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by Andy Wayne
As the cake arrived, glowing with candles, the group of nearly 40 women began to sing “Happy Birthday” to the lone man at the table. Their smiles lit up the room as their voices came together in celebration. True, they had only met the man two days before, but their happiness and well wishes were genuine.
That was back in 2010, when I attended my first conference with the Program and Engagement Professionals of Reform Judaism (PEP-RJ), which was then known as Program Directors of Reform Judaism. Although I was not new to my congregation, I was new to the role of program director, and I was excited to learn from and with colleagues from Reform congregations around the country and Canada. I had not previously worked with other program directors, and I was interested to see what successes and challenges they had found. And so, I headed to Dallas, TX –not far from my roots in Houston – for the conference.
Sitting in our opening mixer, I knew each person in the room would remember my name – mostly because I was the only man in the room. Though slightly uncomfortable with my minority status, the feeling subsided as each of my new colleagues endeavored to welcome me, learn about me, and introduce me to various aspects of the organization. As the conference progressed, I grew more comfortable and engaged in PEP-RJ, learning, schmoozing, networking, and, yes, commiserating with my new friends. On the last night, I celebrated my birthday with 40 amazing professionals who, just days before, had been strangers to me.
Five years later, I am honored to serve as PEP-RJ’s president.
PEP-RJ is a stellar example of the Reform Movement’s commitment to “audacious hospitality.” Indeed, why wouldn’t it be? The organization comprises synagogue professionals whose primary focus is to welcome and engage congregants and the greater community. From my first moments at that conference in Dallas, I knew these people practiced what they preached – and yet, their work is not preaching. Rather, our members seek to deepen people’s connections to their synagogues through engagement, programming, communications, marketing, and membership efforts.
In my own synagogue, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation – a storied, dynamic Jewish community in an interesting city – we are doing just that. Last year, we joined The Engagement Partnership, a project funded through The Associated (Baltimore’s Jewish Federation), which seeks to deepen members’ involvement with our congregation. After months of discussion, we decided to create a listening campaign that uses one-on-one conversations to glean the stories, ideas, and hopes of our congregants.
To date, these conversations have yielded a lot of interesting and meaningful information, but three ideas, in particular, stand out to me, perhaps because they are the roots of connection to one’s congregational community. They are:
We know that strong relationships can bind us to our faith and our community. Meaningful experiences can shape the path we take within our congregations. And, now more than ever, we tend to examine the total value of our connection to the synagogue. It is not a simple equation, but I know that the members of PEP-RJ and many other Jewish professionals are exploring the roots of connection in order to chart a course for our synagogues and communities to attract and engage members.
At Baltimore Hebrew Congregation one Friday several months ago, I caught myself mindlessly whistling a song while I worked. I stopped and realized it was “Ivdu et Hashem B’simcha,” which I had not heard anywhere recently. When I stepped into one of our rabbis’ offices to ask if she could remind me of the translation of the song, she replied, “Serve God with gladness. Come before God’s presence with singing.”
It was a striking moment for me. Although I do not always think of my work as serving God, the truth is that congregational engagement is indeed holy work. The many professionals and lay leaders involved in this work – including my PEP-RJ colleagues, who serve with enthusiasm, dedication, and gladness – are not just bettering their congregants; their commitment and focus are also ensuring a bright future for Reform Judaism.