Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Membership in Reform Synagogues - Necessary -- or Not?

Reform Judaism, a publication of the Union for Reform Judaism, contains an interview the editors had with Allison Fine, president of Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, NY.  Reinventing the Synagogue deals, yet again, with the apparently never-ending problem of the "alarming rate" of attrition among memberships of Reform congregations in North America.

Here is what Ms. Fine feels synagogues should do to stem the tide:
1.  Rethink the top-down hierarchy of synagogues
2.  Stop treating members like a "cog."  Be sure members are aware that each of them "matter."
3.  Move to a networked model to create a more authentic and fulfilling engagement between leaders    
     and congregants.
4.  Increase transparency - do not strategize behind closed doors.  Use social media to bring 
     congregants into conversation.
5.  Leaders should talk more openly about money - synagogues always ask for money but are very
     reluctant to share "where it goes."  Create a financial narrative.
6.  Leaders should be better listeners, especially to the young.

Sound familiar?  Think any of this will really perform miracles in ending the "alarming rate" of attrition.  If so, I think I know of a bridge that you can buy very cheaply.

If a member of a synagogue feels that he is not properly regarded or treated, or that the service, clergy, or sermonizing is not to his liking, he will, in a fitting and proper manner, resign from that synagogue -- and join another!!  Surely there is one in this vast metropolitan area that he will find suitable.  A family departing one synagogue and joining another is not attrition - just a switch.  Not bad for Judaism - just bad for the losing synagogue.  Synagogues may lose when members depart, but if the unhappy members join other synagogues, total membership is unaffected. Synagogues worried about their own membership rather than synagogue membership as a whole, may well benefit from altering their modes of operation, as per Ms. Fine.

The "alarming rate of attrition," however, probably has nothing to do with synagogue behavior.  It may  likely be related to the absence of the notion for a need to be a member of a synagogue at all.  In a country such as ours, particularly in our metropolitan area - an area so comfortable for Jews - identifying or affiliating with "your people" may rank very low on the scale of personal and social satisfaction.  

By the way the "alarming rate of attrition" doesn't even approach the number of Jews who already have  elected not to affiliate with a synagogue - and who form the vast majority of American Jewry.  

I don't know why Jews don't care to join synagogues - and neither, I believe, does anyone else.  I can only guess.   I am not aware of any properly designed study to answer this question.  If the Reform movement wants to "market" Judaism, or "market" synagogue membership, it must not deal in solutions a priori.  Before deciding how to sell your product, see if a market actually exists!  And if, indeed, the market does exist, question the consumers (the non-affiliated, or never-affiliated) and determine what has to be done to create and sell the right product.

Want to sustain synagogue membership in this country?  Want to increase synagogue membership in this country?  Changes in style won't work -  understanding substance is the only true road to success.  Those of us who see the importance of the synagogue in American Jewish life must try to sell the general non-affiliated Jewish population on the need for this connection, using proper tools we have yet to discover.

If you can sell it, the rest will follow.  

If you can't, don't expect changes in synagogue management or programs to solve this huge issue.

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