I still remember the first time I got the call. “Hi,” the caller said, “I’m on the synagogue board, and I’m calling to wish you a happy Passover holiday.”
“Thanks,” I replied, waiting for the request for a donation. Or to serve on a committee. Or some other inconvenient thing the synagogue wanted from me.
“That’s it,” the caller said, “That’s all I was calling about.”
I was amazed. I had never received a call like that from a synagogue, or any other non-profit organization. Usually, around the holidays my inbox is full of emails with “Happy holiday” messages that contain a big, prominent “Donate” button in the middle of them. It was a small gesture, but it warmed my heart. It made a difference. It just plain made me like the synagogue more.
Now I’m on the synagogue board, and I am among the people expected to make those calls every year for Passover in the spring and the High Holy Days in the fall. Twice a year, a membership roster is printed and distributed to board members and other lay leaders. The goal is to call every single member, for no reason other than to say “Chag sameach” (happy holiday).
I must admit, I don’t look forward to it. I don’t particularly like talking on the phone, with its lack of non-verbal cues. Whenever I call someone, I always feel like I am interrupting them in the middle of something. In fact, I’m sure of it. Who sits around doing nothing, waiting for the phone to ring? It’s even worse when I’m calling someone I don’t know. Which, with randomly selected pages from the membership roster, is inevitable.
But every time I do it, I find it to be a surprisingly rewarding experience. Sure, I get a good number of answering machines, on which I leave a brief and, I hope, not-too-awkward message. However, I always reach some people at home. Some of the conversations are no more than a version similar to the one I had when I received my first such call, but others go deeper than that.
This year, one congregant told me about how much it meant to her when she was asked to give an azkerah earlier this year. From the Hebrew word “to remember,” an azkerah is a custom we have at our synagogue whereby, at Friday services, a congregant is asked to tell us briefly about a loved one for whom they are saying the Mourner’s Kaddish that evening in observance of the anniversary of his or her death.
Sometimes, I find I have reached a person who is ill, thus giving me the opportunity to ask whether they would like us to deliver any meals to their home or whether they would like to hear from the clergy. Sometimes they have questions about the synagogue I can answer, or that I can pass on to someone who can get back to them with a response.
Every year, I hear words of gratitude. Gratitude that we call for something other than for money. Gratitude that the synagogue creates a community which is there for them in times of celebration and in times of need. Gratitude that we take the time and effort to care.
What would happen if your synagogue called, and didn’t ask for money?