March 4, 2013
Ron Wolfson and home teaching for Jews
It’s been a good night so far. My lovely wife and I met a Mormon couple from Utah for dinner at Factor’s, my favorite LA Jewish deli. The philo-Semitic husband and I have been corresponding for some time after he saw a newspaper article on my blog, and it was nice to finally meet him and his better half and to exchange insights on subjects like the 11th chapter of Isaiah and the remarkable history of the Jewish people. He is planning to attend the upcoming Jerusalem Post conference in New York before making his first visit to Israel, and became very emotional as he described what visiting the Holy Land means to him. It’s always inspiring to hear Mormons express their love for Israel and Jews, and when we parted I had the feeling that his Israel experience would impact the rest of his life.
After arriving home, I read Susan Freudenheim’s interesting article on Ron Wolfson’s latest book in this week’s Jewish Journal. In “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community,” Dr. Wolfson argues that developing genuine relationships with people should be more important to the Jewish community than programming and meetings. His advice for attracting and retaining unaffiliated Jews? Spend more time listening and talking with people.
I agree completely with Dr. Wolfson’s thesis; I only wish that he had mentioned the LDS Church alongside Chabad and Evangelical churches when citing role models for this kind of engagement. As part of our efforts to foster retention, every new member is supposed to be given some kind of responsibility, or calling, in his congregation. In a church with a lay ministry, this is usually pretty easy to do. One calling that is shared by almost all active Mormon adults is to serve as a home teacher (men) or visiting teacher (women).
Home and visiting teachers are assigned certain individuals and families to befriend and visit in their homes on a regular basis, usually monthly. If the families need fellowshipping and friendship, this is an excellent way for them to make new friends in the church. If they have specific needs that the church can meet, the home teachers convey these needs to the appropriate church officials. Not all members who receive these visits go to church regularly: many inactive or semi-active members (= unaffiliated Mormons) are assigned home teachers. Indeed, I am eternally grateful to two home teachers in Mount Pleasant, Michigan who were assigned to visit a newly-relocated member who had no desire to see them. They persisted, and as a result my mother, siblings and I were baptized.
I have no doubt that this kind of program would be of help to most synagogues in increasing and/or retaining their membership. In fact, home teaching seems to be tailor-made for large groups of Jews. Assign members of the congregation to befriend and visit several other members – or prospective members – on a regular basis and see what happens. In my experience, Jews are great listeners who care deeply about other people and seek to help them wherever possible. A Jewish home teaching program would allow synagogues to channel this empathy into member retention and enrichment. Many lifelong friendships have been created in the Mormon community as a result of these visits, and there is every reason to expect the same result from Jews cementing their friendship with other Jews on a monthly basis.