregations we were told in so many ways that we 1) wanted too much Hebrew (more than one line a prayer!) 2) couldn’t bring our enthusiastic (and sometimes noisy) child into services (this is when she was in a happy baby mode) 3) that a reform day camp couldn’t accommodate her mild special needs (letting her sit out competitive activities). There is more, but for brevity I will stop here.

    Honestly, how hard do I have to work to be in the Reform movement? When decorum is more important than people everyone loses. Make families welcome at EVERY service. Why should people spend years hiring sitters in order to raise children that have learned that they aren’t welcome unless they can behave perfectly. How will they ever learn to make the synagogue their home? Make every Jew feel welcome including those who are knowledgeable and those who are new. Make every non-Jewish spouse and extended family feel welcome.

    First, create the big tent and wrap us in the prayer shawl. Then worry about events and fundraisers. I pay membership when I can barely afford it and I pay more when I can. I’ve paid completely into two building funds. AND yet I cannot find a home in a Reform congregation where my mainstreamed child is welcomed too.

    Before you dismiss this, look around on a Friday night. How many children are at services? How many in the congregation over all? If your bima doesn’t have three toddlers sitting on the steps during services than you have missed the boat. They belong on the bima, running up and down the aisles and dancing with the spirit. Stopping shushing families out of Judaism!!!!

    Any other kind of Judaism is without soul and will ultimately fail.

  7. avatar

    What struck me about your wonderful post was the reality that old glue loses its stickiness. For all the wonderful scholarly research about changing needs and in depth study of demographics it seems that the one thing we still don’t have the foggiest idea of how to create and maintain is community.
    What makes me yearn to attach or seek to be part of something beyond my immediate circle? what makes me want to give to strangers, interact with them and feel connected to people I’ll never meet –past as well as future lives. your wonderful efforts with Synagogue 2000 and 3000 shared the joy of glue mixing, going beyond merely mixing the basic ingredients to feel what it means to be stick to each other.
    I recently had the pleasure of hearing Daniel Liebenson speak on the topic of Judaism 2.0, a mash-up of Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, the evolution of the social and semantic web as it applies to Judaism.
    Of course the key is willingness to adapt and have the conversations but most importantly the professionals need to take the steps that may very well undue their standing. The model of paying someone else to pray is old, but today it was never much of a viable financial model.

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