I serve as the senior rabbi of B’nai Torah Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Boca Raton Florida. During my 20 year tenure the congregation has doubled in size to approximately 1400 families. The growth has been fueled in part by demographics. But it also has been a result of a conscious decision to reach out to every segment of our synagogue population and beyond our walls.
When I first arrived the programming was fairly conventional and it reflected the interests of a small leadership group. I believed that if we wanted to attract a wider cross-section of Jews in our area we needed more diversity in our programming. I especially wanted to introduce programming that would appeal to a younger generational cohort. My specific area of focus was on exploring alternative spiritual/davenning experiences.
Not surprisingly the prospect of changing the nature of our religious services met with some resistance. The existing leadership was invested in keeping the status quo. My challenge was to bring new and younger members into leadership positions so that their voices could begin to influence the future direction of congregational programming. It did not happen overnight. Early in my tenure I worked hard to insure that the programs and worship style that I inherited were offered at the highest possible levels of excellence. This earned the trust and respect of my existing leadership.
But during this time I also began to put into place a longer term strategy for change. One piece of this strategy was to make our governance more open and transparent. Change would not happen if decisions were made by a small group of people without opportunities for educating the membership about the issues at stake. Once issues were more broadly shared, it opened up channels for input from a wider cross-section of the congregational membership. As I had hoped, over time this revealed that there was an appetite in the community for new and more innovative programming.
Our main Shabbat morning service is “traditional-egalitarian” and regularly draws over 1,000 people.
It is a population that appreciates a service with a significant musical program, including a cantor who knows liturgy, Hebrew and popular music and a message that is delivered on an important theme that is meaningful to people’s lives. The service is done very professionally with attention paid to quality content and it includes the participation of B’nai mitzvah students.
There are several other options available on Shabbat morning catering to different interests within our community. Our Havurat Shabbat is a weekly, lay-led service that draws about 100 people. That service takes less time than the main service even as it includes many learning elements and many members assume leadership roles. Teens have their own service at least twice a month and the religious school offers periodic services for a particular class with the parents in attendance. Adults can also attend a Torah study class in our library that takes place concurrent to our main service.
We similarly offer a range of educational experiences that cater to different constituencies. We have a series for well known authors, a concert series featuring outstanding musical talent, a program of Jewish content films and dramatic presentations. Our concert series hosts both Jewish and Israeli musical talent. Some of our programs target young families and other programs target the sizable population of seniors and retirees in our area.
Perhaps our highest profile program in the community is a Cantorial Concert series. We bring into our community the best cantors in the world. I came to realize that members with resources were willing to sponsor such concerts if it resulted in our bringing world class talent to our community. Our success at drawing in large numbers to such concerts convinced us that a similar strategy could be used for other types of performances and events. We are quite willing and even eager to partner on our programs with other organizations, both locally and beyond. Thus we have forged relationships with the Hartman Institute’s iEngage program on Israel education, the Florence Melton program for serious adult Jewish learning, the Meah educational program from the Boston Hebrew College, and an array of programs from the 92nd St. Y in New York. The partnerships have helped to identify B’nai Torah with some of the leading organizations in the Jewish world.
Several principles have guided all of our new programmatic initiatives. First, we are diligent about evaluation at both the staff and lay level. If a program is not working we want to know why. If we can’t fix it, we drop it. Second, we are happy and willing to partner with other organizations in the community. Too many synagogues are islands unto themselves; we want to model communal collaboration. Third, we put tremendous energy into creating a welcoming environment so that anyone who enters our building feels like they are wanted. While this sounds simple, it actually only happens when it is done in a deliberate and intentional way.
We are also clear about our ultimate mission. B’nai Torah is committed to fostering learning, worship and acts of kindness. We have introduced a program called TLC (Tzedakah, Limud and Chesed) which coordinates all of the volunteer projects that we do in the community. This includes: sheltering the homeless; volunteering with the children of Haitian immigrants; visiting the Jewish homes for the aged, attention to local hunger needs and responding to national and international crises.
I believe that the great challenge in the synagogue world today is to identify funding that can underwrite high quality programming. We are one of many options in society competing for the time and attention of Jews. We are offering a program based on Jewish values and learning, but expressed through the language and medium of our society. The audience for such programming is huge, far larger than our current base of synagogue members. To reach that audience, rabbis need to be creative and ambitious in finding new sources of revenue. It seems clear that a dues/membership model cannot generate enough dollars to enable synagogues to be effective vehicles for the transmission of Jewish learning and culture in the broader American marketplace in which Jews now travel.
What we have learned at B’nai Torah is that there are many Jews who may not be current members of synagogues who will show up for programs of quality that enable them to enrich and deepen their connection to Jewish heritage, life and culture. There is no reason why synagogues should not aspire to offer that kind of programming.
Rabbi David Steinhardt is the spiritual leader of B’nai Torah Congregation. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and an active member of the local Jewish Federation. Steinhardt has been deeply involved in multi-faith activities in South Florida.