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Jewish Journal

A Surprise Might Attract More To Shuls

by David Suissa

November 3, 2005 | 7:00 pm

In many synagogues across the country today, the $64,000 question is the same: How can we get more people to come more often?

Unlike the old days of quaint ghettos and neighborhoods, Judaism has become a choice. Synagogues today compete against Starbucks and other distractions, as much as they compete against themselves.

So how can we better compete?

Everyone seems to agree, whatever the denomination, that we should make the synagogue experience more enjoyable, more engaging, even more spiritual. You want to feel like you got something more than the fulfillment of an obligation.

As someone who's been immersed in consumer marketing for 20 years, I want to throw one little insight into the mix, and invite anyone who's interested to build on it.

If there's one thing in marketing that piques interest, it's the element of surprise. For synagogues, however, this is easier said than done, because so much of a prayer service is based on repetition. And repetition itself has an emotional benefit: It makes us feel safe and comfortable.

But still, wouldn't it be interesting if we could add a dash of anticipation -- a sense of pleasant unpredictability -- to the synagogue experience?

One way would be to not get stuck on the same prayer melodies. Why not have our chazans constantly mix it up?

I was invited to an ultraliberal Ashkenazi Friday night service recently, and out of the blue came this hard-core Sephardic melody that my grandfather used to sing in Morocco. It blew me away, because I hadn't heard it in years. It was totally against type.

It's hard to overstate the delight of discovering a new melody or rediscovering an old one. I have a friend who would sometimes sing "Lecha Dodi" to the tune of "Michelle, Ma Belle."

You don't have to go that far. You could have a repertoire of three or four melodies for each prayer, and decide on the spot which one to sing. I don't know about you, but when I hear the standard melody of "Ein Keloheinu," it's like a double shot of Valium. I once heard a Chasidic version of that prayer that really brought the words to life.

You get the picture. Mix it up, add, delete, go as far as you can without creating a shul mutiny.

Melodies can surprise and delight the heart, but what can surprise the mind? Most synagogue sermons connect with the calendar, either with the Torah portion of that week or with a specific holiday. It would be silly of me to challenge that imperative, but I do think there is an opportunity to break with the calendar, not just to surprise but to inspire.

We make a big deal about keeping the lessons of our holidays in our hearts at all times. So why couldn't we pull the holidays out of their time zones and make them more visible throughout the year? In the same way that we can mingle our timeless melodies, why couldn't we mingle our timeless holidays?

For example, any given Shabbat could honor a different holiday, and weave it into the discussion of the weekly Torah portion. I can envision a very powerful sermon on the subject of Yom Kippur -- one month after Yom Kippur -- that would play up the continuing relevance of the Day of Atonement.

At the beginning of an actual holiday, why not create a miniceremony that would honor the previous holiday?

When we're so used to going forward, it really gets people's attention to go backward, especially when it makes sense. We all have a tendency to go through our holidays and then put them away in storage. Wouldn't it make sense to keep bringing them back, to follow up and make sure that we are still living their message?

We have such creative minds in our spiritual leadership that I can see a constant flow of holiday ideas at odd times of the year. If Rosh Hashanah is about personal renewal, why not surprise people by celebrating that holiday idea in the middle of the year? When it's not Shavuot, why not celebrate the spirit of Shavuot with a Torah learning day? During the summer, why not do a spirit of Chanukah event for tikkun olam?

In other words, keep people on their toes and challenge their expectations. Bring back not just the biblical past, but the experiential past that we can personally relate to -- our holiday treasures.

Ultimately, whether it's through changing melodies or going back on holidays, people would get the comfort of the familiar, but they would also look forward to a touch of the unexpected. And who knows, they might even hold off on Starbucks for a few hours. What's another boring latte?

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

 

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