How to Reframe the Doorway into Jewish Life

Inside Leadership

How to Reframe the Doorway into Jewish Life

A while back I had an opportunity to chat with Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a longtime Chabad-Lubavitch leader with whom I am friends. When I asked him what his top three priorities are for the coming year, he responded:

  1. Engaging families with young children.
  2. Engaging families with young children.
  3. Engaging families with young children.

Interestingly, Rabbi Krinsky’s priorities encompass the same answer I give people when they ask me – as they often do – how to increase the size of their membership. In fact, I tell them, those members are already in your building. They’re the little people in the early childhood center – and their parents and grandparents are ripe for membership.

But, we have flawed ideas about membership, which is a process; members are not a commodity. When we make people feel comfortable and connected in our synagogues, often, but not always, it leads to formal membership. Therefore, it’s imperative to think strategically about your early childhood center and the ways you can reframe the doorway into Jewish life.

A number of congregations – some with support and guidance from our Movement’s Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism (ECE-RJ) and the URJ’s innovative Communities of Practice – have reframed their doorways exceedingly well:

  • Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD, partnered with an outside agency to provide an aftercare program in its building. Although the congregation still operates a part-day program, it now can accommodate busy families by providing full-time child care.
  • Even without a preschool, Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA, has a long history of welcoming families with young children. Through a unique relationship in greater Boston with the Jewish Community Centers (JCC) and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the congregation continually focuses on meeting families where they are and encouraging them to build relationships with one another and the synagogue community.   
  • By reimagining the parent orientation process at Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, IL, the congregation engaged local families with young children, not only supporting parents’ angst about separating from their children, but also welcoming them into Jewish institutional life.
  • Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX, provides ongoing professional development opportunities for its early childhood educators. As a result, the congregation’s educators are inspired to incorporate best practices into their classrooms, as well as to build community, which radiates out to the entire school and the greater Temple Emanu-El family.
  • North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL, closed its pre-school entirely, offering instead a free, once-a-month drop-in program for children up to two years old – and their caregivers – at a local bookstore. Initially, the program provided parents opportunities to make social connections with one another. Today, it meets mostly at the synagogue, where the kids and their parents also participate in other synagogue programs.
  • Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield Hills, MI, participated in one of the URJ’s early childhood Communities of Practice. As a result, the preschool has enhanced its website, which provides comprehensive information about the school, including an array of testimonials.

Other opportunities to reframe the doorway:

  • Offer programming around Jewish bedtime rituals
  • Invite PJ Library and ECC families to book-related, child-friendly synagogue programming
  • Offer day camp programming for ECC families

By adding these strategies to your toolkit, you’ll place your congregation squarely on the radar of young families with children, not only engaging them in appropriate facets of congregational life, but also setting the stage for ongoing membership in the years to come.

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest Jewish movement in North America, with almost 850 congregations and nearly 1.5 million members. An innovative thought leader, dynamic visionary, and representative of progressive Judaism, he spent 20 years as the spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY. Deeply dedicated to global social justice issues, he has led disaster response efforts in Haiti and Darfur. Learn more about Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs
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