The key to building community is social interaction, not ‘social networks’

In 2000, an urban congregation of 1,000 families found itself at a crossroads. The synagogue had a balanced budget and a beloved rabbi who was retiring after three decades, but its building was badly in need of repairs and the congregation was aging. To survive, the leadership felt they had to upgrade, so they took four steps: They hired a big-name rabbi, renovated the building, and put together an ambitious schedule of lectures and other programs to attract new faces. They also borrowed $1 million to pay for it all.
February 27, 2013

In 2000, an urban congregation of 1,000 families found itself at a crossroads. The synagogue had a balanced budget and a beloved rabbi who was retiring after three decades, but its building was badly in need of repairs and the congregation was aging. To survive, the leadership felt they had to upgrade, so they took four steps: They hired a big-name rabbi, renovated the building, and put together an ambitious schedule of lectures and other programs to attract new faces. They also borrowed $1 million to pay for it all.

Here’s what happened: The showpiece rabbi didn’t fit the community and required a large buyout to end his expensive contract. The renovation, while successful, was also costly. And while the programming brought in lots of new faces, those people didn’t stick around to join the congregation. By 2010, the congregation found itself $1 million in debt and its 1,000-household membership had shrunk to just 350.

The congregation’s leaders called author and educator Ron Wolfson for help. His solution? Downsize the programming and start talking to one another instead. “You have to understand your population,” he told them. Programs are great, but if they don’t offer a return by building the congregation, what have you accomplished? “It’s all about people first and programming second,” Wolfson said. 

Wolfson tells this story at the start of his new book, “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community,” to illuminate the foundational belief he has developed from working with Jewish organizations across the country, from watching synagogue memberships decline and leadership struggle to find new ways to draw people in.

“I’m worried about the Jewish future, and I’m really worried about the future of Jewish institutions,” Wolfson said during a meeting last week at his office at American Jewish University (AJU), where he is a Fingerhut professor of education. This from a man so optimistic that he co-founded with Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman Synagogue 2000, a collaboration with some 100 congregations nationwide to find ways to revitalize their goals as they transitioned into the 21st century. A man who, following that gargantuan effort, co-led another revisionist endeavor, Synagogue 3000, which by definition offered hope that Jewish institutions, and Judaism, would last at least another thousand years. (Synagogue 3000 has now become Next Dor/S3K, of which Wolfson is co-president.)

These days, Wolfson says, he stays awake nights worrying that the traditional institutions for Jewish engagement — synagogues and Jewish community centers, among others — have lost touch with their own fundamental communal needs. He believes many of them are spending too much time and effort and money on programs and not enough on connecting.

What we need right now, Wolfson said,
 is relationships.

Not just passing acquaintances, but lifelong relationships that can develop within communities and that will lift us up and beyond our own individualism. Relationships based on listening to one another’s needs and on shared experience, and through commitments to work side by side and to join together in prayer. Relationships that require face-to-face encounters.

Jewish Lights Publishing will release “Relational Judaism,” Wolfson’s 12th book, on March 1. It offers concrete advice for professionals who, like Wolfson, worry about all the unaffiliated Jews who, at best, dabble in the Jewish community then drift away: Spend more time listening and talking with people.

“I’m going to speak to the Reform rabbis at the CCAR [Central Conference of American Rabbis] in Long Beach,” Wolfson said of the conference taking place March 3-6, “and, as I say in the book, but I’m going to say more bluntly to the rabbis, I don’t think they’re spending their time the right way. If you look at how much time they’re spending at lay-leader-mandated meetings they don’t really need to be at, or programming, or reading blogs, or whatever, and if they just doubled down on building relationships, including pastoral visits, then they would be creating connections that strengthen the commitment to the institution.”

For rabbis and professionals, Wolfson writes in the book, “I suggest a simple exercise: create a time chart over the course of two weeks to track how many hours are actually allocated. Ask a simple question: Is this time I am spending building relationships, strengthening our community? Is it absolutely necessary for me to be there? Might someone else be empowered to do certain tasks that can free me to do the work I uniquely must do to engage people with the Jewish experience?”

The rate of attrition at synagogues, Wolfson says, is directly related to how personally connected members are not only to other members, but also to the leadership.

Wolfson cites a Washington-based consulting firm called Measuring Success, founded by Sacha Litman, which gathers hard data to measure how well organizations are meeting goals. Working with the Jewish community, Measuring Success discovered two key indicators of Jewish engagement: 1. “Does participation in the organization impact Jewish growth?” And 2. “Does a member of a synagogue, or JCC, a school parent, or a donor to Federation recommend the organization to others?” Litman found that the second question, whether an individual would recommend the organization, could be a direct measure of how likely that person would be to remain affiliated.

“Most strikingly, a meeting with the rabbi for even one hour was associated in a jump of nearly 25 percentage points in scores,” Wolfson writes, citing Litman’s survey of members of more than 20 congregations in New York City, Montreal and Chicago, from 2009 to 2012. “Yet,” he quotes Litman, “rabbis only met one-on-one with about 10 to 15 percent of congregants during the course of the year.”

And, Litman told Wolfson: “Even though social connectedness is a top driver of engagement, the largest expenditures in synagogue budgets were early childhood programs and religious schools. Very few synagogues spend significant human or budgetary resources on building relationships among the adult members of the congregation.” 

These days in the non-Orthodox community, many people join congregations to educate their kids and then all too often leave. And even so, there are all kinds of do-it-yourself offerings in the Jewish community that help families go through the traditional rituals — without an institution. Wolfson points to businesses like the Shiva Sisters, run by a pair of Los Angeles women who offer full-service bereavement aid to anyone who’s lost a loved one, from finding clergy to finding a pet sitter. What’s missing, as Wolfson points out, is that meaningful connection that can come from feeling a part of something larger than oneself — from being part of a Jewish community. 

So, what’s a rabbi to do?

For role models, Wolfson turns to two sources: Chabad and Evangelical churches. “When I first came here [to AJU], in 1974, everybody was laughing at these Chabad guys,” Wolfson said, “but who’s laughing now? They’re just extraordinarily more successful than anybody who was in a position of power here in the mid-1970s imagined they would be. And their model is totally opposite of the other Jewish institutional model: ‘I’m going to serve you, welcome you, teach you, feed you, and then I’m going to build a relationship with you. And only then I’ll ask you for money.’”

The relationship develops first, through Shabbat dinners and shared conversations, before all else.

Ron Wolfson

Similarly, at Saddleback Church, the Evangelical megachurch in Orange County that draws as many as 20,000 people to services each Sunday, “You can go for years and not be a member. And they tell you in their materials, don’t feel obligated to give if you’re a guest,” Wolfson said, pointing to a brochure from the church, which he uses as a teaching tool for his students. “But once you say, ‘Yes, I want to join,’ you go through a four-session enculturation process of learning about yourself, your spiritual gifts and what you can bring to the church. Because [Pastor Rick] Warren’s whole approach is that it’s not about you, it’s about how you can serve God and community and so forth.” 

And at Saddleback there are expectations for members: “tithing, getting involved in certain ways, joining a small group and coming to services,” Wolfson pointed out. “They have expectations, which is something our institutions tend to shy away from. We’re just glad you’re here.”

It’s the obligations, Wolfson believes, that make the connection more real. “I think if people understood that the institution stands for something, that you’re not here just for a fee-for-service or transactional exchange, or to get your kid a bar or bat mitzvah, then I think you’d have a better shot at engaging people who are serious people. But we have to tweak the model, and I think we have to do it in a major way.”

Wolfson points to congregations like IKAR in Los Angeles or the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle, which are trying to build new models for engagement. At IKAR, members are expected to become involved in social-justice efforts, to be fully engaged as members of a larger effort for tikkun olam (healing the world) that seeps into every aspect of synagogue involvement. Community means advocacy as much as prayer, and the ties that come from working side by side strengthen the purposefulness of the Jewish life.

Kavana, which like IKAR is nondenominational and has a membership that is mostly — though not exclusively — in their 20s to 40s, is built on a cooperative model, with “partners,” rather than members, and where “partners share in the task of creating Jewish life for the group.” Rather than offering a way to join the congregation, the Kavana Web site asks, “How do you want to get involved?”

Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation in Los Angeles, said while he fully agrees with Wolfson’s premise that rabbis need to spend some time with each of their members, he admits that with some 3,000 congregants, about 2,000 of them adults, he can’t always know everyone well, despite his best efforts. 

“It’s very challenging, the time we need to devote to people, to shmoozing,” Rosove said, given that at Temple Israel he also has to manage a staff of 75 full-time employees and another 75 part-timers; and he needs time to write, to study and to spend a limited amount of time on outside activities, including family and friends. A rabbi’s life is hardly limited to office hours. So Rosove said that he relies as well on the rest of his senior staff. “We believe that even if I don’t know everyone well, we try to make sure that one of us does.”

Rosove also said that one solution is a matter of policy: “We say yes more than no.” As an example, he points to his own recent change of heart on performing interfaith marriages. Examining his position, he found that over time his feelings against marrying couples of different religious faiths had changed and by establishing agreements with the couples for continued Jewish commitments, he felt he could now comfortably perform the rituals. “I’d been saying no, but I think it was just an unconscious response,” Rosove said. “As a liberal community, we’re not going to survive unless we say yes more.”

Rosove said that many good ideas developed at Temple Israel have originated with staff, but have taken off only when lay leadership took ownership. He points first to Big Sunday — now a citywide, year-round effort of volunteer organizing that is a stand-alone nonprofit but which began as a Mitzvah Day effort at the synagogue. “No rabbi has time to do that,” Rosove said, but by “being wise and identifying David Levinson,” who continues to lead Big Sunday, the process of temple-wide involvement took off, growing further each year. “At first, David would come to me for advice, and I told him, ‘David, stop asking me. I trust you. If we disagree, so what?’ ”

The issue is to identify congregants’ strengths, be supportive and not micromanage. “The first issue is picking the right staff, and once you’ve got them, then great people will come to them,” Rosove said.

Other rituals involve creating links among new congregants from their first days in a congregation. At Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), a Conservative congregation in Encino, the rabbis meet with groups of new members at several moments during the year, beginning with a “new member covenanting ceremony,” in August. At the ceremony, the members meet one another, a rabbi, the executive director and a lay leader. They share stories. And at the gathering Wolfson describes, Rabbi Joshua Hoffman told the group that belonging to a synagogue is a “sacred act” and then brought the group together inside the ark. At VBS, the aron kodesh, the holy ark, is large enough to enter, and inside it the rabbi offered a blessing — a unique experience, but also one that was shared, creating a special bond among the members of the group.

The need for lifelong relationships in Jewish life, of course, extend beyond the institutions, and “Relational Judaism” describes the importance of the work that must be done to ensure healthy relationships with all levels of interactions — with oneself, family and friends; in creating a Jewish life, in being in partnership with the larger community as well as the Jewish people, with Israel, the world and with God.

Wolfson comes to his belief that relationships are key through his own practice: He is, by nature, overtly friendly and enthusiastic. At a lunch to help guide a women’s group on new ideas for Passover seders last week, he stood at the door and personally greeted each person who entered to hear him speak. “It will probably be on my tombstone,” he joked, “I’m known for that: The guy who greeted all his students before he taught.”

It is a skill he says he takes pride in, a gregariousness he learned from his father and his grandfather before him. He remembers his “Zayde,” who owned a neighborhood grocery store in Wolfson’s hometown of Omaha, Neb., sitting every day at the storefront courtesy counter greeting each customer by name. “This was a guy who was illiterate, an immigrant from Russia, but he was amazing at relationship building.” 

“And then my dad,” Wolfson said, “who died just a couple of months ago, he was the guy you get on the elevator with, and by the time you get to the sixth floor, he knew your story, and you certainly knew his.” It was a style that sometimes embarrassed the young Ron, and even his mother, but ultimately, he learned the usefulness in creating a connection to the larger community, and not just the Jewish one.

“American individualism,” Wolfson said, “is a terrific thing, it really is; I wouldn’t trade it for a socialist system. But there’s a downside to it, and the downside is I could be holed up in my house with my guns in my closet, ready to protect myself from the terrible things out there, or I can embrace the idea that we’re not alone. And if we seek out relationships with community, with family, with friends, with God, something beyond ourselves, my belief is it can lead you to a life that’s filled with meaning. 

“And meaning is what it’s all about at the end of the day. A sense of purpose: ‘What did God put me on this earth to do?’ And if you don’t believe in God, fine, then, ‘What am I supposed to do with my talents and gifts?’ ”

As Wolfson wrote, the foundational principles of Judaism are based on relationships, or the Hebrew notion of  brit or covenant. We do not live our lives in isolation; we share our lives with one another, with family friends, the Jewish world, the larger world, and ultimately, with God. 

“Relational Judaism” is not a new idea, but it is, perhaps, one that needed refreshing. A reminder that we should spend time with people, not just our Facebook friends — to have social lives, not just “social networks,” to engage with our neighbors and fellow Jews as an investment in the survival of Judaism. This is the effort that rabbis must build upon, that lay leaders must emphasize, and, ultimately, it is an obligation that extends to us all.

“The idea of the covenant is, as Rabbi David Wolpe, author and rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, has noted, ‘the spine of Judaism,’ ” Wolfson writes. “We are constantly reminded of our covenantal relationship with God and each other. Shabbat is a sign of the covenant. The Passover seder reminds us that God keeps promises: V’hi she’amdah l’avoteinu v’lanu, ‘God who safeguards God’s promises to our ancestors and to us.’ The pageantry of the Torah reading service reenacts the revelation of the covenant at Sinai. The goal of the covenant is celebrated at the climax of the ceremony — the returning of the Torah to the holy ark: Etz hayim hi l’machazikim bah, ‘It is a tree of life for those who take hold of it,’ v’tomkheha m’ushar, ‘and those who support it are enriched.’

“In other words,” Wolfson writes, “those who embrace the covenantal relationship discover how to live a life of meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.”

And for those who wonder whether it takes a place — a synagogue — to maintain the relationships built within those walls, Wolfson said, “I would hope that the friendships and relationships with the people you pray with, the people you do social justice with, the people you celebrate your life-cycle events with, beyond your immediate circle of family and friends, can, in fact, be a connection point to a greater sense of community, beyond that circle of friends.”

In other words, when members become partners, communities thrive.  

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