Coming In The Front Door

I’ve heard rabbis say that the most important part of the synagogue is not the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept but the front door. It seems that at the forefront of outreach techniques are ideas for synagogue staff and lay leaders for how to be welcoming, how to help ease the way into organized Jewish life. (Do we ever ask how we help longer time members bridge the gap between being welcomed new members and feeling at home?) In other words, when does needing to be welcomed begin and end?

You might ask yourself why there have to be manuals written teaching people how to be welcoming. The same ways we welcome guests to our home and host people at functions should translate into how we welcome people to our synagogue or community center. We smile, take someone’s coat, offer refreshments, and try to get to know the person. We talk about subjects of mutual interest, we suggest activities that would be engaging for all involved, we share news and ideas that we think the other person would enjoy hearing and learning about, etc.

Ed Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily, wrote in a recent blog post about the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York, released in June 2012, the following:

The study reports that the vast majority of the intermarried say they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities — only 14% feel uncomfortable, compared to 10% of the in-married (144). In an exchange with Shmuel Rosner, Cohen says, “If discomfort is not a major obstacle to Jewish engagement, then welcoming is not the solution.” Cohen seems to recognize, however, that there is a big difference between not feeling uncomfortable, and feeling truly invited to engage: “Rather than focusing all our energies on welcoming the intermarried, we ought to be focusing on engaging the intermarried, approaches that certainly include welcoming, but go to building relationships and offering opportunities to educate and participate.”

This past year in Chicagoland, I have worked hard trying to spread the word about how to find and access welcoming synagogues and opportunities for engagement with the Jewish community. Yet, by and large, interfaith families are still not walking in the front door of congregations to join the synagogue as “regulars.” Many families come for a free, family holiday service but do not make the next step to join the congregation and enroll children in religious school. The following are questions I have which I am asking in a non-judgmental, sincerely curious way. If you have comments about any of these, please share.

  • Is it because they are just not ready to make this major commitment?
  • Is it because they feel they won’t truly feel like an insider there, that they won’t know enough people, know where to sit, know the customs and traditions? That they will make some kind of mistake or faux pas?
  • Is it because they assume the price of membership is too expensive and that the process for a dues reduction is too humiliating?
  • Is it because they feel they would not take advantage of synagogue activities, such as Friday night or Shabbat morning worship, adult education or social justice programs, because they legitimately don’t easily fit into their busy work and family schedules?
  • Is it because the partner who did not grow up with Judaism has hesitations or concerns about what joining a congregation would mean for them personally and for their extended family?

Is the goal in all of this synagogue membership? I think there are lots and lots of ways people can engage with Jewish living that can be meaningful and fulfilling. But, this blog post is focused on this one question of what prevents people who take part in family holiday programs at synagogues and community centers from joining as members.

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