The Welcome Mat: Interfaith Family Shabbat

Open doorMany synagogues are holding their programs for Interfaith Family Shabbat this week and weekend. It is exciting to see the variety of programs that synagogues have created for this event. Some synagogues are having special movie screenings, others are hosting beginners’ services. One local synagogue, Main Line Reform Temple, was very creative and hosted a program entitled “Interfaith Family Shabbat Honoring our non-Jewish Spouses, Partners & Family Members: Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know about Services (or anything Jewish) but Did Not Know Who or When to Ask.” This program invited all participants to email the Rabbi with any question prior to the service in which he would do his best to answer them. It was inspiring to see how many synagogues took advantage of the opportunity that Interfaith Family Shabbat provides to create a special program to re-energize their welcoming culture.

Conversely, a few synagogues said that Interfaith Family Shabbat doesn’t apply to their community because they are always welcoming. Without question, it is great to be committed to being welcoming throughout the year, but this is similar to celebrating Mother’s Day. We should always appreciate mothers but it is meaningful to moms everywhere to have one day when they are recognized. For an interfaith couple, a blessing or recognition of interfaith couples and their commitment to Judaism is inspiring to many who have chosen to support their spouse in Judaism.

In a society where we define ourselves with labels, welcoming of various groups will be critical. Some consider themselves “Jews” while others are “Protestant,” “Catholic,” “Hindu,” “Muslim,” etc.  As long as we use labels, the need for constant and frequent welcoming will exist. After all, we are talking about walking into a synagogue, considered a haven for Jews—it makes sense that when a person walks into a house of worship that isn’t familiar, they will feel slightly uncomfortable. Even Jewish people may feel awkward in an unfamiliar synagogue and certainly in any other house of worship.

Hosts should let people know where to sit, what page the Rabbi is on, explain Hebrew references, etc. Guests may not know when it is ok to take a bathroom break or when to stand, so a helpful host could guide them in this. Hopefully, after multiple visits, a visitor will feel comfortable. But those first few visits are always slightly awkward. We hope that there will always be visitors, thus there will always be a need for welcoming!

I attended one of the Interfaith Family Shabbat events. One of the speakers said that he and his wife were greatly hurt when the Rabbi from his childhood Reform synagogue refused to marry them. He said that this interaction was so painful that he now refuses to go to that synagogue. Ten years later, he is still quite emotional about this rejection. I know that this synagogue considers itself welcoming but obviously, this person is scarred from the rejection.

After the service, many people remarked that “this community has always been a welcoming community.” Yet, there were many congregants who seemed to be enlightened when the Rabbi said “Just because someone marries someone of a different faith, they are not rejecting their parents. They are not rejecting their childhood. They simply fell in love.” There were congregants who really began to see the other side for the first time and understand interfaith marriage from a more loving perspective. It seemed that during this service, we learned that we should be more than understanding—we should welcome all people into the synagogue with open arms. Welcoming is a constant effort.

Did you attend a program for Interfaith Family Shabbat? Tell us about it in the comments section below!

Learn more about Interfaith Family Shabbat in Philadelphia here, and in other communities here.

Helping My Conservative Synagogue Find Balance

The following post is by guest blogger Jodi Rosenfeld from the Philadelphia area.

JugglingI sometimes feel like I am one of many circus performers juggling a variety of hats while the audience watches to see if I drop one—but the circus is my synagogue and the audience is my fellow congregants. My goal is not to make anyone laugh or watch in awe but simply to maintain the peace while moving the show forward in preparation for the next act.

At my small, century-old, Conservative synagogue in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, I was the facilitator of the Interfaith Work Group, a group that met for many months for the purpose of clarifying and then codifying our synagogue’s policy on membership for interfaith couples and families. This means I had to wear and juggle my many hats at once. And for that, I had to learn about balance.

The Interfaith Work Group was born of a conflict. The conflict began when several interfaith families were preparing for their children’s B’nai Mitzvah and the parent who was not Jewish realized that, according to Conservative tradition, he or she was not welcome to stand on the bimah. Even the father who was not Jewish but who’d served on several committees, was an active part of the community and had studied Hebrew alongside his son, could not stand at the Torah with his wife when she said the blessings before and after the Torah reading.

Then there was an aufruf for a young woman and her fiancé who was not Jewish and, even though her family had been active members of the synagogue for 50 years, not only could they not be married by our rabbi, but they couldn’t come up on the bimah to receive a blessing. These interfaith families felt slighted at best, rejected and insulted at worst. So the Rabbi changed the rules; without crossing the lines of Halacha, she declared that the bimah was accessible to all—that the parent (who was not Jewish) of the Bar Mitzvah boy could stand at the Torah and that the young couple could receive the blessing on the bimah.

And then the backlash began. Some of the elders and more traditional long-time members of the congregation felt slighted at best, rejected and insulted at worst. For decades, they had poured themselves into “the way we’ve always done things.” They felt that these changes were a watering-down of Judaism. Some got angry. Some left.

The Interfaith Work Group was a small cross-section of all of the above constituents that came together to get the facts straight (from the Rabbi about issues of ritual inclusion and Halacha; and from the Board about issues of governance), and then to clearly articulate these policies through the synagogue’s website.

Was I the “right” person, with all those hats in the air, to lead this group? I am a psychologist, which means I am trained to observe everyone’s feelings, even those with whom I may disagree. I am a Reform Jew by upbringing, which means I am accustomed to inclusion. I am the granddaughter of an observant, Conservative Jewish man, whose tallis and tefillin I wear each week, which means he is with me, in my synagogue, even today. I am a Jew married to a Jew, which means I’m one of them. And I’m an activist who fights discrimination in all forms, which means I’m one of them. I am a proponent of change yet one who wants to preserve the past.

My learning about balance came from my utter failure at facilitating the Work Group. The facilitator needed to be impartial, to lead the group without taking sides. Despite my many hats, I wanted to forge ahead with change. I wanted both Jews and those who are not Jewish but who are part of Jewish families to feel fully included in all aspects of our community. I wanted all of the young, prospective interfaith families in Chester County to flock to us, to think, “Now this is the kind of Conservative synagogue I want to be a part of.” I wasn’t particularly balanced.

What I’ve learned is that if we want to evolve as a community, we all need to be empathic toward one another. Interfaith families want more inclusion of family members who are not Jewish not because they want to water down tradition, but because they want to be more fully a part of our rich Jewish heritage. Long-timers don’t resist these changes because they want interfaith families to leave, but because they have worked so hard to help the Jewish people thrive and they are afraid that change means loss. Change always means loss. But it also means gain.

Only by listening to one another and allowing ourselves to wear one another’s hats for a moment can we truly appreciate that this change is a process of growth for us all. The reality is that we all need to be jugglers—we need to understand one another’s many motivations, question the familiar and approach one another with kindness in order to truly facilitate the evolution of our Jewish population.

The product of our labor can be found here.

Is your synagogue struggling with policy issues and halacha? Do you have a policy document? Share your policies and experiences with our community. We can all learn from each other.

How to Be Inclusive

Torah scrollA few weeks ago, my son was reading Torah at a Saturday evening service. It is a very small service of 15-20 people and a nice opportunity for him to read without a large audience and to practice reading before his Bar Mitzvah next year. My in-laws who live a few towns over decided to attend. They were excited for him. The Rabbi saw them and asked if they wanted to have the aliyah for my son’s torah reading. They both said no.

At first I thought they were uncomfortable because they were taking an honor from someone else. So I looked at them and said, “There is no one here, go ahead.” They said no thanks again. I was perplexed. They are both Jewish and have participated in synagogue life elsewhere. They are completely comfortable in a synagogue and knew most of the people in the room.

An Aliyah is an honor within the Torah service. It allows the honoree(s) to stand beside the Torah reader (their grandson) and witness his reading. I also always think it is fascinating to be up close and personal with the Torah. (I always am amazed that this beautiful scroll is in every synagogue in the world and created by hand. When you factor in the longevity of the text…it is really cool.) I thought my in-laws would be thrilled to be up there with their oldest grandson and to watch him read from the Torah. Wouldn’t they want this honor?

The concept of a Jewish person not wanting to accept an honor in a synagogue struck a chord. I recently wrote a blog about the beauty of the blessings given by someone who is not Jewish during a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. In many congregations, someone who is not Jewish cannot say a blessing for their child. My feeling is that the person who is not Jewish and blesses their child and the child’s Jewish learning is making a wonderful statement of support to the community. So why wouldn’t my in-laws want to participate?

Then I remembered my days in high school choir when we were in churches singing our hearts out. Sometimes there would be communion after we sang. Being raised in a strict Jewish household, I would refuse to participate even though I was the only one from the choir that wouldn’t go up to the altar. I had a friend who was also Jewish but she did go up for communion. We spoke of it once and she said she didn’t feel comfortable sitting on the pew when everyone else was kneeling or taking communion. I always remember this conversation and that one person’s comfort is another person’s discomfort.

Now, as I often think about welcoming a person of a different faith inside a Jewish institution, I have to remember: Sometimes people want to participate, and sometimes they want to opt out. Either way, we should do all in our power to make them feel comfortable whatever their preference.

I have been thinking about my in-laws since…we only do what we are comfortable doing. We all have different experiences and influences. Certainly no one should be forced to do something when they are uncomfortable. Religion is obviously a very personal decision and experience. My in-laws were not mentally prepared for an aliyah and this isn’t a synagogue where they are members. I get it—it wasn’t right for them. Still, I know they were very proud of their grandson and his ability and intent to carry on the traditions.

While many synagogues are re-evaluating the role of the family members from various religions during various ceremonies, we must realize that not every person who isn’t Jewish will WANT to participate. Some people think that their synagogue doesn’t need to offer options because, “Why would a person who isn’t Jewish want to participate?”  My response is: Let each individual decide what their comfort level is. We all have to remember that welcoming means offering options for inclusion. And, by simply offering the option for participation, the community sends the message of welcoming.

Moms and Membership

Moms

I recently had the honor of meeting five women who are due with their first babies in the fall (one brought her four week old). While none of them grew up Jewish, they are married to Jews and they want to create a home with Judaism (traditions, holidays, values) for their growing families. They all felt that their spouses did not have the literacy or resolve to accomplish this goal alone. They are seeking fellowship among other women in the same boat, and they are eager for their own Jewish learning and for ways into Jewish communal life.

Sitting with these women reminded me of a core truth of the work we do: Intermarriage is not the end of Judaism. Intermarriage does not mean the Jew is abandoning Judaism. Partners who aren’t Jewish are often open and ready to take on aspects of Jewish living, even though the learning curve is often so darn steep.

One of the moms-to-be said that they are ready to join a synagogue but that she “heard” the membership dues were $3,000. Someone else chimed in that there must be a lower rate for a new family or first time members. The first mom seemed hesitant to call the synagogue to find out.

On the High Holidays, synagogues will be filled with non-members. This is not a great term. InterfaithFamily suggests trying to avoid “non” in any kind of description about someone. We advocate saying “not Jewish” verses “non-Jew.” The people who are not dues paying members may be friends and family of members or they may have no connection to the congregation other than they bought a ticket. How can we tell all of these people that they already “belong?”

One idea is to have members say aloud the following words and to write them on literature that is handed out and on the homepage of every synagogue website: If you are interested in learning more about this open and warm community, please call (give the name and title of the membership person with his or her direct line and email). It is helpful to have a real person to call rather than have to search a website for membership information which is anonymous. We want our words to reflect a sentiment of welcome. If I were writing something, I would say:

If you are on this website looking for information about a place to come for Shabbat, to celebrate holidays, for classes and religious school, to meet friends or to do social justice work, join us. If you want to build a relationship with clergy who care about you, join us. Joining us isn’t about writing a check. It is about showing up when you want inspiration and fellowship, support and grounding. Whether you grew up with Judaism or not, whether you want introductory classes or higher level learning, whether you can read Hebrew or have never been to a synagogue, join us. We are a diverse group and this gives us strength and purpose. All are welcome. You can help support our congregational efforts at every level and means of giving.

I know there are lots of people studying new dues structures. This is not about a dues structure–fee for service, voluntary donations, etc. This is about the feeling of what it means to be a “member.”

Each of these five women and the new faces in synagogues over the next few weeks will make great synagogue members.

Jewish Educators: Keeping It Real

My last blog post was a plea to program providers to look at their enrollment forms with new lenses this summer. This blog post is for Jewish educators with the hope that they keep it real and honest with their curriculum.

Shabbat CandlesSome synagogues have a ritual policy that women who are not Jewish cannot light Shabbat candles on Friday nights at the congregation. This blog post is not about the ramifications of this ritual boundary. Ritual committees, clergy and synagogue board of directors sometimes spend time studying the meaning of the ritual, the words to be said, the act itself. They look to denominational guidelines, see if their policies make sense given their population, and probe their hearts and souls about when to include those policies in ritual participation of the community of people who aren’t Jewish.

Often, if the synagogue finds that the ritual cannot be performed by someone not Jewish using the traditional Hebrew, for instance, another reading or another way of performing the ritual can be created. This can sometimes work very well. In addition, some can understand and appreciate that it would not make sense for them to say certain words if they haven’t officially joined the Jewish people, entered into the covenant and taken on the religion. Other times, those who are not Jewish feel totally comfortable saying Hebrew and performing rituals because the deeds are personally meaningful to that person and their family.

This is a conversation about making sure that there is not a disconnect between what children in the religious school learn and are expected to come home and do and what is done in communal worship at the synagogue.

If there are children in the synagogue who have moms who aren’t Jewish and the children learn about Shabbat with pictures in books and suggestions made that it is the mom who lights the candles, then the school should assume and expect that moms who aren’t Jewish would be the ones to fulfill this mitzvah, this important and beautiful aspect of bringing in Shabbat.

If the synagogue has a rule that only Jews can light Shabbat candles, then should the instructions to the children reflect that? Children can be taught that either parent, depending on who is Jewish, can light the candles. The synagogue could teach that men can light Shabbat candles by calling up Jewish dads to perform this act. Perhaps the whole family could come up and the father could light the candles but all of the faces of the family members would reflect the glow from the Sabbath light. Maybe families would be encouraged to share Shabbat together.

While it is challenging, I do believe that there are ways to explain ritual policies which show respect to a parent who isn’t Jewish who is raising Jewish children and doing Jewish in the home. There are ways to talk about all of the ways a parent who is not Jewish can participate in so many aspects of Judaism.

Children and families should be expected to practice what children learn in religious school in home and at shul. You could say some families don’t keep kosher at home but understand that their synagogue does have kosher standards. Synagogues keep a higher level of observance than people do in the home. However, it could be a negative experience for a child to learn that only women light the candles while their own mother is not allowed to light the candles in the synagogue.

What are your feelings about this?

Membership Has Its Benefits

Like many, I grew up in a community with lots of relatives and close family friends. I always knew that even though I wasn’t with my parents, there was always the likelihood (or inevitability) that there was a family friend or relative nearby. It definitely discouraged me from making a bad or embarrassing decision. More important, when I walked down the street, I felt loved and connected.

As a parent, I want that sense of connection for my kids. Though we are friends with some of our neighbors, our kids can no longer wander through the neighborhood as carelessly as we did 30 years ago. Our neighborhood doesn’t provide the same sense of a tight knit community as it did during my childhood. I know my neighbors well but I wouldn’t pick up the phone and call them for help when my washer breaks down.

Joining a synagogue was one of the first things that my husband and I did when we moved to our town. We didn’t know anyone and we felt like we needed an anchor. I have to say, it was one of the best decisions (and investments) we ever made. Developing close friendships within the synagogue took a few years but the more we participated, the more friends we made, and the more connected we felt. Through our synagogue membership, we became friends with people of all ages and backgrounds. Our kids know that they are being watched and loved. It is amazing to see that they appreciate this love of community even at a young age.

Synagogue event

Wendy, right, with synagogue friends

We have lots of friends outside of the synagogue and Jewish community, but those from our synagogue are particularly special to me. I think it’s because our shared experiences that there is a comfort level that can’t be matched. For all couples and families, including interfaith couples, finding a synagogue community with other couples or families exploring similar issues provides a place for dialogue, support and grounds for deeper friendship.

Several years ago I was on bedrest with my third child while my older two were still toddlers. The synagogue community stepped in to help by making meals, driving my kids and supporting me in ways that I never dreamt. Many of those that helped were people I barely knew before but became close friends just because they reached out to help.

My experience is not unique. This type of support is an added benefit of synagogue life. One friend was our synagogue president a few years ago. I once asked why she was doing all of this work for the synagogue. She replied that she had had cancer several years back and the synagogue community took care of her. She promised herself that she would “pay it forward” since people had been so good to her.

There are lots of benefits to synagogue membership but the most important one to me is community. You may not feel it the first time you walk through the door, but when it happens, there is nothing more valuable. If you would like to find out more about some welcoming synagogues in the Philadelphia area, visit our list of organizations. If you don’t see your synagogue on the Organizations tab of our Philadelphia page, but know it is a place that welcomes interfaith couples and families, email us at philadelphia@interfaithfamily.com.

Have you had a similar experience in your synagogue community? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.

Boxed In: The Call in Option

FormsIt’s that time of the summer when we need to register for fall activities. This blog is a request to synagogues administrators, Jewish preschool and day school directors and program providers to look at your enrollment forms, preferably with a participant who isn’t Jewish to figure out how to best ask questions to get the information that is needed and to leave the one filling it out with a sense that they are meant for this program.

When we ask people to fill out enrollment forms for religious school and synagogue membership and to sign up for Jewish programs, the forms may seem clear-cut and simple to us, yet feel frustrating to the person filling it out. We need to figure out what we want to know and then try to ask questions in a way to gather that information. We need to know what we want to do with the information we collect and let the person filling out the form know why we are asking the question so that they know what information to provide.

For instance, one question that congregations usually want answered on forms is whether the parents are Jewish and if not, what religion they grew up with or now identify as. Sometimes the choices are: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Secular, Traditional, Other. The “other” category is for someone who didn’t grow up Jewish. Maybe some wouldn’t mind checking “other” to describe themselves. I imagine some would feel other and different just from this seeming innocuous registration question.

Synagogues and program leaders may need to know whether the parents are Jewish for halachic (legal) reasons in terms of matrilineal or patrilineal descent. They may want to know this to better understand the make-up of the program or congregation. Maybe they will seek to bring together people with similar backgrounds.

As we all know, the simple question of: “State the religion of parent 1 and parent 2” can be complicated.

Here is an excerpt of an email I received which illustrates the messiness and wonderfulness of this all:

“I was raised in a culturally Jewish household and have never received any religious education. My father was raised Catholic, but since marrying my mother has become very interested in the Jewish faith. We often joke he is the most Jewish out of all of us despite not being raised so. My partner was raised with slightly more religious Jewish education and went to a reconstructionist temple and attended some Sunday School and Hebrew school. She had a bat mitzvah but does not currently attend temple. Both of her parents are Jewish and her dad still attends temple for high holidays. Cultural traditions are more important to her then religious aspects.”

We love simple labels and easy check-offs. This helps us with tracking and data entry. However, maybe instead of boxes to check and short lines to write answers to profound questions, we need to leave room on forms for people to call in their answers. The call-in option would connect the person registering to the teacher or leader so that they could engage in a conversation of meaning.

If you are a program administrator and help create forms, visit our Resource Center for Program Providers to find best practices in terms of enrollment forms and website language.

A Secular Jewish Alternative

I have often wondered if, had I not been raised Jewish, I would convert to Judaism. I know many Jews who are intermarried and who don’t believe in God, who consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or “just Jewish” Jews. I know many Jewish people who don’t believe in, or question the existence of, God. If a person was not raised Jewish, but enjoys cultural aspects of Judaism, would they convert? Would I convert had I not been born into this religion? Do I love the Jewish religion? Or do I love the Jewish customs and culture? For me, I think these answers are fluid as I grow with my Judaism. I think everyone is different and has their own spiritual and cultural journey. For many individuals and couples, community is really what they are seeking.

Jewish Children's Folkshul of PhiladelphiaIn Philadelphia, I experienced an interesting option: the Jewish Children’s Folkshul. It is a secular humanistic community for children and adults. There is no rabbi or cantor, but they sing songs in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew. They say a secular kaddish with a translation of “We remember them,” without invoking God. The kids learn all the Bible stories as stories, not as miracles or acts of God. They tell the Purim story and identify themes that are relevant today. They learn about the Holocaust. They learn about tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedakah (righteous giving), kindness, and ethics. They experience social action/social justice projects and what it is like to be part of a soup kitchen and stand in line for their soup for the day.

The bar/bat mitzvah program includes a project where the student can learn about any topic that helps them connect with their Jewish identity; they prepare a research project to present to family, friends, and the Folkshul community. I was able to watch a young girl give her bat mitzvah presentation. She conducted an entire research project about wedding traditions. She, like her peers at the Folkshul, was encouraged to pick songs and music for the ceremony that are meaningful to her and her family. It was different than a traditional ceremony, yet still a rite of passage and just as lovely. The kids who complete their bar/bat mitzvah stay a part of the Folkshul community because they want to. They work in their community on Sundays. They assist the teachers for the younger grades. The director mused that when the teens assist with the curriculum they themselves learned in younger grades, their learning is enhanced because now they see the teachings from a new perspective.

I met with the teachers to provide them with some sensitivity training. They learned about the resources at InterfaithFamily and we discussed how they teach kids from interfaith families. I was truly impressed that any discussion about other religions is met with absolute respect. It was a wonderful exercise for the teachers and I truly enjoyed their enthusiasm and wisdom.

For those who are interested in a Jewish option that emphasizes ethics and culture, check out a Secular Humanistic community like the Folkshul. It is an intriguing option for those who enjoy Jewish culture and community in a non-religious environment.

You Are Wanted!

As you may have surmised from my blogs over the past months, I love coming up with ideas about Jewish education and engagement. I actually enjoy philosophizing about this kind of thing! joining the communityTo the depths of my being, I find that liberal Judaism adds meaning, purpose, joy, order, connectedness, spirituality, and so much more to my life. I find that thinking about both how to teach Judaism and how to share the ways to live Judaism is a creative and endlessly fascinating pursuit. So here is my latest idea. As always, let me know what you think!

I meet with lots and lots of couples planning their weddings. Many of the couples have one partner who grew up in Chicagoland and “dropped out” of their synagogue sometime after bar/bat mitzvah. Inevitably, this person’s parents are still in the area, but have not been members of a synagogue for many years. The person getting married went away to college and is now back working in the city, living with their partner, and trying to find clergy to connect with for their interfaith wedding.

When I do my in-take, which consists of asking each person to tell me their life in a nutshell, one partner tells me that they grew up at a synagogue, but that the rabbi doesn’t officiate at interfaith weddings or they do not have a connection with the current rabbi because the rabbi who “did” their bar/bat mitzvah has left the congregation. It does not occur to this person to call the synagogue office, to explain that they grew up at the synagogue, and to meet with the current clergy. Most likely their parents still live near the synagogue.

I wonder why this is such a common scenario. For some reason, this family did not feel part of the synagogue in an existential way. They were there to get a service and, when that ended, ties to the place ended. There has not been a void in their lives since leaving the synagogue. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the family either gathers for a meal and does not attend worship, or they attend services with friends or at a Hillel. Maybe the family actually had a bad experience at the synagogue, but most likely it was just a means to an end. Maybe all of their friends have since left, and they would not feel they would know anybody there anymore.

My idea is to reconnect these brides or grooms and their parents to the synagogue where they had their bar or bat mitzvah. Presumably there are still individuals at the synagogue who were important to the bride or groom, and their parents, when they were part of the congregation. These individuals would want to celebrate this next stage of life with them, just as they were part of their childhood and bar/bat mitzvah. I would ask the couple and their parents if I could tell the synagogue’s clergy that they’re getting married, ask them to help reconnect the former congregants with people there who remember them and who want to share in their joy.

I would then help the clergy create a “mazel tov package” that could be sent to this family. It would include a card, maybe an invitation to be blessed at a Friday night service (who wouldn’t want more blessings?!), and maybe a mezuzah or blessing for the home with a note that the clergy would be honored to come to the couple’s home and help them put it up. For the parents, maybe it would be a half-price re-connection, empty-nest membership rate, with brochures about study and social opportunities. Maybe the synagogue, which is mostly likely in the suburbs, could occasionally send clergy, educators, or lay leaders to the city to treat couples who grew up at the synagogue to dinner or Sunday brunch as a way to say that community is where you are, you are wanted, we miss you, and you are our future.

Maybe couples would not want to re-connect with their synagogue of origin. Maybe they would be turned off if the clergy there do not officiate at interfaith weddings. Yet maybe they would be excited about the chance to reconnect as adults. This would be a real chance to re-shape the community, to take part in ushering in young professionals to communal commitment, and to share a place of memories with their new life partner.

What do you think? Could this work?

Membership Possibilities: the Give and Take Model

Many rabbis I meet with me tell me that they need more members in their synagogues. They want to retain their current members while adding new members. Congregations have tried different models for making membership more appealing to more people, from suggested donations rather than membership dues to low cost membership for the first year or for people under 30.Give (and Take) More and more congregations are going into secular spaces to try to meet potential congregants who may have misconceptions about synagogue membership or may not know all that a community has to offer.

There is much talk about what young professionals need and want. There is more and more talk about what newly empty nesters need and want and how to engage or re-engage them before they walk away from the synagogue where their children were called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah. As a caveat to this thought, I meet so many couples where one partner had grown up at a local congregation but the family had “dropped out” after the bar/bat mitzvah and now they need to find a rabbi for a wedding.

I have been thinking about a possible new model for congregations. This is the Give and Take model of membership. What if congregations said to the wider community that they want people to associate with this congregation because:

  1. You live in the area.
  2. Judaism is best expressed and lived in community, from study and worship to holiday celebrations and life cycle events. True, Judaism is a religion anchored in the home, but “doing Jewish” with other people adds joy, support, depth, purpose, and more that can’t be felt when observing at isolated moments in private affairs.
  3. This community needs you to share your talents. Judaism is part of your story, part of your heritage and consciousness, and the intergenerational make-up of this synagogue will be enriched by you. Yes, this is a selfless act of volunteerism to benefit others who share part of your story, who are your “extended family,” but giving in this way will undoubtedly fill you.
  4. The Jewish community will change and adapt and learn from you when you are involved.
  5. You will need this community at times in your life and we need you now.

The way it works is that the person, couple, or family figures out what yearly financial contribution they can make to help sustain this local house of learning, worship, social justice, and fellowship. The new member then decides what they can give to the community in addition to money. Maybe it is time teaching in the religious school, preschool, or adult education realm. Maybe it is time sharing a background in PR, marketing, branding, website design, etc. Maybe it is time cooking for communal Shabbat and holiday meals. Maybe it is time visiting families with new babies or sitting with someone who has lost a spouse. Maybe it is job counseling. Maybe it is yoga classes. Whatever you do, the synagogue should make use of it. This is the “Give” part of the membership model.

The “Take” part of the membership model involves taking what those feel is a benefit. If people feel that they benefit from having a school for their children and for them to continue to learn about Judaism, then it has to be supported. If people feel that they benefit from communal holiday celebrations, there has to be space, prayer books, leaders, music, and food. People have to figure out what they value and find ways to keep those things running with vibrancy.

I know there is talk about how some people can’t articulate even why to be Jewish. Not only do most young professionals not want to join a synagogue, they feel no reason to enter one, investigate what’s out there, etc. Finding a rabbi for a life cycle event is one thing, but going to a temple is a whole other ball of wax. Judaism and religion are not on their minds. They are thinking about where to live, whether they like their jobs, whether they should marry their partner, how to keep a good relationship with parents. People think about having fun, how to make friends, whether they are happy. People think about the homeless, about their health, about international affairs. The environment, gun control, and whether all women will have access to safe abortions are topics discussed over coffee. People are secular. They don’t think about liberal religion on a daily basis. As I am writing this, I am sitting next to a neighbor at a coffee shop who said, “As a working mom I am just trying to survive!” Volunteering her time at a local temple would not see fathomable.

However, I am convinced that if this model began, and the people who are inclined to take part in the organized Jewish world find meaning in this Give and Take model, then the joy and sense of purpose and connectedness that they would garner from the experience would spread.

You may read this and say that all membership is give and take. You’re right, it is (or should be), but it needs to be made explicit. It needs to be organized with thoughtfulness and individuality.

What do you think? Could this work? Would people feel more engaged and committed in this model?

And through this, I haven’t even mentioned interfaith couples and families. For the partner who didn’t grow up with Judaism and for their extended family and friends who may find themselves at the synagogue, the community this person was actively giving and taking from would hopefully reflect their values and ideals as well. When people are active, not passive participants, their vision becomes reality.