Since the time of Abraham, Jews have been engaged in the process of embracing the guest and welcoming the traveler. It was Abraham's acts of chesed that brought the Jewish people into being. Today, the synagogue community needs to emulate Abraham's values of hospitality and welcoming when addressing the needs of both prospective and current members. Synagogue communities need to argue for every Jewish soul.
Although nearly 80 percent of North American Jews join a synagogue at some point in their lives, about half of them leave, usually in three to five years, often right after celebrating their child's bar or bat mitzvah. Ending this exodus would immeasurably strengthen Jewish life. Doing so will require the creation of a synagogue whose message of Torah is so inspiring, whose spiritual energy is so transforming and whose web of kinship and caring is so embracing that no one who enters its gates will ever consider forsaking the holy community that it provides.
Many of our congregations serve as role models in this regard. When asked to share their best practices and candid insights regarding the synagogue's roll in membership recruitment, integration and retention, thousands responded. Although many synagogues offer rich worship experiences, profound Torah studies, and transforming social justice programs, if those same synagogues are not welcoming and hospitable places, Jews will either never join in the first place, or they will become a part of the revolving door membership rolls. Synagogues can close that revolving door by fashioning themselves into face-to-face communities of intimacy and warmth. Synagogues, in mirroring Abraham's acts of chesed, need to support individuals in the deep experiences of life, not permitting them to face a crisis alone.
It is during times of personal transition when people are most vulnerable to either embracing their synagogue communities or rejecting them. For example, although 10,000 four-year-olds are enrolled in our nursery school programs, fewer than 4,000 make their way into synagogue kindergartens. The drop out rate after nursery school exceeds that of the post b'nei mitzvah drop out rate. Similarly, "empty nesters" in their 50s too often drop their temple membership when they drop their child off at college. College tuition costs drain the discretionary income of many empty nesters and they tend to eliminate membership from those organizations and programs that provide little meaning in their lives. Although living in a world that offers them Viagra, hormone replacement therapy and pep talks on how hip it is to be fabulously fifty, these empty nesters seek spiritual meaning in their lives.
We know from our success stories, that when synagogues devote time and energy to educate, involve, embrace and integrate new members into the fabric of their sacred communities, retention becomes less of a challenge.
The synagogue will only thrive when it extends a loving hand to each and every Jewish soul, both synagogue members and members yet to be. The primary work of welcoming strangers, embracing seekers and involving current members is done by empowered laypeople who become ambassadors of Judaism.
THEREFORE, THE UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM RESOLVES TO :
- Call upon its synagogue communities to follow Abraham's example by lifting Jews out of their aloneness and to help them establish true community whose message of Torah is inspiring, and whose spiritual energy is transforming;
- Urge its member congregations to send their membership chairs to a special training program through which they will become certified Membership Fellows, and will gain community-building skills to create a membership structure that recognizes and attends to the three components of lifelong membership: recruitment, integration and retention;
- Promote to congregations a two-year action plan to help Membership Committees reach out to, attract and engage the 20 percent of North American Jews who have never joined a synagogue by:
- Offering Taste of Judaism Courses;
- Sponsoring ads for membership and classes in local newspapers; and
- Calling upon temple leaders to enhance Outreach by inviting unaffiliated friends to join them at worship services and synagogue program;
- Urge synagogue communities to provide prospective and new members with the appropriate resources that will assist them in finding meaning in synagogue life, including:
- Establishing an "Ambassadors Program" that matches new members with longtime members;
- Guiding new members to that part of temple life that responds to their unique Jewish concerns; and
- Appointing hospitality chairpeople whose role includes making certain that prospective, new and existing members, especially single individuals, do not spend Shabbat meals alone or attend Shabbat services by themselves;
- Encourage congregations to recognize the potential for membership attrition especially during individual and family life-cycle transition points, such as:
- Leaving the synagogue following a child's graduation from synagogue pre-school;
- After a child's bar or bat mitzvah;
- Following a change in marital status (marriage, divorce, or loss of a spouse/partner); and
- Becoming an empty-nester;
- Assist congregations in:
- Creating a warm and welcoming environment starting with those who make the first impression on members and prospective members;
- Developing and implementing news ways to continually engage, and reengage, congregants in synagogue life;
- Becoming, like many of our Movement's most welcoming congregations, face-to-face communities of intimacy and warmth; and
- Urge synagogues to implement the Union's William and Lottie Daniel Department of Outreach and Synagogue Community's new guide, "The Life Cycle of Synagogue Membership" whose resources include diagnostic exercises, programmatic suggestions, membership ads and forms, new member interviews and an interactive computer CD of membership programs and ideas.