Changing Communal Culture in Synagogues

Amy Wallk Katz, Temple Beth El, Springfield, MA

katz_amyWhen I became the rabbi of Temple Beth El (TBE) in Springfield, Massachusetts, in the summer of 2008, two congregations were merging: Temple Beth El and B’nai Jacob. Temple Beth El was a large Conservative congregation showing signs of a growing malaise. Membership had declined from about 900 to 600 member units, the physical facility felt neglected, and the classes and programs that had once been quite successful were no longer particularly well-attended. Many congregants seemed disengaged, the congregation relied heavily on its professional staff, and it was challenging to recruit and sustain committed volunteers. Still, when interviewing with the members and the leadership I sensed a deep love for the Temple and a powerful desire to rebuild.

B’nai Jacob was a very different congregation. Its membership was a little more than 100 member units. While the congregation employed a full-time rabbi and an office manager, it relied on a strong force of volunteers who insured that the congregation survived. Members of B’nai Jacob loved their small, haimish shul. They knew it was fragile and, as a result, felt obligated to support the congregation in all sorts of ways: working in the kitchen, sustaining a minyan, leading worship, reading Torah, leading a junior congregation. But at the time of the merger the volunteers were tired and the challenging economy had taken its toll on the B’nai Jacob community. This small congregation sold its building and merged with Temple Beth El.

When I moved to the community I saw that differences in the ritual life between the two congregations were minimal and could easily be bridged. The real challenge would be to create a new congregational culture that felt comfortable to all. My stated goal was to insure a strong presence for Conservative Judaism in Western Massachusetts by honoring the culture and traditions of each synagogue and creating a strong sense of community.

Officially I was hired by Temple Beth El. But everyone understood that for the merger to be a success and for me to be effective as a rabbi of the newly merged community I could not be partial to either congregation. I was striving to create a new culture that honored Jewish tradition and valued a strong sense of community. While the demographics did not favor congregational growth, my goal was to create a more engaged community for the people already here. I wanted to see members participating in more shul activities: studying, davening, reading Torah, leading services, socializing together, serving meals at a local soup kitchen, writing for our newsletter.

Because of the merger, traditions from B’nai Jacob were introduced within the first months of the merger. Many of these changes were symbolic in nature — but important in that they made the B’nai Jacob members feel comfortable and at home. For example, we began using the weekday siddur that had been used at B’nai Jacob. The Sunday morning breakfast and study group that had been a B’nai Jacob tradition was introduced at Temple Beth El. We called our Sunday morning class “Cuppa Joe”, the name was new, but the class had been offered at B’nai Jacob.

A little more than a year after I became rabbi of Temple Beth El, we launched a strategic plan intended to help the newly merged community plan for the future. Over the course of one year, more than 250 congregants participated in community conversations or town-hall meetings. We repeatedly heard that people were craving a sense of community, belonging and purpose.

One tangible way that we sought to address the stated desire of members to have a stronger sense of community was to provide a kiddush lunch after every Shabbat morning service. We all recognized that it was important to create opportunities for congregants to sit and visit with one another. Before we began offering kiddush lunch, Shabbat morning attendees would stand around for just a few minutes after services before heading off to their Saturday afternoon activities. Now that kiddush lunch is provided for the entire community, Shabbat morning attendees relax, enjoy a simple Shabbat lunch and get a chance to kibbitz. Not everyone stays but many do and a sense of community is growing.

A second tangible change was introduced during a Rosh HaShanah sermon. The campaign was dubbed “Just Show Up”. After studying the data from the strategic plan, I realized that we needed to do something dramatic to galvanize the congregation. The goal of “Just Show Up” was to make the synagogue feel less formal and less stuffy. We wanted to eliminate the sense among members that coming to shul carried with it onerous expectations about when they had to arrive, what they had to wear or what they had to do. We put out the message to members that they should feel free to join us for any part of Shabbat morning worship, study or even just for lunch. We also made it clear that there was no need to dress up to come to services; casual clothes would be OK as well.

After services on Rosh HaShanah as I greeted congregants I gave everyone a magnet that said “Just Show Up” and people placed the 4 x 6 magnet on their cars. The magnet and “Just Show Up” became the talk of the town. Our community is small and TBE is the largest shul in the area. Seeing so many cars with the magnet inspired lots of conversation.

We actually went into campaign mode understanding that changing communal culture requires regular messaging in various modalities and platforms. I wrote articles about “Just Show Up” in the TBE newsletter. Lay leaders promoted the message in their informal conversations and some began wearing t-shirts that say “Just Show Up.” We sent postcards to members’ homes. For Purim I had new “Just Show Up” magnets made up. While everyone was enjoying the Purim party I went into the parking lot and placed a magnet on every car. I did the same thing at my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.

As the phrase “Just Show Up” caught on we leveraged it to convey a particular vision of community to our members. We also were intent to have that vision manifest itself in behavior. As such, our tag line for “Just Show Up” changed over time. We started with “As a community we can accomplish anything; first you need to show your support and come to shul.” Our next tagline became: “We will never know where our journey will take us; so many of you demonstrated that we will make this journey—together”. As our campaign gained traction and attendance started to increase we offered this tagline: “Our community is thriving, don’t miss out; please come to shul to join us.” For my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah the tagline read “You have made our celebration that much more special. Thank you for being our community.” All of these taglines appeared under the stylized phrase, “Just Show Up”.

Within the congregational community I was very careful to suggest that “Just Show Up” was a result of our strategic plan. I didn’t allow the community to think this was my idea. I wanted them to feel as though “Just Show Up” was the natural outgrowth of our strategic plan. I am mindful that “Just Show Up” required strong rabbinic leadership and I am proud of the initiative and its impact on the community. But I recognized that it was more important for the congregation to come to own “Just Show Up” itself.
Many members of the congregation were really excited by “Just Show Up”. It was effective with older and young congregants, families and individuals. The initiative provided a way to incorporate Shabbat into an already busy Saturday mornings. Many loved being given permission to come to shul in casual clothes and for only part of the morning.

There were some naysayers who felt that by inviting people to “Just Show Up” we were trivializing the shabbat morning experience. These individuals felt as though allowing casual dress and encouraging people to come at any time in the morning was somehow dismissive of the sanctity of shabbat. When speaking with those who criticized “Just Show Up” I listened and validated their concern. The critics were usually Shabbat morning attendees. They wanted people to make the same commitments they had made. But I always reminded critics that the people who we were hoping to attract to shul were not celebrating Shabbat. They were running errands or going to the gym on Saturday morning. By encouraging people to “Just Show Up” I suggested that more people could at least have some Shabbat experience and that they could begin to connect with the congregational community. This could only benefit the congregation.

The best response to the resistance we initially got is success. In 2008, attendance at shabbat morning services in the absence of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah was between about 25 and 30. Now we usually attract about 75 individuals, although many come for only some of the morning’s activities. “Just Show Up” has become the shul’s motto. It is understood that we need each other to support programs, make a minyan, attend classes and participate in the larger community by serving meals at the local soup kitchens. While members can’t always commit to every class or minyan, or to an entire shabbat morning, they can still “Just Show Up” regularly.

Since we first introduced “Just Show Up” we have reinforced the message in several important ways. First, we continue to promote “Just Show Up” in all congregational publications. In addition, we have purchased copies of Ron Wolfson’s, Relational Judaism which we plan to use to make our community more warm and welcoming. There is a general awareness that the culture of the congregation is changing and this change cannot just come from the rabbi or the cantor. In the month before Rosh HaShanah our board calls the entire congregation and wishes our members a good, healthy and happy new year. At some point during the year, we send our members a letter, thanking them for their commitment to the congregational community. In our newsletter we publish congregant profiles and personal perspectives from members. And every congregant receives a personal phone call reminding them of their loved one’s upcoming yahrzeit. We believe that all these initiatives together help us build a stronger community.

We are also trying to make our sacred space complement our efforts at building a more welcoming community. Our building was built in the sixties. We have a beautiful sanctuary that seats over 600 people. It is frontal and the bima is very high. The sanctuary was built to meet the needs of a more formal congregation and it met the needs of the community for many years. While on the High Holy Days the sanctuary is still quite effective, on a typical shabbat, the sanctuary is too large and the frontal orientation hinders congregants from connecting with one another. We became convinced that the sanctuary space needed to be re-imagined. We have retained Preston Scott Cohen, a gifted and proven architect who is redesigning our space and guiding us through the process of including the congregation in these important conversations about our sacred space. I am convinced that the capital campaign necessary to renovate the sanctuary would not have been as enthusiastically endorsed if we had not invested the time and energy in changing the communal culture with our “Just Show Up” initiative.

Changing communal culture is not easy. But through a process of listening to members, articulating a clear vision, building buy-in, and the implementation of our “Just Show Up” campaign, we have clearly captured the imagination of our membership. I am excited by the prospect that this is only the beginning of creating a more vibrant synagogue community.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz was ordained from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1992. She also has advanced degrees in Jewish education and journalism and a Ph.D. in education from Michigan State University. After focusing her rabbinate primarily in the field of Jewish education, she became the rabbi of Temple Beth El, Springfield, MA in 2006.

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