How to Engage Your Members Beyond the Synagogue's Walls

July 2, 2019Rabbi Joel Simon

As a song leader at Gindling Hilltop Camp in Malibu, CA, I marveled during each week’s Shabbat song session as campers, immediately upon hearing the word “ufaratzta” (you shall spread out), would break into four sections – preparing to shout out their section’s assigned word. Yama (west), vkedma (east), tzafona (north), va-negba (south). The verse comes from Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:14), in which, at the end of Jacob’s dream he’s promised that his descendants will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. For campers, this ritual was a competition to see which group could scream the loudest.

Today, for many congregations, learning to be present for a community that is geographically spread out tests how loudly we can raise our voices and how effectively we can maximize our reach in a world with ever-growing competition for members’ time and energy.

In my congregation, Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, FL, half the congregation lives within 15 minutes of the synagogue. The other half of our members drives from 15 to 35 miles from all directions to join us.

Viewing the expanding geographic circle of our congregation as an opportunity, my predecessor, Rabbi Richard Birnholz, created “Yogurt with the Clergy.” We traveled to four different locations, amazed that congregants came out to enjoy frozen yogurt with us! More than that, the gatherings offered opportunities for them to meet others who lived nearby and make plans to get together.

In my previous congregation, Shir Ami in Newtown, PA where I served between stints at Schaarai Zedek, congregants also were spread out. Building upon what I had learned in Tampa, Shir Ami’s staff, lay leaders, and I developed “Chanukah in the ‘Chood,” eight concurrent Hanukkah parties in eight different neighborhoods. Each party included a member of the clergy or staff and a board member who oversaw a short candle lighting program as part of an event whose main focus was for people to meet other congregants who lived nearby. It proved so successful that we ran a similar program the following Sukkot.

When I returned to Schaarai Zedek, deepening our neighborhood outreach was among my top priorities. We began with house meetings at which we learned how much our members who live further away appreciate being part of a large synagogue community and how much they value opportunities to meet others who live closer. This knowledge led us to develop “Challah in the ‘Chood,” an initiative in which our youth director, director of program and membership, and I would head to the suburbs for a Shabbat dinner program.

We experimented with the program location – variously hosting at a community center, a congregant’s home, and a restaurant – and found location to be the least important factor. What mattered most was the opportunity to have a relaxed Shabbat dinner with fellow congregants in the area. We focused on the blessings and provided conversation starters that stemmed from a brief d’var Torah (interpretation or teaching around the weekly Torah portion). The evening ended with an abbreviated service, which offered an opportunity for those who wished to say Kaddish to do so.

Over the course of four separate Friday evenings, we came within a 15-minute drive of the more geographically dispersed members of our congregational family. A diverse array of congregants – a total of more than 100 families attended the four events – of all ages appreciated our efforts to bring Shabbat to them. Even those who couldn’t attend were touched by the gesture. Although these evenings were open to anyone, the primary attendees were people who lived near the dinner locale. And, while we were out in the ‘burbs, the cantor and assistant rabbi led the sanctuary service back home.

Next year, in addition to continuing “Challah in the ’Chood,” we intend to expand our neighborhood outreach with playground Tot Shabbatot and special events such as “Havdallah on Ice” at a suburban ice rink, during which we hope to bring our entire community out to the “’chood.”

Upon waking from his dream, Jacob said, “God is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). Indeed, at Schaarai Zedek, we are extremely aware of the blessings of all of our members, noting especially those who are willing to drive so far to come to us. It is our blessing, lifrotz, to break free from our walls, to spread ourselves out, and to meet them each in their holy abode.

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