Fueling Membership Engagement

Compelling Member Engagement 6 22 17

At USCJ, we understand the urgency of Conservative congregations struggling to build communities of deeper membership engagement and meaning. 

On the fiscal side,it is necessary for synagogues to maintain or grow their membership base to keep their budgets in the black, as we know from the Pirkei Avot teaching, im ein kemach, ein torah (without bread there is no Torah).

We also believe in the Jewish principal of keruv, to bring individuals closer to us and to God, to be a convenental and sacred relationship, and therefore a part of our synagogue communities. Synagogue leaders must build their capacity to deepen engagement of active members and conduct outreach to less engaged members.

1. Programs: “Igniting” Versus “Fueling” the Spark

Rabbi Ilana Schachter of Temple Shaarey Tefila in NY, in an article entitled Relational Engagement as Strategy, Philosophy, and Pedagogy: How a Synagogue Can Build Community through Coffee Dates (and more), says some programs are “ongoing, such as Shabbat worship or volunteering at our soup kitchen, while others are one-time special events.”  “A relational synagogue,” she argues, “operates under the assumption that every program has the opportunity to engage someone, and can either ignite or fuel the spark of engagement in that person.” Programs that “ignite” allow someone to access Jewish life for the first time, whereas programs that “fuel” help individuals continue their Jewish journey within the synagogue...”

We find this language of igniting and fueling as a helpful frame for membership engagement.  At Ansche Chesed in New York City, for example, a lecture on homelessness might “ignite” participants to consider the issue, while the committee called “Community Building through Service” fuels ongoing involvement. The committee plans events and various initiatives related to social justice and caring community. It designs these events to be relational wherein leaders take time to engage and interact with participants. They are committed to serve both their cause and the people involved on their team.

2. Participants: Member Segmentation

In Next Generation Judaism, University of Pennsylvania Hillel Director Rabbi Mike Uram, argues that there are empowerment Jews with long Jewish resumes, who continuously participate, and there are engagement Jews who have less Jewish background, feel less comfortable in Jewish settings and may be episodic in their engagement.

Engagement Jews, according to Uram, may lack the key synagogue skills or knowledge of Jewish history and culture. Jewish leaders need to find ways to connect with these episodic participants. It is these engagement Jews that would respond best to Schachter’s “igniting” programs.

Creating synergies between Empowerment and Engagement Jews

Our tagline at USCJ is “Seek Meaning Together.” It is our goal to help both “empowerment” Jews and “engagement” Jews, using Uram's language, work together to create a more diverse and engaged community where everyone can seek, and find, meaning. Following are some examples of how we do that.   

Sulam for Emerging Leaders (SEL) takes young engagement Jews and invites them to study together for seven months. The congregational rabbi and a lay facilitator find young people who have shown some promise as potential leaders and they are invited into a group that asks them to commit to the seven sessions, igniting their engagements and fueling their ongoing development.

Some of the participants might have stronger resumes but the curriculum is designed not just to showcase how much you know. It is designed to welcome the Jewish stories of each participant as they go from their story to the group's story to the larger story of the congregation and community. On such a journey everyone has something to bring to the table.

The friendships that are formed in SEL have the potential to develop leaders who can create a young families’ chavurah. Our hope is that alumni of this program will find new level of commitment that will help them reach out to ignite the interest of others and fuel the expansion of this network of leaders. 

United Synagogue Youth (USY)  develops an elite segment of leaders who are  “empowerment” teens who want to engage in Jewish learning, leadership, and social action. It also reaches out to “engagement” teens who join for the social component which includes chapter, regional, and international conferences and conventions.

USY has always understood that it has the potential to fuel the involvement of these elite USY leaders and that it has to work harder to ignite the interests of less knowledgeable and committed teens. Just as SEL helps individuals aged 35-45 reduce barriers between them, so USY looks to help its most empowered teens to bring the less engaged to the party.

3. Creating a Vision of Growing Engagement

If you don’t have a vision of what a relational community looks like, you will not consistently look for relational touch points. USCJ’s Sulam programs encourage leaders to dream about the community they seek to create.  They use words that paint a picture, clearly describing their dreams for the future.  It is not enough to say as a statement that we are warm and welcoming, but to clearly articulate how they truly embody that principle.

Within the Synagogue Walls

What would it look like to grow engagement within the synagogue walls? We envision a community where new comers entering a Kiddush luncheon are encouraged to join tables of individuals they do not know. There are sheets that provide transliteration for the blessing over the wine and challah in obvious places so those who desire can follow along.  Leaders circulate to meet folks they have not been in conversation with previously, and act along with the rabbi and cantor as ambassadors for the community.

Without this intention, leaders might spend all of kiddush talking with empowered, core active people like themselves.

Outside of the Synagogue Walls

What would a vision of growing engagement look like? We envision a community in which the membership committee is committed to holding one-on-one community conversations. They meet with new members (or those have joined in the last three years), inviting them to coffee to learn about their interests and why they chose to join or are thinking of joining. They follow-up with them after the initial meeting to invite them to a Shabbat dinner in someone’s home, away from the shul. They connect them to others like them. They understand the reason that they joined, and help them to form relationships and provide experiences that are meaningful to them.

Without a compelling vision, they would lack the commitment to meet people where they are. The vision fuels their effort to be ambassadors for engaged synagogue life. They promote the idea that Jewish life is best lived together.

4. Investing in an Engagement Capacity

Most congregations say they want to engage their members but when we ask them how they plan to accomplish this, they are vague. The reality is that if you don’t expand your capacity to engage members you will probably get the same results that you got the year before. Once you have a vision of growing membership engagement you can work to shift lay and staff resources to put this vision into action.

  • Schachter tells how Shaarey Tefilla started to change the way they thought about their staffing, creating the position of Director of Community Building. The director trains the staff and lay leadership in relational methods, from the coffee date one-on-one and active listening to meaningful follow-up techniques
  • At Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles, they invested in staff time to meet young families and track their involvement and progression on their path to greater engagement. They have made the investment to identify, recruit and develop these young families

Most congregations are going to need to develop lay and staff leadership that can both develop engagement plans and the people to drive them.

5. Designing Events, Programs and Meetings to be More Relational

Once you have a vision of growing engagement you see that every program, meeting, gathering and conversation allows for a relational opportunity. Are you taking the opportunity to consider how people enter the space, from the moment they walk through the door to the end of the meeting? Ron Wolfson, author of Relational Judaism, details 12 principles and strategies behind creating relational experiences.  Many congregations have had Wolfson speak and/or attended conferences on the topic, but not nearly as many have taken the opportunity to increase relational experiences. At USCJ, we provide resources on how to bring these principles to your communities and build capacity for further engagement. 

Case Study: How relational is your prayer space?

Every year at the Kehilat Hadar Shavuot retreat, we would kick-off the gathering in the beit midrash (small prayer space). We literally counted the number of benches in the room and considered how many people would fit on a bench. We also took into consideration how long the service would take from the second that folks entered the room, to when we would pass the Torah around from person-to-person. While some of these details seem too banal to some, it was of utmost importance to the leadership that the desired tone was set and careful consideration paid to the details that would help to “fuel the fire” for the experience to come. 

Case Study: How relational are your meetings?

We encourage committees to make sure they take time to help members get to know each other. First we need to relate — then we can create. We encourage leaders to create some norms for how they will work together (attend, be accountable, keep information confidential, etc). We invite leaders to create a vision for the committee and then explore some of the tasks they need to make this vision a reality. These strategies help people connect and fuels their capacity to be an effective team.

Some Next Steps

We believe that supporting a relational community is a major strategic objective. How do you get there?

Conduct a Relational Judaism Audit

  • USCJ offers a board assessment tool whereim leaders review a set of strategies based on Ron Wolfson’s 12 relational strategies. Leaders determine which ones are part of their culture and which ones are not
  • Board members then complete a short journal where they describe one way they can make their committee or team more relational
  • They then break into groups to share their thoughts and brainstorm more ideas to build more relational committees, teams and events
  • Finally, leaders write goals to bring these engagement ideas to fruition

Review the Job Description of Your Membership Committee

  • Find membership related webinar recordings HERE.
  • Have your committee take the USCJ Membership Committee Audit
  • Make sure the committee has the capacity to address their engagement vision
  • Have the committee share their plan with the board

We have many congregations that claim that membership engagement is their top priority but, on inspection, we find that few of their membership teams are addressing this work.


The future of our congregations depends on their ability to engage all kinds of Jews, from the most committed “empowerment” Jews to the most peripheral “engagement” Jews, and to engage them in multiple ways, using as many different relational strategies as possible.  We need programs that will fuel the involvement of active members and ignite the interests of less engaged members and prospects.

USCJ models these relational strategies in all of our Sulam programs. Our hope is that the leadership cultures of the kehillot will prioritize relationship building in their leadership teams and in their community programs and events.


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