Synaplex Shabbat events are a draw &mdash for members

When Gary Hammer visited the Synaplex Web site, he couldn’t help but notice that nine out of every 10 suggestions on how to pull people into his synagogue were “intuitive” things they were already doing.

But that 10th suggestion — brilliant!

There was a time when scheduling a synagogue event at the same time as Saturday services was unthinkable. But after his online session, Hammer, president of Palo Alto’s Congregation Etz Chayim, had a change of heart. He helped organize a Saturday morning hike. And it was a huge hit.

“Synaplex suggested the morning hike. Intuitively, it’s a very spiritual activity, but we didn’t want to cross-schedule against services. But while a hike on Saturday morning might be tempting for a regular service-goer, it could draw a non-service-goer,” he said.

“Basically, we’re looking at what else can we do to get congregants into synagogue on Shabbat other than just plain old services.”

Synaplex is a nationwide initiative devised by STAR, a 7-year-old St. Louis-based nonprofit that, just as Hammer put it, aims to devise novel ways to get synagogue turnstiles a-clicking on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. Nearly a dozen Bay Area synagogues have participated, and five have been tapped for $20,000, two-year grants to fund the Shabbat activities of their dreams.

(Those synagogues are Tiburon’s Kol Shofar, San Rafael’s Rodef Sholom, Oakland’s Beth Abraham, Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom and San Francisco’s Sha’ar Zahav.)

Like the individuals who constitute them, synagogues’ dreams differ. The recent transgender Synaplex event at predominantly gay and lesbian Sha’ar Zahav, for example, might not have been right for Kol Shofar, which held a “hot fudge Shabbat” for its young families.

The multiplicity of events, often even at one site, is why Synaplex gets that distinctive moniker — it hails from “cineplex,” the 18-screen movie houses that claim to offer something for everyone.

Synaplex events may not truly offer something for everyone, but they offer quite a bit for quite a few. Overall, that’s not too bad. Locally and nationally, Shabbat attendance at Synaplex events is often double a usual service.

But those new faces aren’t really “new.” While Synaplex has done a demonstrably good job of bringing in temple members who don’t usually go to services, its ability to draw in new people is less established.

But, according to STAR Executive Director Rabbi Hayim Herring, that’s “two sides of the same coin”.

“If you don’t more deeply engage the people you have, you certainly won’t get people who aren’t coming or won’t even affiliate,” said the rabbi, who was ordained by the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.

“How can you create a vibrant Jewish community shaped by Torah?” he continued. “If Synaplex gets people who would maybe attend synagogue three or four times a year to participate in three times that number, then we’ve helped move individuals onto a path of deeper engagement.”

So while it might be shallow to say “come for the hot fudge, stay for the services,” it wouldn’t be altogether wrong. The multiplicity of events allows synagogues to reach swaths of congregants who, for whatever reason, are not coming to services. This includes 20-somethings and empty nesters who might be put off by the child-centered programming so many synagogues emphasize.

But many are just happy to try something new. Rosenberg noted that virtually all the new attendees were already on the synagogue’s member list.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Word-of-mouth is still the biggest draw for new members at most synagogues. And more mouths in synagogue means more word on the streets.

“The benefit toward membership is in the long-term, not the short-term,” said Michael Saxe-Taller, Kol Shofar’s director of programming and membership.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.