Excerpts From "Temple-Chat", An On-Line Discussion Group For Lay Leaders Of Reform Congregations, Spring 1999
The original question: We have a congregation of 630 member units but are lucky if ten people attend Shabbat Morning services (unless there is a Bar/Bat Mitzvah to which they have been invited). Most of the congregants who attend Shabbat services come on Friday night. I would expect this is normal for most Reform Synagogues. Has anybody had success at increasing member attendance for Shabbat morning?
The responses: We have started a Tot Shabbat once a month on Shabbat morning for the pre-schoolers and last month we had 40 in attendance and today was our second time and we had over 50. It starts at 11 A.M. and I lead a short service with song and explanation of some of the prayers and then we retreat into the Oneg room for a craft and afterwards a Motzi and Kiddush and then Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches. It does not last more than an hour and 15 minutes tops and the parents love it as much as the kids. Today's craft was coloring white kippot with markers.
(Cantor, Duluth, GA, 127 families)
We, at TRT, have had a moderate success at creating a Shabbat morning minyan.
A couple of years ago, the Rabbi began recommending attendance at Minyan Aleph or Minyan Bet - in other words, you were asked to come to alternate Saturday services. People were told it would be under an hour in length (and it is). Dress is strictly casual, regardless of whether or not a Bar or Bat Mitzvah was taking place in the sanctuary.
We usually get a few students who need service slips, as well as people who want to say Kaddish, and would rather not sit through someone else's simcha-oriented service.
My wife and I are part of Minyan Aleph. When we were asked to sign up, we were assigned to either Aleph or Bet depending upon the first letter of our last name. Now, people just go to the one they want to go to. Some go to both.
(President, Marlboro, NJ, 450 families)
Friday evening is our main worship service and there are some of us who did not like Shabbat ending on Friday after the Oneg. Our congregation has about 520 families and I would describe it as a "B'nai Mitzvah Mill." This year our Ritual Committee decided to see if we could create a community on Saturday morning. We had two models that we thought to try. The primary one would be to create a Shabbat morning experience where congregants would feel welcome to attend a Saturday morning service when there was a B'nai Mitzvah occurring. We were very fortunate in that we do not schedule any Bar or Bat Mitzvahs during the months of January and February due to bad weather in New England. We actually had 9 weeks straight where none were scheduled. In the past, when we did not have one scheduled we had congregational services where we made a big deal out of having a wonderful kiddush afterwards. We incorporated this model into our Saturday morning experience. We also just finished an adult Torah trope class and thus had adults who could chant from the Torah. As I am teacher in the Hebrew school I decided that I wanted the Dalet (6th graders) to come to services and try opening a prayer book. We called every family and personally invited them to the services and gave them an honor if they came. Many took us up on the opportunity. We also chose one day to try alternate programming for our children and had one classroom dedicated to 3-6 year olds and the other 7-9 year olds. On that day we had 85 adults attend with I believe 12-15 younger children.
Since the 9 weeks our attendance has dropped significantly. However, we have continued the kiddush in a classroom and recently two of the B'nai Mitzvah families have invited us to their kiddush. In the past there were 3 of us who attended a Saturday morning service who were not invited to the B'nai Mitzvah. Now we usually have a minyon. We have added two additional aliyot to the service where the adults chant from the Torah and we give those honors to members of the congregation who attend. It is our attempt to say that it is a service where our members can come and say kaddish, have a baby naming, etc. Those of us who do attend really love it. When we were invited to the families kiddush lunch we missed our intimacy and yesterday the Rabbi and his wife were invited to the Bar Mitzvah lunch and we weren't. It was interesting to see them walk into our room and have the look on their faces that they wished they could be with us.
We did try one service in a classroom lay lead when our gimel class held their service. That was great as well. The intimacy was wonderful and we could be casual and not dress up.
At this point we are all in agreement that we want to stay in the main sanctuary and try to build the numbers.
(Ritual Chair, Sharon MA, 520 families)
Our congregation of 475 units (though about 50 are non-resident members) has a regular Shabbat morning attendance of about 30-40 unless there is a Bar/Bat Mitzvah which, of course, swells the numbers. I do see a gradual erosion of Friday evening attendance which I attribute to the reluctance of people - especially older people - to go out at night. We still treat the Friday service as the "main" service that it includes a sermon.
As an example, last night we had an "early" family service followed by a Shabbat dinner with an attendance of 75+. Our late service had an attendance of about 50.
I would be interested in knowing what happens in other congregations.
(Rabbi, San Bernardino, CA, 475 families)
It sounds like we have similar problems. We have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah every Shabbat morning from August into June (no time off for snow) and none in the summer. Very few congregants attend unless invited. In the summer we have Torah Study from 9:00 A.M. to 10:30 A.M. followed by the Shabbat morning service but almost all the Torah Study attendees leave. They much rather study than worship. We are lucky when we have 9 or 10 people attend the service. We had considered having a separate service apart from the "Bar/Bat Mitzvah service" (that is how it is thought of) but the Rabbis would rather keep everyone together. In the summer, when the few of us are together for Shabbat morning services, it is a wonderful experience whether we have it outside or inside (and we are all dressed informally). We usually have our Hebrew classes lead the Friday night "family" service once a month. Attendance is good but that doesn't help Shabbat morning.
Again, thank you.
(President, Pittsburgh, PA, 650 families)
One of the wonderful things about Temple-Chat is the way the various themes intertwine. In recent days we have had dress code, Shabbat morning attendance, apathy, and that wonderful line, the biggest threat is not intermarriage, it's soccer practice.
We tend to congratulate ourselves as a movement on the recovery of our Bar Mitzvah - as a more authentic and more "Jewish" ceremony than the confirmation it augments or supplants. But the price most congregations pay is great - we seem to have turned Shabbat morning over to the Bar Mitzvah family and make regular worshippers feel like interlopers. That's part of the reason for the phenomenon that many have commented on - and we experience it too - of those who come to study and leave before services.
Why do people like Torah study better than worship? Well, for one thing, they get to express themselves. The rabbi is the facilitator rather than the officiant. When our congregation replaced the Sunday morning lecture with a choice of concurrent classes, we probably quadrupled the number of adults participating in study. People are much more willing to come to talk than to listen.
Don't read into that any sense that I want more lay participation in leading the service. Reading from the prayer book does not do the same thing as speaking one's own words. But somehow loosening up the Shabbat morning service, which includes less formality in attire as well as in approach, might work. Of course, when we tried sitting around the table instead of in pews, and integrating Torah study instead of a sermon, the studiers resented the shortening of their class time, and the worshippers resented the loss of reverence the chapel setting had provided.
As I sort of free-associate, I think what I'm saying is that we need to rescue Shabbat from the Bar Mitzvah, but make the Bar Mitzvah fit into our (constantly evolving) sense of Shabbat. But most important, keep our eye on the bagel, and not on the hole - make it meaningful for those who come, and don't worry so much about those who don't.
Larryvery nicely said. We're having some success with our Shachrit service. It begins at 8:45 A.M. Sometimes it is lay-lead, sometimes there is a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, but it is not the entire focus of the service.
(President, Phoenix, AZ, 900 families)
We have implemented a Havurah service, which attracts a number of people who have not been invited to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. We hope that over time, we will develop a core group of folks who enjoy worship in a less formal setting - jeans, kids in sports attire (pre-game) attendees. There is a continuous flow to the praying, none of the performance atmosphere of the main service, and some great learning as well. Some weeks we barely get a minyan, other weeks (like this one) there was a baby naming and we had around 35 people. Selfishly, I am enjoying it more than any other service I have ever attended. I hope it catches on to a larger group of the congregation, and over time, perhaps this style might influence our main service. Do any other synagogues have success stories about similar services?
(President, Port Washington, NY, 650 families)
I was very interested in your description of your Havurah service. We've hosted a "Seudah Shlishif" (third meal of Shabbat) once a month since last fall, with a potluck, program, singing, and Havdalah. It is lay led, and the Rabbi and Cantor don't attend (their choice). We've tried to have a congregant lead a discussion each month, but we've had a very hard time getting volunteers. We've considered changing from a discussion to an activity - perhaps storytelling, or a whole evening of song. What we haven't considered is holding a Mincha service. Can you give us some details of your service - the structure, what liturgy you use, whether it is led by lay people or the clergy, whether you gear any of it toward kids, etc.?
(Santa Barbara, CA, 450 families)
The Havurah service which we have been conducting at the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY, utilizes the traditional Shabbat service. It is solely led by one of our Rabbis (they alternate) or our Rabbinic Intern. We read from and discuss Torah, have aliyot, and also have someone do Haftarah. The style of worship varies from our regular service in that there is no responsive reading, we all read together. There is obviously no choir or organ (sometimes one of the Rabbis play the guitar) and the congregants all pray together. Perhaps this is overstating the obvious, but it is a fluid, meditative experience. I must say however, that it would not be as special if a member of the clergy was not present. It is davenning, but not in a hurried manner - we are not praying out of obligation, to get through the service. We are praying in a spiritual way, and the insights into the various prayers and the d'var Torah which the Rabbi offers, enhance the experience. If more of our younger congregants came, I am sure they would feel a big difference in the spirit of Shabbat. Hopefully, it will thrive. Right now though, even for the few of us, it is quite worthwhile.