The Care and Feeding of a Prospective Member: From Both Sides of the Table

by Katie Schwartz

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During the time I was the membership chair of a wonderful, small synagogue, I wondered why prospective members did not join, or chose to wait months before joining. Now that I have relocated and am myself a prospective member, here is what I have learned from considering 6 communities, choosing one and visiting – so far – 4 synagogues there (each of them multiple times for reliability purposes).

Getting new members is a team effort.

The Membership Team should consist of the webmaster, the front office staff, the rabbi, the membership chair, the president , the entire congregation, and the treasurer,  in that order.

Some of the information below may seem obvious. I am mentioning these points because, to one and usually to several congregations, they were not obvious.

The first place a prospective member turns is usually the website.

  • The member wants to know if there are services and what time they are. That should immediately be obvious, with ideally no more than 2 clicks on the site.
  •  To make it even more useful to prospective members,  ask new members who are also new to the locale  and are different ages what changes they would suggest making in the website.
  •  The site needs to be kept up to date; otherwise, it can become a history lesson in what happened a previous year (sometimes many years ago).
  • The “about us” buttonand the “contact us” button should be obvious.  The descriptions of the synagogue can welcome or turn off a visitor.
  • Putting information and links on both general and Jewish aspects of a community on the website is a wonderful extra!  Many people consider a synagogue/Jewish community before they consider moving to the locale.

The front office staff needs to be very welcoming and have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the community and some common synagogue-related words, such as minyan and yahrzeit.

The front office staff should be welcoming and encourage a prospective member to meet the rabbi. If the rabbi is so busy that he doesn’t have time to even meet a prospective member,  the rabbi likely doesn’t have time if the member has an emergency or needs counseling. Even if the visitor does not choose to meet the rabbi when it is offered, s/he will remember the tone of the front office staff’s greeting.

If the newbie is being directed to an activity at another location, it is crucial that the street address be checked for accuracy.  Is it X Street, or is it maybe X Road? In many communities especially, there are numerous streets with different ending words. Newbies today rely heavily – or totally – on their GPS.  They will not be thrilled to be sent to the wrong part of town.  For those who don’t use a GPS, check the directions for accuracy, or send them to Mapquest. The worst directions for a newbie are those that include the words, “Turn where the old ____ used to be!”

 

When prospective members e-mail or call the rabbi, the rabbi needs to respond – enthusiastically and quickly.  The e-mail can be brief.  The rabbi who responds  at all shows interest, which in itself is an unusually strong selling point.

The rabbi also needs to welcome visitors with at least a smile and a simple conversation – the first time they come.  (Otherwise, there may not be a second opportunity.)

The rabbi’s sermon needs to have a clear beginning, middle and end – and a “take home message” that is relevant to the congregation.  The Shabbat morning davening, especially,  needs some energy.

Two congregations I visited had Shabbat shirot, monthly services with extra singing, clapping, siddur tapping,  and niggunim. People really enjoyed these. (Siddur tapping is a distant cousin to drumming but apparently is not considered a musical instrument!)

 

The membership chair needs to start connecting with prospective members when they make their first inquiry to the synagogue. When the person actually appears for a service, the membership chair or someone else should offer to sit with him or her. It is very lonely to  sit by oneself, knowing no one. Afterwards, the president and/or membership chair should stay with the newcomer and introduce him to a few members, including some with whom he may have something in common.  Leaving a member alone to meet people on his own is very hard for most people; many would rather flee out the nearest door first. (They most likely won’t be back.)

 

Larger synagogues try different approaches to encourage members to greet visitors. Their problem is that with so many people, it is hard for members to know who the prospective members are, especially at a simcha such as a bat mitzvah.

  • One tried having visitors stand up at the end of services and introduce themselves.
  • That one also tried the “blue cup method”, which they explained at the end of services (apparently not for the first time, as few paid attention). During the oneg, visitors and new members were asked to use a large 20 oz blue plastic cup for beverages, so others would know to go up to the person and introduce themselves. (There was a big sign next to the blue cups explaining they  were reserved for visitors and those in their first year of membership who wanted to meet more members.)
  • Curious as to whether this worked, I tried it – and almost no-one approached me. (It would work better at small synagogues for large bar mitzvot and Break-the-fast kiddushin.) Another synagogue tried this with the “yellow cup” method. The color of the cup makes no difference; this method doesn’t seem to work.
  • I next tried wearing a small pin decorated with my first name that someone had given me as a child. People appreciated the fact that they could read my first name; it started some conversations at two  shuls I visited and people even remembered me the next time I went there because of the small name pin.
  •  Pre-made name badges on cords kept at the synagogue by the front door were a strategy of another synagogue, so visitors knew members’ names. Only a few members were wearing them, however.
  • It may be possible to combine these by typing some name badges in advance, of common first male and female names, for visitors.  Ushers should encourage people to wear them. These name badges should be a different color than those for members, so people can differentiate them.
  •  Another option is to identify prospective members their first visit, and let them know you hope they will come back and get a small name pin you will have ready for their second visit. The pins with their first names are easy and inexpensive to make, using supplies in a hobby store. The pins are the synagogue’s gift to the prospective member, to keep.  (If you know in advance that the person will be visiting, have the pin ready the first time; check the spelling for accuracy.)

If the membership chair isn’t there, the rabbi or the pulpit officer needs to welcome prospective members warmly, and stay with them for at least part of kiddush, introducing them to other members. The “hi and bye” approach is better than nothing, but not by much.

If there are ushers for a larger service, they should be asked to watch for, and welcome, newcomers.  Their friendly greetings and introductions to someone sitting down whom the newbie could sit with will be remembered. Obvious signs that someone is a newbie – such as carrying a coat because they don’t know where the coatroom is, asking directions to commonly known rooms, and asking what the usher does and doesn’t like about the shul – are clear signs that the person is shul-shopping!   Ushers need to be told this, and to know to ask the person’s name, welcome them and alert a membership chair or president that a prospective member is there.

Some synagogues have monthly calendars of activities out by the front entrance to the sanctuary or the front door, to encourage people to get involved. They may also have transliterated Friday night prayer books (synagogue-made). One shul had transliterated many prayers from Sim Shalom and glued them over the English in about 10 siddurim, so people who wanted help would not feel obvious about this. These special siddurim were marked with blue tape on the spine and put in a particular bookcase by the door of the shul.

The membership chair needs to follow up with the prospective member every 1 – 2 months, as hard as this may be.  The follow-up is not “When will you join?” but “How are you doing? How can the congregation help you find resources, etc here? Can you come to our X event?”  Putting the newbie on the e-mail list is also an option. The prospective member should know that someone from the synagogue knows his name.

Make newbies feel valued by asking about favorite activities they enjoyed from their previous synagogues; you could get some great ideas that way! To cue their memories, ask the name of their last synagogue during a phone conversation and look it up online, and then ask them about a few activities (if they were active). Also ask if they had a leadership role there; they may be a future leader at your synagogue with encouragement by various people.

Try to connect prospective members with others who have similar interests, from hobbies to careers.  Have the member invite the newbie to the shul or to a fun event elsewhere.  If there is a New Member Shabbat later, have the current member introduce the newbie (if the newbie has decided to join).

The congregation needs to show real interest in prospective members, from the warm greetings  and smiles when they walk in, to sitting with them at services, to talking with them afterwards and at the oneg/kiddush.  Everyone should be an ad hoc member of the membership committee! This is easier to do in small synagogues, where strangers are immediately obvious when they walk in the door.

Look for prospective members in less obvious places, such as the kosher section of the supermarket or the Jewish books section of the bookstore. Newcomers may start there and then go on to find a shul.

Another great place to look for members is in newcomers’ and singles  groups, such as  Jewish “meet-ups.”  Newcomers to town often visit these groups and may ask about synagogues.  At one such event, two attendees had a lively discussion about their  (mostly) negative experiences at various local shuls each had independently visited. Sitting in between them was another person who was apparently on the board of one of the synagogues; he was stunned to find out about the newcomers’ negative experiences there.  Another newcomer had had a positive experience at a local synagogue and had offered to take the others to her new shul to introduce them to people.

Prospective members are looking first for a sense of community, of fellowship, and then of spirituality. They want to know they matter to someone at the synagogue, especially if they are new to town. Greet them like they are special people; don’t ignore them like they are wearing invisibility cloaks! Then visitors want to know if they like the rabbi’s approach to the service.  If the person returns a second time,  pour on the smiles and greetings even more – the person is checking to see if the congregation is consistent and wants a relationship.

 Then someone should call the prospective member and personally invite him/her to a specific event at the synagogue. Whether or not the offer is accepted, or even whether someone answers the phone,  the personal call or phone message shows caring.

 Another concern of many prospective members is the cost of joining, at a time when moving and settling-in expenses may be very high. When the topic of joining is raised,  there should automatically be a mention that reduced fees are available if needed and are on a confidential basis. People will not ask for these unless they need them. Wait to invite someone to join until they have been coming for a while, are greeted by name when they come in the door  and feel comfortable in the community.

 When a member joins, get him involved right away in the activity of his choice, if he is willing. This gives him an opportunity to meet people and make some real connections. Some synagogues ask prospective members what groups they would like to join and then forget to invite them. Other synagogues have teams of members who do certain activities together, but the teams are formed in the summer. People who join after the summer need to wait a year before joining, unless they personally ask to join and make a real effort.

Make a special effort to get single adults involved. Many synagogue activities are designed for couples or young families. Single adults may feel left out, even if it is unintentional on the part of the synagogue.  Have a service or oneg primarily for singles, or find some other way for them to meet each other.

The prospective and new member is a lot like a seedling. It needs attention and care, to feel like he or she is part of a community and matters to people.  Will you be the person who “waters” the seedling, or the one who lets the prospective member’s interest “dry out”?

Katie Schwartz, the director of Business Speech Improvement, is a former synagogue membership chair. She relocated to another state and experienced  what prospective members go through, contacting and visiting new synagogues. Ms. Schwartz has written 4 books and many blog posts and articles.