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Better shuls, one ‘Shabbat Shalom’ at a time
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Better shuls, one ‘Shabbat Shalom’ at a time

Ron Wolfson, center, demonstrates an attitude of welcome with Cantor Bruce Siegel, left, and Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun.
Ron Wolfson, center, demonstrates an attitude of welcome with Cantor Bruce Siegel, left, and Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun.

Building relationships is the key to success for synagogues in the 21st century, according to Jewish educator and author Ron Wolfson.

“We cannot sit still and ‘do synagogue’ as usual. Building relationships is critical, and being welcoming is the first step in building relationships with people,” Wolfson said during a seminar at Congregation Torat El in Oakhurst on March 13.

Wolfson, the Fingerhut Professor of Education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, spoke about the challenges facing Conservative synagogues to an audience of about 85 people.

Conservative synagogues in particular face tough competition from Reform temples, which are often perceived as laid back and “easy,” and from Chabad-Lubavitch, which has raised the bar on the art of welcoming, Wolfson said.

“I have been to Chabad events where they draw 5,000 people. The key to Chabad success is what we need to learn,” he said.

Wolfson relayed worst-case scenarios he has experienced in his research at congregations around the country. In a large Conservative synagogue in Baltimore, for example, he said he wandered around for half an hour before being acknowledged.

“The day school and gift shop were open; there were about 12 people in the office, but after 30 minutes the only person who said anything to me was Winston the custodian. He was the only one with a name tag,” he said.

Wolfson, author of The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation Into a Sacred Community, is the cofounder of Synagogue 3000, a research group aimed at reinvigorating synagogue life.

In a synagogue in a Philadelphia suburb where Wolfson was invited as a scholar-in-residence, he said he arrived at the “enormous sanctuary that sleeps 800” and settled into a seat. Within moments, a man approached him and told him he was sitting in his seat.

“There are 785 empty seats, and this man needs my seat,” Wolfson said. “The first thing he should have said to me was ‘Shabbat Shalom. Would you like to sit with me?’”

Today’s synagogues need a greeter at the front door or even at the curb, not in the sanctuary, which is often unmarked and hard to find, Wolfson said.

“Instead of seeing a welcome sign while driving into many synagogues I visit, the first sign I see is ‘Drop Off.’ I don’t want to drop off — I want to drop in!” he said.

‘Attitude of welcome’

Synagogues should emulate the customer service slogans of leading businesses, such as Marriot (Anticipate needs), Disney (Everyone is a greeter), Sinai Hospital (Demystify the experience), and Home Depot (There’s no such thing as a stupid question). Shul websites should reflect vibrant photos of members engaged in celebration, rather than drab pictures of the building.

A basket of quiet toys should be kept at the back of the sanctuary to keep young children engaged. And if someone walks in late and can’t find their place in the siddur, hand them yours, Wolfson suggested.

In addition to the warm welcome, synagogues should offer good food.

“As a result of our study, shuls all over the country have opened up cafes with names like Holy Grounds, Cafe Schmooze, and my all-time favorite, Mi KaMocha,” Wolfson said.

“Your job next Shabbat when you see someone you don’t know is to make the first move and be an Abraham or a Sarah and introduce yourself. Then introduce them to other members,” he said. “Approach people with an attitude of welcome, and it will become an intrinsic characteristic of your synagogue.”

Wolfson’s message helped shape the vision of the merger between Temple Beth Torah and Temple Beth El, said Torat El president Alan Stern of West Long Branch.

“I heard Ron speak two years ago at a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism event, and he changed the way I look at synagogue,” Stern said. “His paradigm of Judaism is that we need to have something for everybody.”

Having a newly merged congregation provides a fresh slate to build a welcoming community, said Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun.

“On Shabbat morning I always have people introduce themselves to each other. My message is that it’s never too late to ask someone their name,” he said. “Who wants to be connected to something where they are not welcome?”

Temple member Harvey Shooman of West Long Branch said Wolfson not only addressed problem areas, but provided tangible solutions. “We are always looking for ways to energize, grow, and retain our membership,” he said.

The warm welcome policy hit home for congregation member Myron Samuel of Oakhurst. “Among the many messages he conveyed to us was that not only the leaders but also every member must get to know each other and warmly welcome visitors and strangers to the congregation,” he said.

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