Ron Wolfson always enjoys telling the story about a woman he once met while touring different synagogues around the country. He asked her how she'd decided which synagogue to join after she moved to her area. The answer? She chose the only one where someone took the time to say hello to her after the service.
Wolfson is a man with a mission — to build more welcoming congregations — and he suggested looking to a somewhat unlikely model for some tips in revitalizing shuls: the service industry.
For example, what can congregants learn from those ubiquitous greeters at Disney World?
Quite a bit, noted Wolfson, president of Synagogue 3000 and keynote speaker at "Synagogue Growth: It's Not Just Numbers," a recent conference at Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill. More than 250 rabbis and lay leaders from 42 congregations in the Philadelphia-area attended the event.
"There's a lot that sacred communities can learn from companies," explained Wolfson. Sometimes, he said, a synagogue can even have a "stand-offish feel."
"We are not great at quality service," he admitted.
Yet 75 percent of American Jews belong to a synagogue at some time in their lives, he added, so the opportunities to build strong communities do exist.
Rabbis and staff need to get out of their usual mindset, he suggested, and think from the perspectives of newcomers. Whether it's a call to the preschool office or navigating the parking lot, first impressions tend to linger.
"[New people] come into this space, and they often don't know what they're doing," said Wolfson. Quelling nervous feelings for guests may not even register on the radar of a member who's been a fixture for years.
"Change in synagogues is not easy," attested Wolfson, though in the same vein reminded his audience that plenty of change has occurred in their lifetimes — from women on the bimah to women ordained as rabbis.
"We have to change the culture of our congregations" to become more open places, he said.
'A Balancing Act'
Making welcoming efforts while still honoring members there every week can be another challenge, said Rabbi Philip Warmflash, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Partnership in Philadelphia.
"It's not as clear-cut as it may seem at first," he said.
Congregations don't want to disenfranchise regulars, he said, but they need a strategy to make the newcomer feel special: "It's a very delicate balancing act."
The program, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Jewish Outreach Partnership, also included workshops such as "Synagogue Leadership as a Transformative Experience" and "Your Synagogue as the Center for Community Outreach."
During a workshop conducted by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, the focus was on creating a home — a meeting place — stocked with Jewish values.
Said the local rabbi: "There are many places where Jewish values are transmitted, but these values are most powerfully transmitted in the synagogue."