What Synagogues Can Learn From Garage Sales


Every fall, my community holds its annual garage sale. Any household in the town can add its name to join a list and map of participants. This is an annual chance to empty your basement and garage and earn some extra dollars. Traveling from street to street and sale to sale, you see offerings ranging from tables and blankets covered with books and toys to major displays including clothing racks and artwork. Every year for 20 years or more, my wife and I have scoured the house looking for things we don’t need or use, items that are taking up valuable space and those pieces we didn’t even realize we still had. As we set up the displays, we promise that “nothing is going back into the house” only to, hours later, pack things up that don’t sell so we can set them out the following year.

This year, as I sat outside greeting shoppers and browsers I wondered why we go through this ritual every year? Why do we enjoy it? Why do people travel miles sometimes to look through other people’s junk? I realized there are some interesting and important lessons to be learned from this great American ritual that might relate to synagogue and synagogue leaders.

Each year the things we sell change based on what is happening in our lives.

When my daughter was young, we had a crib, we had strollers and we had baby toys and books. As she got older, we sold the crib and toys and strollers at our garage sales. They were from a different phase of our lives and no longer of use to us. As synagogue leaders, we must consider whether our offerings and programs have changed to accurately reflect the make-up and demographics of our community rather than continuously try to sell the same classes, programs, holiday events and fundraising events. Are we at a point where we have to evaluate what to sell and what to keep?

One person’s junk is another person’s treasure

Often, as I would look through my basement or garage to collect items to sell, I think, “Should I even put this out on the table? Who would buy this?” Every year I am amazed to see some of the things that people purchase and thank us for. As synagogue leaders, do we sometimes undervalue or underestimate the impact or importance of some services or programs to some of our members?

I was recently discussing the idea of kehillot moving from actual memorial plaques to virtual memorial boards. We talked about the benefits of saved space and a different feel to the building. However, we also must acknowledge how important those actual plaques are to so many people and what their loss would mean. We need to remember to think about all community members when evaluating value.

90% of the selling is about the relationship

Every year the most enjoyable part of garage sale day is getting a chance to speak with everyone that stops by. Whether it is just saying hello and asking if they are from the neighborhood or it is discussing the weather or their favorite sports team, it is fascinating to meet those who stop at our home to look through our treasures! We actually have gotten to know families that stop by every year. We see children grow up; learn what happened to their pets and what is happening in their lives. In the midst of these conversations they usually end up purchasing some items they probably had no intention of getting.

As synagogue leaders do we take the time to meet and learn about our members? Isn’t it wonderful to connect to families, couples and individual members and grow with them as they go through their life cycle as part of our community? Once the relationship is built the chances of these members “buying our products” and deepening the relationship to our community grows in multiple ways.

Just because a person stops to look for specific items doesn’t mean they won’t end up buying something else

Many of us know friends or other synagogue members that joined the kehilla for a very specific reason. Their child is entering third grade and needs to start Hebrew school or they moved to town and want a place to go for High Holidays and yizkor or some other reason. However, we also know that we as leaders have opportunities to build relationships and help these members experience other offerings of the community so they might end up participating in ways they never planned or thought of. We need to be respectful of all members and remember that some people join for a specific purpose or reason and that is fine.

Some people are simply browsers

Over a course of the day at a garage sale I can spot many people who are out for a walk and looking at the different sales but don’t really have any purchase in mind .The weather might be nice for walking the town or they think it is a fun thing to do but they don’t expect to walk back to their home with handfuls of great purchases. As synagogue leaders, we need to recognize that some people are visitors or browsers at synagogues. They may come to an occasional service or speaker but they might not be interested or ready to commit as members. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t spend the time to reach out and make them feel welcome and comfortable. Who knows if their attitude or needs might change in the future?

With so many garage sales, standing out in the crowd is important

On any given year there can be 40, 50 or 60 garage sales going on all over town. Not everyone is willing or able to visit all of the sales so how do we stand out in the crowd. Sometimes we put up signs with details of items all around town. There have been years when we announced our sale on social media bulletin boards, Facebook etc. If we have furniture or items that we believe college students might want or need we put up signs near Rutgers, the nearby University. The idea is that if we want to stand out in a crowd we need to actively try to put our message out in places where we believe we are reaching potential buyers. Of course once we attract shoppers we need to have the merchandise and the right price to make sales but we at least give ourselves a chance. If we don’t actively seek shoppers our potential for success is much less.

What do you do with the stuff that doesn’t sell?

At the end of each garage sale my wife and I face the same decision of “What to do with the stuff that didn’t sell.” I usually try to just pack it all up and put it back in the basement until next year. My wife says we didn’t want it or use why waste the space and save it? Let’s give it away or throw it out. Each year we end up doing some of each. As synagogue leaders, how do we approach programs that we offer year after year regardless if they “sell” or not? Do we offer the same classes and events over and over or do we spend the time each and every year to evaluate our offerings to see if they are meeting the current interests and needs of our community members? Spending that time to be strategic can save important time and energy in the future. You can have the time to find different, new programs that might “sell” next year.

I am always fascinated about how we can learn important helpful lessons from so many happenings in our lives and lives of our communities. The ability to recognize these lessons from garage sales and similar events can only help us be stronger leaders.

Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated (Psalms 119:99): “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.”

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