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Op-Ed: Time to replace programmatic model of Jewish affiliation

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LOS ANGELES (JTA) — It’s that time of year, when Jewish institutions pull out their 2013-14 calendars and fill them with events. Many of the programs are very good, with clever names and slick marketing: Jews and Brews, for young Federation leadership; L’mazeltov, for expectant parents; Torah and Tacos, for synagogue members who favor a certain southwestern cuisine with their Bible study.

And yet, after all this well-meaning effort, membership in synagogues and JCCs is declining, federation campaigns are flat and a generation of young Jewish adults is in no hurry to affiliate. The 20th century model of programmatic engagement is not working.

Recently I received an urgent phone call from what once was one of the largest synagogues in America, some 1,500 households. In 2000, the congregation had a balanced budget and no mortgage on a sprawling building. Ominously, young couples were moving out of the neighborhood and older folks were dropping out. The leaders knew they had to do something.

Here’s what they did: They borrowed $1 million. Nearly half was spent on a slick rabbi who lasted less than two years. The rest was spent on programs: lectures by top speakers, concerts by renowned celebrities and an array of events targeted to specific segments of the community. Lots of people came to the programs and ostensibly enjoyed them. Then they went home.

Nothing was done to address the widely held perception that the congregation was cold and unwelcoming. Nothing was done to create connections between those who showed up and the clergy and staff. By the time the leaders called me, the congregation was $1 million in debt and had shrunk to 350 households.

What’s going on? Synagogues, rabbis and Jewish educators once were the main access points to serious Jewish learning. JCCs were a comfortable place to put your little ones in preschool, join a health club and participate in cultural activities. Federations were the central address for supporting the various arms of the community.

The Internet has changed all that. Hundreds of websites feature rich Jewish content for free. Why pay to join a congregation when I can watch live streaming video of worship services, arrange for a bar or bat mitzvah tutor online and have the ceremony in my backyard with a rent-a-rabbi? Why join a JCC when I can go to a fitness center and easily find a cheaper preschool? Why give to a centralized federation when I can direct my giving to causes that resonate with me?

This begs the ultimate question: What is the value of affiliating with a Jewish institution?

In my new book, “Relational Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing), I suggest it is this: a face-to-face community of relationships that offers meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.

To create such a community, we need to turn our engagement model upside down. Rather than spending all our time planning events and hoping people show up, let’s begin with the people: Welcome them, hear their stories, identify their talents and passions, care about them and for them — and then craft programs that engage them with the Jewish experience.

Thankfully, there are organizations and individuals on the cutting edge of this relational tipping point. Chabad has grown from a small group of disciples to an army of 4,500 rabbis and their families who reject the dues model of affiliation: pay up front, then you are served. Rather, they build a relationship with individuals first and only then ask for financial support.

Congregation-based community organizing begins with one-on-one conversations designed to tease out common interests that can be the basis for communal action. Hillel is sending well-trained college students into the dorms and Greek houses to develop relationships with peers who would never walk into a Hillel House. A number of next generation initiatives like Synagogue 3000’s Next Dor and Moishe House are designed to reach young Jewish professionals by building relationships. Social media are increasingly useful as a way to build virtual communities and encourage face-to-face meetings.

The best fundraisers know that relationships are at the heart of raising money; most charitable giving is to people the donor trusts, not simply to support a particular cause.

From these case studies and more than 150 interviews with those doing relational work, my book throws a spotlight on a number of best principles and practices that any Jewish institutional professional or lay leader can use to do this transformational work, ranging from personal encounters to new relational membership models.

This paradigm shift will not be easy; this is labor-intensive work. It will not require more buildings but a reallocation of the precious time of staff and laity. We will need engagement rabbis, relationship directors, community concierges and sophisticated tracking systems to ensure appropriate follow-up and transitions as individuals traverse the life cycle of community engagement. We will not need new institutions, but to transform the institutions we already have from programmatic to relational communities. People may come for programs, but they will stay for relationships.

So as we fill out those calendars for next year, let’s embrace a new goal: to engage every member of our institutions and every interested unaffiliated person in a deeper relationship with Judaism, with the Jewish experience and with each other. Let’s begin by putting people before programs. Let’s learn who they are before we try to figure out what they want. Let’s inspire them to see Judaism as a worldview that can inform the many different levels of relationship in their lives.

Let’s work toward a rededication of our mishpachah, our people, to a relational Judaism.

Ron Wolfson is the Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and the co-founder of Synagogue 3000/Next Dor. His new book is “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights Publishing). 

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