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Jewish Journal

Shuls Try New Bait to Hook Members

by Andrea Adelson

September 4, 2003 | 8:00 pm

One offered free tickets for a congregational outing to an Angels game. Others hold "open house" brunches, where clergy and teachers are available for questions. Another promised to unveil sanctuary secrets after a Friday night dinner and service.

These and other methods are deployed by local synagogues throughout the year to entice unaffiliated Jews and interfaith families into synagogue life. But the weeks prior to the New Year are typically peak season for such outreach efforts, aimed at procrastinators and synagogue samplers who intend to attend High Holiday services.

Creative outreach concepts are eagerly sought by the various Jewish movements and synagogue consultants since one-third of the nation's 3 million Jewish households include non-Jewish members, according to New York's Jewish Outreach Institute.

Two of Orange County's oldest synagogues, both far from the region's southern growth area, are taking unusual steps to reverse membership that is stagnating or in decline.

For the first time, Santa Ana's Temple Beth Sholom is sweetening its membership appeal by giving newcomers a one-time waiver for its annual family membership fee of $1,850. Ten new families have joined since the synagogue began advertising the offer in July. The goal is 50.

Anaheim's Temple Beth Emet, its congregation shrunken from a '70s peak to its current 300 families, gained three families by offering a similar incentive last year. The Conservative synagogue is repeating the offer, but also doing more than dangling a financial carrot.

The shul's self-renewal prescription is to tweak a musical format adopted in recent years at many Reform congregations on Friday nights. Beth Emet is hiring Craig Taubman, a popular Jewish recording artist, to infuse its Saturday liturgy with contemporary music four times over the next eight months. His first appearance is Oct. 25.

"The music he does changes the way people pray," said Doris Jacobson, Beth Emet's president. She hopes Taubman will lure new members into the synagogue and inspire more involvement from some of the 800 people who only make annual High Holiday pilgrimages to the shul.

"This is an experiment for me, too," said Taubman, who typically is hired by synagogues for one-time performances. He lays groundwork in advance, requiring synagogue leaders to revise seating, provide transliterations of Hebrew prayers and teach new songs. "I hope this is a model that is embraced in Anaheim," said Taubman, adding that the flip side may make Beth Emet's board consider more dire measures, such as a merger. "It could be a wake-up call," he said.

Beth Sholom, with 600 Reform families, is in stasis: the lackluster economy has undone gains experienced after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Susie Amster, the synagogue's executive director.

The synagogue budgeted $10,000 for advertising its free-membership promotion, modeled after San Francisco's Temple Beth El. "Statistics show that almost no one drops in the second year; that's the premise of this program," she said.

Even though its total numbers aren't growing, the popularity of Beth Sholom's education program is still taxing its facilities. A planning committee is considering expansion and moving, Amster said. About 125 adults as well as 400 students attend Sunday religious school. "Our building is not adequate for our needs now," she said.

Trying to shift perceptions about its vitality, Fullerton's Temple Beth Tikvah devised a series of programs for singles, interfaith families and the unaffiliated. "Understanding the High Holidays," for example, on Sept. 12 is intended as preparation for those who only attend synagogue once a year, said Anne J. Kalen, of Fullerton, Beth Tikvah's outreach chair.

Others were "Secrets of the Sanctuary," explaining a service's choreography; a "Chanukah How-To" where men made latkes; and hosting the 405 Singles group.

"Turnout hasn't been fantastic," Kalen said. "I was hoping there would be more enthusiasm."

Even so, the program is one of 10 superior outreach programs that is to be cited by the Reform movement's 2004 idea book, distributed in November at the Union of American Hebrew Congregation's Minneapolis convention.

And Kalen is still game to try other ideas this year, such as workshops on Jewish grandparenting and explanations of other holidays. "I know we've gained new members. A lot of them were under the impression we were ancient," he said.

Shifting the venue from the synagogue to a social setting is another outreach strategy aimed at welcoming and retaining new and prospective members.

In August, new members of Mission Viejo's Congregation Eilat were treated to an Angels game along with other congegants.

About 80 people, comprised of newcomers and prospective members of Newport Beach's Temple Bat Yahm, received an intimate introduction to temple members by participating in a progressive dinner, said Debbe A. Katz, Bat Yahm's co-vice president for membership.

An Irvine couple with two children raved about the event. "They thought it was a fabulous way to socialize," she said.

"Unfortunately, a lot of members don't chose to come," said Katz, adding that Bat Yahm's membership declined to 630 families from a peak of 650. "They complain they don't feel welcomed. They don't feel involved because they don't take advantage of what we offer." She attributed the decline to synagogue financial difficulties in the last year.

To get people talking with one another after Shabbat services, Bat Yahm will start handing out name badges upon arrival. New members will be easily identifiable with a distinctive color.

"Membership has its perks," Katz said.

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