Synagogue coaches looking at what makes members tick

In a weak economy, how can synagogues confronting declining membership get back in the game?

Answer: Hire a coach.

That’s the strategy of the Synagogue-Federation Partnership Membership Project, organized by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. The goal is to help synagogues learn more about themselves in order to do smarter outreach to prospective members.

Rabbi Marvin Goodman

As the name implies, the project partners the federation with Bay Area synagogues, nine in all. Rabbi Marvin Goodman, who heads the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, is project director, while Jewish community consultant Amy Asin serves as project manager.

Both are among five coaches that will help the nine synagogues through the project, which will take 18 months. Participants include Congregations Kol Shofar in Tiburon; Beth Jacob in Redwood City; Kol Emeth and Etz Chayim of Palo Alto; Ner Tamid, B’nai Emunah and Sherith Israel, all of S.F.; Beth Am in Los Altos Hills; and Half Moon Bay’s Coastside Jewish Community.

Organizers are currently conducting a membership survey, with up to 70 percent of congregants participating. They will then analyze the data and follow up with focus groups and training of clergy, staff and lay leadership.

The end result should be congregation-based programs to better equip synagogues to recruit and retain potential members over the long haul.

“It’s a bottom-up process,” Goodman said. “For a few years, we’ve had conversations where we listened to what was going on in the synagogues, and what they thought they needed.”

The member survey will extract not only important demographic data, but also probe the real feelings of congregants. The operating assumption is that all synagogues have their own unique cultural fingerprint. Identify that, and subsequent membership appeals can be designed more effectively.

“We think [the synagogues] will learn more about themselves,” Asin said, “and the special needs and qualities of their current members in a much more comprehensive way. We hope people who have a deep connection will respond, and we also hope those more marginally connected will respond.”

From there, a team of synagogue staff and lay leaders will work with one of the project’s coaches to interpret the data, conduct further focus groups and use the collected information to design custom membership programs.

There is also a $2,000 stipend waiting for each congregation at the end of the project, money to help implement those programs.

Asin is quick to caution that programs are not the be-all-end-all solution. “We don’t want to eliminate [programs], but open them up to possibilities of other things,” she said, “like relationship building.”

She gives the example of a program for mothers of young children. Asin said the way to best engage them is not to count how many people show up to any given program, but to ask the mothers if they made any friends, and if they went on to sit by them at Shabbat services.

Over the 18 months, project stakeholders will meet routinely to discuss their progress. Ultimately, the plan is to empower synagogues with the skills to do better outreach.

But that’s for later. Right now,  Goodman said, “This is about in-reach to understand the membership.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.