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Relational Judaism

Recently, I came across Relational Judaism by Dr. Ron Wolfson ©2013. It describes how the non-Orthodox world has been searching for ways to stop the flood of people out of their congregations by trying to entertain them, make Judaism more interesting or meaningful, converting non-Jews, tolerating inter-marriage, and generally not demanding much in terms of observance or even education. An alternate solution he proposes is that Jewish communities encourage the development of individual relationships.

Dr. Wolfson writes:

Recently, I was invited to be scholar-in-residence at what was once one of the largest synagogues in the United States. The congregation was celebrating its one-hundredth anniversary. The campus was dominated by a huge building, built in the 1960s. The sanctuary was enormous, and a labyrinth of hallways led to dozens of classrooms, offices, and meeting halls. In the year 2000, the community had no mortgage, no debt, and a balanced budget. Most synagogues would love to be in such great shape.   Yet, there were signs that the coming decade would be challenging.  

The building was aging and in need of renovation. The senior rabbi who had served the congregation for decades was retiring. Most ominously, the demography of the community had changed; young people were moving north. The synagogue membership was slowly but surely declining from a high of nearly 1,500 households. The leaders of the synagogue knew that something had to be done.  

 Here's the something they did.  In the year 2000, they decided to borrow one million dollars to invest in the future growth of the congregation. After the long-serving, beloved rabbi retired, they hired a high-priced rabbi, who lasted less than two years. That cost one-half million dollars. The other  half-million was spent on programming, all kinds of programming­ big events, concerts, community lectures with high-priced nationally  renowned speakers, highly touted initiatives to get more people into  the synagogue on Shabbat-all sorts of things. Many of the programs had clever names, good marketing, and high appeal to specific segments of the community. Lots of people showed up for the programs and, by all accounts, enjoyed them. And then ... they left. 

Nothing was done to change the ambiance of the congregation, which was widely considered cold and unwelcoming. Nothing was done to engage the people with others in attendance. Nothing was done to connect individuals with the congregation itself. Nothing was done to find out who they were. Nothing was done to follow up. Nothing was done to convince the members that the institution truly cared about them.  The result: after ten years of this initiative, the congregation was a million dollars in debt, and membership had shrunk to 300 households. By the time I got there, the leaders were kicking themselves, asking me what they could do to reinvigorate their community.  I told them that it's all about relationships.   People will come to synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish Federations, and other Jewish organizations for programs, but they will stay for relationships. Programs are wonderful opportunities for community members to gather, to celebrate, and to learn. There is nothing “wrong" with programs; every organization has them. But, if the program designers have given no thought to how the experience will offer  participants a deeper connection to each other, with the community,  and with Judaism itself, then it will likely be another lovely evening,  afternoon, or morning ... with little or no lasting impact.  

For those interested in living a Jewish life and for those professionals and lay leaders seeking to increase Jewish engagement, permit me to put my cards on the table, up front: It's not about programs.  It's not about marketing.  It's not about branding, labels, logos, clever titles, websites, or smartphone apps.  It's not even about institutions.   It's about relationships. 

A rabbi confides in me, "A woman who was a member of my synagogue for twenty years resigned. 1 was shocked because she showed up to all of our programs. So, I called her to ask why she was leaving. You know what she said? 'I came to everything, and I never met anybody".

I think Dr. Wolfson’s analysis is just as pertinent for Orthodox communities. We all need to make a conscience effort to connect with the people who come to Shul, regulars and newcomers alike. Friendship and support are important qualities in any community and factors which surely will influence a person’s decision to join, stay, or leave Adath Israel.