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Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” In some ways that describes Biennial recruitment at my synagogue, Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, for many years. Although we consistently had a respectable 15 or so attendees, we bemoaned the fact that more people didn’t join us for such a meaningful experience, as we continued to rely primarily upon the same communication vehicles: flyers and notices in our weekly e-news.
When the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) introduced special benefits for large delegations in 2017, our competitive spirit kicked into high gear. We put some kavanah (intention) into the effort, and lo and behold we more than doubled our Biennial delegation, sending 41 people of whom at least 14 attended for the first time.
What made the difference?
The plan that helped us more than double our delegation had five key components and became known as RIP-IT:
1. Rabbinic Involvement
2. Identification of a target audience
3. Personal outreach
For Biennial 2017, we launched our RIP-IT plan when our senior rabbi, Joel Mosbacher, delivered his Kol Nidrei sermon in September. Discussing the idea that our commitment to other Jews strengthens us, Rabbi Mosbacher invited the congregation to experience the power of Biennial:
Come with me and other leaders of Shaaray Tefila to the Reform Movement’s Biennial Convention in Boston…. Experience the joy and beauty of Jewish learning, singing, and worshipping with over 5,000 other Jews. The blessing of chosenness means the privilege of being part of a denomination that finds strength in numbers – numbers even larger than a large community like Shaaray Tefila.
After the High Holidays, I worked with our staff to develop a targeted list of more than 30 couples and individuals who would enjoy Biennial and might be likely to try going. Our list included people who regularly attend worship, demonstrate a strong interest in learning, are supporters of the Reform Movement, and/or are what I would call “rah rah” in the best sense of the phrase – enthusiastic explorers and experimenters who are willing to try new things.
A week after Rabbi Mosbacher’s sermon, I personally reached out to our targeted list by email. The email was personalized for each recipient and I explained what made me think they would enjoy Biennial.
Next, I conveyed a fair amount of information, what I would call “What to Expect When You’re Attending Biennial for the First Time.” I mentioned the Biennial speakers (one of whom had spoken at our synagogue that summer) and offered an overview of how the time is structured and what activities we would do together versus ones that would be done individually. I also shared a list of members, staff, and clergy who already had signed up, and mentioned the communal dinners that our delegation would have. I included a link to the URJ’s FAQs about Biennial and also offered to answer questions myself.
Finally, the outreach mentioned the upcoming early bird pricing deadline, which inspired people to make a quick decision.
RIP-IT was successful and helped us achieve our goal to send a larger delegation than in the past to Biennial, including more than 14 first-time attendees. In general, people were honored to have been thought of as potential attendees and, especially among some of the first-timers, we heard that personal outreach was a significant factor in their decision to attend. Overall, we believe that developing a thoughtful list of prospects contributed to our success.
Social action leaders in our congregation used a similar approach to recruit a robust delegation to the Religion Action Center of Reform Judaism’s (the RAC) Consultation on Conscience this spring, increasing our representation from two in 2017 to 10 this year.
Once again, Rabbi Mosbacher began the outreach by mentioning the Consultation (and that he would be attending) at services and at social justice gatherings throughout the winter and spring. He, along with one of our lay leaders, Jolie Schwab, and a member of our engagement staff then reached out personally to a targeted group of members who already had demonstrated interest in social justice initiatives at the synagogue. As with Biennial, our outreach provided information about the experience and emphasized the collaborative, communal nature – sharing meals, discussing the issues, and building connections. Finally, the outreach was timed to coincide with the early bird discounts and contained simple instructions about how to register.
As we prepare for Biennial 2019, we plan to continue the same approach. In addition, this year we are including Biennial under the umbrella of our congregational trips for the first time, so we have a staff member who will be the point person for our outreach efforts, and we hope to attract an even more robust delegation
All URJ congregations are eligible to receive Biennial Coaching at no charge. To request a Biennial Coach, your congregation’s rabbi, president, or executive director must complete the form in the congregation's portal before the September 4 deadline. Learn more about the Union for Reform Judaism's 2019 Biennial in Chicago, December 11-15, 2019.