Member Spotlight: Oheb Shalom Uses Storytelling to Increase Membership and Enrollment


When Oheb Shalom Congregation (South Orange, NJ) received a generous gift from a local philanthropist, it came with strings attached: reach more families and do it fast. 

“Education was already a big part of what we do at Oheb Shalom,” said Gavin Hirsch, education director of Oheb Shalom’s Zeman Religious School. “But a challenge we had was that parents would just drop off their kids for a few hours and that was it. They weren’t engaged. We really weren’t interested in that, and neither was our donor.”

Hirsch took the program down to its bones and started over. He envisioned a new culture for the religious school, one in which parents stay and schmooze – and maybe even learn new things themselves – instead of functioning as a Jewish-flavored babysitting service. 

“I just want people engaged,” said Hirsch. “Whether that’s coming to services, volunteering around the shul, or just sharing a bagel with a fellow parent… Community is our ultimate goal.”

Working with a group of dedicated lay leaders and listening to their community through meetings and surveys, the Oheb Shalom leadership staff discerned that many potential members were disconnected from the broader Jewish community. The parents may have never experienced synagogue life or Jewish education themselves and didn’t know if their children would enjoy it.  

“We know it’s hard to integrate into a new community,” said Michelle Strassberg, executive director. “And it’s hard to envision yourself in an environment you’ve never been in before.”

To reduce anxiety about the unknown, Oheb Shalom decided to put together a promotional video campaign sharing the stories of current member families – to show exactly what makes this place so special. 

“We had never done anything like this before,” said Strassberg. “We needed help!”

They brought in Eric Winick, principal of Winick Marketing & Advocacy nonprofit consulting firm, to manage the project. 

“This was so important to us that we knew we needed to invest,” said Hirsch. “It wasn’t the kind of money that a for-profit company might spend, but for us, it felt significant.” 

Winick shared that the costs included graphic design, video production, and project management. Videos were the core of the religious school recruitment campaign, distributed mainly via social media, and supported with paid advertising and media relations. Hirsch recruited members to star in the videos, collaborating closely with board member Freyda Mechlowicz. 

“This campaign makes me smile so much,” said Winick. “We came in with a list of questions, but you just never know what will happen. The cutest moments we captured were completely unscripted.”


Another barrier Oheb Shalom identified was financial. Many families just couldn’t afford to enroll.  Thanks to the generosity of a local foundation, Oheb Shalom was able to eliminate tuition for the religious school and implement a step-up membership dues structure for the synagogue. 

“It can be tough for families to afford synagogue dues,” Hirsch said. “Even when they want to be involved, the standard dues are hard to budget for right away.”

Oheb Shalom instituted a three-year step-up program for new members, starting with highly subsidized dues and slowly increasing to full dues. (Strassberg and Hirsch both stressed that finances should never be a barrier and they work with every interested household to make membership accessible.) And it worked – 30 new households joined the synagogue as paying members.

Now, Hirsh says, Oheb Shalom’s religious school is completely transformed. When families come to Sunday school, the grown-ups stick around to share breakfast and build community together. Not only are the existing families more engaged, the program increased enrollment from 55 to 86 elementary-age students in just four weeks – an increase of 56%. 

“The most important thing we discovered through this whole process,” said Hirsch, “is that marketing and engagement are a totally blurred line. There’s really no distinction – storytelling is just one method of engaging people.” 

And with the tremendous growth of Oheb Shalom, they will certainly continue to have many wonderful stories to tell. 

Winick Marketing & Advocacy is a vendor on USCJ Digital Marketplace, your one-stop shop for synagogue needs. No hunting through lists in the office or relying on your network for information—it’s all here with a few clicks or taps.

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