Reach Out And Touch A Congregant

In bid for relevance, six area synagogues revamping finances, programming after pilot study.

11/10/10
Staff Writer
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The Huntington Jewish Center on Long Island’s North Shore is re-evaluating its early childhood program because of the school’s drain on synagogue finances — and because few of the families enrolled end up joining the synagogue.

Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan is working to more clearly articulate its mission and values — and, as the recession drags on, it has doubled for the second year in a row its subsidy for dues, religious and preschool tuition.

The Kane Street Synagogue in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, is striving to better coordinate its many activities and “streamline resources.”

Those steps came following an extensive survey of their congregants to learn what they value most from their membership and how, in turn, synagogues can remain relevant in their lives. The survey, conducted at six area synagogues, was part of a nine-month pilot program that ended this summer, a project of SYNERGY: UJA-Federation of New York.

It comes at a time when many congregants are complaining about what they consider the high cost of synagogue membership, which often runs $2,000 and above. They argue that the business model of many primarily non-Orthodox synagogues must be changed to bring overhead in line with their shrinking memberships — sometimes half of what they used to be.

The economic downturn has only exacerbated the problem. Although there is “normal synagogue attrition,” according to Rabbi Jonathan Stein of Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side, “in the last two years the economics of our country played a big role in synagogue enrollment.”

About 150 of the Reform congregation’s 1,600 families did not renew their memberships last year, and Rabbi Stein said the congregation’s leadership decided to personally reach out to each of them and offer a subsidy. About half of them accepted.

To provide the money, the congregation increased it subsidy reserve from $350,000 to $700,000. Rabbi Stein said he personally called a dozen families and found that his call “can make a huge difference.”

“There is a rabbinic mystique,” he explained. “There is something about outreach from the rabbi that is very powerful no matter how skeptical and intellectual they feel they are. When we called, we said this is not a call to negotiate but to retain them. We asked, ‘What can you afford?’ They said ‘x,’ and we said ‘fine.’”

Rabbi Stein said he doesn’t believe it was the subsidy that brought the families back as much as it was the outreach.

“They weren’t just getting a form letter — we were showing we care about them and their membership. … It’s important to keep people connected.”

When they began conducting the SYNERGY survey, Rabbi Stein said, “We started out with the idea that maybe we needed a new way to look at the financing of the synagogue. But that was not the way we ended. I think it showed that our financial model is good.”

At the same time, he said, it was pointed out that the Chabad model — in which there are no dues but that people contribute financially because of the one-on-one relationship with the rabbi — has proven successful.

“We have learned the power of the rabbinic and clergy connection — it is crucial,” Rabbi Stein said. “It is what Chabad does well and what we could be doing also. That does not mean we change the way we fund our synagogue, but that we add a new technique to our repertoire.”

Sacha Litman, the founder of Boston-based Measuring Success, which developed the survey in conjunction with UJA-Federation, said the survey dispelled the belief that people dropped out of synagogues primarily because of the high cost of dues.

“What we learned was that people’s decisions to continue their membership had little to do with the price of membership but rather with the perceived value they were getting for those dollars,” he said in an interview.

“And for those who simply can’t afford dues of $2,000, the synagogue offers financial aid. But regarding those who can afford and choose not to belong or belong to a different model synagogue, it’s what they are not getting that is causing them to leave.”

Litman gave the example of someone having an inexpensive meal in a diner and later an expensive meal in a fancy restaurant. Despite the cost, the person would return to the fancy restaurant if he enjoyed it.

“Applied to synagogues, if a member regularly attends Shabbat services, takes advantage of adult education classes, uses pastoral services, and has a close circle of friends at the synagogue, $2,000 seems like a great price,” he said. “But if a synagogue member attends only on High Holy Days, $2,000 seems exorbitant — even $1,000 seems unjustified.”

Rabbi Moishe Steigmann, associate rabbi of the Westchester Jewish Center in Mamaroneck, agreed that the survey found that it was “not so much that I’m paying x, but why am I paying it? … If we are able to help create a cultural environment that engages people on a spiritual, traditional, meaningful, purposeful level — if we can engage souls — then they will want to be a part of the congregation.”

He said the survey found that the most satisfied of his Conservative congregation’s 550 families were those with teenage children approaching bar and bat mitzvah and in the Hebrew high school and youth group. The “point of disconnect” comes after the youngest child finishes high school and the parents become empty nesters.

“That’s when we have to engage with people in a deep, soulful level,” Rabbi Steigmann said. “The survey is helping us realign our vision given these new insights.”

Dru Greenwood, director of SYNERGY, noted that the survey “had an exceedingly high response rate — more than 60 percent of the congregants in each synagogue responded.”

And its findings regarding dues were the same at the Huntington Jewish Center, according to its president, Mitch Pashkin.

“We would hear people say we have to cut our dues, but the survey found it wasn’t true,” he said. “People just wanted value for what they were paying for.”

Before the survey, Pashkin said, some congregants at this Conservative synagogue thought “we were over-programmed. One of the stark survey results was that 80 percent of the foot traffic for synagogue events came from the same core of 45 people. We have 350 families. That was a shock.”

Another shock was that the early childhood program is losing $88,000 annually.

“We figured that even if it was losing money, it would be worth it if we got new members” from among the early childhood parents, Pashkin said.

But it was found that only 5 to 10 percent actually joined the synagogue. The program now has 109 children ages 2 to 4 and Pashkin said “a large number” have at least one Jewish parent, which would enable them to join.

“We’ll give it maybe another three years and see what happens,” he said, adding that a major attempt would now be made to improve the integration of early childhood parents into the congregation.

He noted that if nursery school parents join, they get a $500 discount on membership. But for whatever reason, “they don’t take advantage of it.”

As a result of the survey, he said the synagogue leadership is also committed to reducing the number of events in the hope of attracting more people, and attracting and retaining younger members by taking a new approach to social action.

“We found that people want a purpose in joining a synagogue — they want to be a part of something,” Pashkin said. “So this winter we will be joining area churches and another synagogue in taking turns housing and feeding a group of homeless men.

“We typically have food drives, but this is different because we will be helping people directly. … We learned that people want to feel they are getting value for their money, especially those who only come three times a year. They want another reason to come besides services.”

In addition, the synagogue has obtained a list of Chanukah gifts children have requested from four Jewish social service groups. Pashkin said 80 gifts ranging in price from $20 to $300 were requested and that within a week, congregants had pledged to buy all but eight of the items.

At the Kane Street Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Brooklyn, Rabbi Sam Weintraub said the survey “made us understand the interrelationship of the different parts of the community.”

“We are focusing on different priorities now, and how the different parts of the synagogue can work together and streamline resources more effectively,” he said. “So now the social action program will be aware of what adult ed is doing and youth education will know what is happening at Shabbat services. …

“We are a dynamic synagogue with a lot going on and this taught us that each [activity] has to be aware of the whole.”

The survey for the only Orthodox synagogue in the group, The Jewish Center, a 600-unit congregation in an 11-story building on the Upper West Side, “created a strategic framework for looking at all aspects of our operation and the impact of it on the revenue and expense lines,” said Virginia Bayer Hirt, its president.

The survey found that “people who had more interaction with our rabbis felt more connected to the institution,” she said. “As a result, we have developed an initiative called the Welcoming. It is a series of social gatherings in which every member will be invited to interact with the rabbi in small groups to enhance their personal relationship with him.”

Hirt said the survey revealed that members of all ages were “equally satisfied” with the programming offered, something they did not expect.

In addition, she said, “We are looking to create an alignment between what our members value and how we spend our funds — making sure our budgeting reflects their priorities. … We find that people want more substantive programs on a weekly basis as opposed to big events on an occasional basis.”

Asked about dues, Hirt said there is little the congregation could do for young families “to make up for the day school tuition for two, three or four children.”

Rabbi Stein at Temple Shaaray Tefila said he believes there should be a change in the way congregants view dues, which implies a fee for service.

“We have people who give us $50,000 a year, and for those people it is not dues but rather part of their philanthropic charitable giving,” he said. “When you see your contribution as tzedakah, it is a very different frame of reference. When I send money to UJA-Federation, I think of it not as membership in the federation but as supporting Jewish institutional life. I would like our members to think of us in the same way.”

Last Update:

11/14/2010 - 21:39

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Perhaps if more Rabbis would be willing to pick up the phone and engage their congregants on a regular basis - not just after they pull their membership - synagogues would be in a different place.
A great article to send to every synagogue in the metro area, and even in the country. Certainly in our area the old model is clearly working less successfully every year and a new model is sorely needed.

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