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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Ask a Specialist

In this edition of Ask a Specialist, we welcome the URJ's Outreach and Membership specialists. Last month, the URJ highlighted its Outreach and Membership resources and many of your wrote in with questions. This month, Outreach specialists Rabbi Victor Appell, Arlene Chernow, Vicky Farhi and Stephani Fink, and Membership specialist Kathy Kahn are here to answer some of those questions, including why Outreach is necessary and how to attract the unaffiliated to your congregation. 

Outreach SpecialistsWe already have a lot of interfaith couples in our congregation. Why do we still need Outreach?

For every interfaith couple joining the Reform Jewish community, it is as if the journey has never happened before. That is why we encourage congregations to actively reach out to welcome interfaith couples and families.

Joining a congregation is a first step in what we hope will be a life long positive relationship with the congregation and with Judaism. It is our hope that your congregation not just welcomes but actively integrates the new interfaith family.

There are several components involved in integrating interfaith families:

  • Interfaith families need to make new friends in the congregation. They may or may not have local Jewish family members who can share Jewish holidays with them.
  • Interfaith families need basic Jewish skills. They may or may not have the knowledge to celebrate Jewish holidays.
  • Interfaith families need a safe place to go to talk about feelings that they did not anticipate when they joined the congregation. Some of these feelings may include a sense of loss and/or bewilderment.
  • Interfaith families need to feel that they can fully participate in the congregation. They may or may not know how to read Hebrew or be familiar with the Shabbat and High Holy Day prayer services. 

A congregation that anticipates these needs and provides programs, brochures and warm and open discussion of the important role that interfaith families play in the congregation may find unanticipated benefits. They will have a better chance of getting the families involved, volunteering their time and remaining affiliated. Often Jewish members of interfaith families experience the same needs (in terms of needing basic Jewish skills) as those who were not born Jewish.

For specific program suggestions for your congregation, contact an Outreach Specialist.

Kathy KahnI am a new Membership Chair in my congregation and haven’t had much experience in membership. Can the URJ provide some advice and resource ideas to help me as I begin my tenure as chair?

Sometimes those of us who are responsible for Membership can feel very isolated. To address this challenge, the URJ invites you to communicate directly with your colleagues in congregations across North America to address the issues that have been stumping you by joining Talkmembership, a listserv that reaches over 1200 Membership lay leaders and professionals who share their questions and successful ideas every day. Join this listserv, pose your questions to the group or bring your ideas and issues to enrich the conversation.

Those of you who are organizing your membership committees for next year should consider assigning some of your committee members to become specialists in one of the three areas integral to Membership: recruitment, integration and retention. Ask them to share the knowledge they’ve gained with the committee as a whole. That way your group will become both teachers and learners. This approach is illustrated in our Union brochure, Re-Envisioning Membership in Your Congregation. This free, downloadable brochure is filled with strategies and suggestions that will increase the effectiveness and, more importantly, the inspiration of those who do this important work.

If you are a new Membership Chair, be sure to order the “bible” of membership strategy, The Life Cycle of Synagogue Membership. This is a compendium of best membership practices, shared by our Reform congregations in all areas of recruitment, engagement and retention. This book approaches Membership as a sacred task that both welcomes and connects those in our communities. You and your committee members will find this publication an endless trove of creative and inspiring ideas.

Don’t forget the URJ’s human resources! If you would like to discuss your membership challenges and hear about successful resources and programs in all areas of membership, be sure to email or call the URJ Membership Specialist, Kathy Kahn. She can help you develop membership strategies, analyze the recruitment value of your website and advertising, brainstorm ways to address your challenges and point you to best practices.

With all these ways to reach out to your colleagues working in membership, there is no reason for you to reinvent the wheel or feel alone.

We have a very active pre-school. However, many of the parents are not members. Can you suggest ways to encourage pre-school families to join our congregation?

An increasing number of young families do not affiliate with the host congregation where their child attends pre-school. Before thinking about membership strategies, congregations need to develop strong relationships with parents of the youngest children when they first come through the door. Whether or not your congregation has a weekday pre-school, it is important for parents of young children to feel at home there and feel connected to the building and the people in it.

Do you have a strong and engaging Tot Shabbat program that serves the spiritual needs of young children and their adult caregivers? Are clergy present at drop off or pick up time to express an interest in parents and children? Does your synagogue offer programs that serve the social and parenting needs of young families? Do you make it clear on your website and in your materials that interfaith families are welcome in the congregation, not just in the school? Do you reach out to pre-K parents in anticipation of the transition to religious school? It is not unusual for families to wait to become dues-paying members until they are no longer paying pre-school tuition. You need to make sure that they feel that the synagogue feels like a compelling, familiar place when that time comes.

For more information about Outreach and Early Engagement, contact Stephanie Fink, URJ Outreach Specialist, or Cathy Rolland or Jenn Magalnick, URJ Early Childhood Specialists.

Our congregation is trying to increase our membership. What are some ways we can successfully reach out to those unaffiliated in our community? What have other congregations learned?

First, it is important to know that congregations can grow or shrink, not only because of their recruitment efforts, but also as a result of effective or ineffective retention! If you can connect with your current members, create strong personal connections and encourage lifelong membership, your congregation will inevitably grow because your current members remain! To find effective ways to connect and retain your members, visit the Membership Program Bank.

Here are five important ways to reach the unaffiliated:

  1. Effective websites are ones that connect immediately with the visitor through an inspiring home page, and links that are tailored for the visitor, a prospective member, not just to the current members of your congregation. You can consult with URJ Membership Specialist Kathy Kahn and URJ Marketing, Outreach and New Communities Specialist Rabbi Victor Appell to analyze the effectiveness of you own website and some easy ways to make it more attractive and accessible to the unaffiliated visitor.

  2. Advertise in the secular press, specifically addressing the unaffiliated demographic that you are targeting. Photos of real people will draw attention to your ad. Visit the URJ’s Membership website to see examples of these advertisements. These ads are available to your congregation! You can order them by emailing

  3. Highlight excellent programs of Jewish learning, holiday celebrations or other offerings of your congregation that are open to the unaffiliated. This is an effective way to encourage Jewish couples, interfaith families and empty-nesters to come into your community and meet your members.

  4. Welcoming, informative and inspiring New Member packets, both in hard copy and electronic form are great tools for attracting the unaffiliated. The URJ is pleased to present two new resources for developing New Member Packets. One is on our membership website,, and the other is a webinar, Prospective Member Packets: What Do They Communicate About Your Synagogue? Access this webinar in our archives and learn best practices for your membership packet. You will see our recommendations for creating a packet that is attractive in appearance and inspiring in content. Over 300 membership packets from congregations all over North America were collected to glean the best examples of packet materials, from diversity-friendly applications to a welcoming letter.

  5. The best advertising comes from proactive, positive “word of mouth.” Do your members have a clear understanding of what your congregation stands for and what makes it unique? Can your congregants speak about why they chose your community and what it means in their lives? Do you encourage them to not only bring someone to worship services but to holiday celebrations and adult education? Your congregants all have unaffiliated friends…make use of this knowledge to connect with and reach out to those who are not yet members!

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