Sacred Conversations--Creating Lifelong Synagogue Members
By Art Grand, Chair, URJ Commission on Religious Living
Why would anyone spend a lifetime as a member of a Reform congregation? Why not spend a few years making some friends and getting a bar or bat mitzvah for our children?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that lifelong Jewish identity is about discovering a very special book - a story that each generation of Jews has told for the sake of the next. "As you turn the pages, you reach the last, which carries no entry but a heading. It bears your name. Once I discovered that book, I could not forget it, because I would now know that I am part of a long line of people who travelled towards a certain destination and whose journey remains unfinished, dependent on me to take it further. I am a Jew because only if I remain a Jew will the story of a hundred generations live on in me. I continue their journey because, having come this far, I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll."
Lifelong membership is about helping people to reframe the stories of their lives, about seeing their lives as part of a larger story: the story of a sacred community, and, ultimately, as part of the eternal story of God and the Jewish people. As they reframe their stories, our members gain a new understanding of who they are. They are no longer "the person who just moved into the area" or "the successful lawyer who struggles with Hebrew." Their story is a page in a larger story, the story of a community with simchahs and tragedies and people who care for each other, a community that is the heir to thousands of years of wisdom, passing wisdom to countless generations that will follow.
In order to attract new members and retain our existing members, we must become communities in which every story matters and is seen as part of a larger story. We must go beyond "Shabbat Shalom," and give people the opportunity to share their Jewish stories.
The URJ has created a web page (urj.org/sacredconversations) on which Reform Jews can share their stories with others in the Movement. All of these stories are powerful and moving. And what's more, they are wonderful "advertisements" for the value of membership in a Reform congregation. Every Jew and every non-Jewish partner has a similar story - a story about a moment when they experienced God's presence or when they experienced the embrace of community. By sharing these stories, you can remind long-term and marginal members of the value of their membership, and you can give prospective members a sense of what synagogue life can be. Here are several things you can do:
Collect stories from your members and publish the stories through your websites, newsletters, etc. Potential members often decide which congregations to visit based on the congregation's newsletter and website. As they read the stories, potential members will see yours as a community that touches people's lives, as a community in which moments of warmth and caring are the norm, and a place where their lives can become part of something larger.
Post blow-ups of the stories in the lobby, particularly during the summer. That way, people who are synagogue shopping will see the stories and say, "This is the kind of experience and the kind of community I'm looking for."
Include stories in your new member packet. Many congregations begin their membership packets with the dues rates. By including stories, you help prospective members to say "this is what my life can become" rather than "this is what I have to pay."
Collect stories from new members and publish them in the newsletter and the website. This is a great way of saying "We really care about your story." New members are no longer a name or a source of revenue. As Rabbi Sacks teaches, they are a letter in the scroll.
Give founders and long-time members a chance to share their stories with the newer members. Long-time members often feel that their stories have been forgotten. Publishing their stories honors their stories and their contributions, and helps them understand their lasting effect on the community.
Submit your stories to urj.org/sacredconversations. By sharing our stories with others in the Movement, we realize that our communities are part of an even greater story, and our members feel validated. They realize that their stories are authentic Jewish stories, worthy of sharing far beyond their communities.