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Jewish Journal

Survey says Reform rabbis don’t know what members want

by Sue Fishkoff

December 6, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Leaders of Reform synagogues don't quite get their members, according to a new study by the movement.

The study shows a marked disconnect between what the leaders think their members are looking for and what the members say they actually want.

In general, the synagogue leaders seem to underestimate their members' interest in Jewish practice and worship. And they overestimate the synagogue's importance in the religious lives of their families.

The two-year study, to be released at the Reform movement's upcoming biennial, suggests that synagogue leaders better focus more on building warm, welcoming communities if they want to have and hold their members.

Questions addressed by the study -- Why do people join Reform congregations? Why do they leave? And what can synagogues do to make themselves into warm, welcoming communities? -- will be a major focus of the 69th biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) set for Dec. 12-16 in San Diego.

A week ahead of the conference, 3,200 people had registered for what generally proves to be the largest national gathering of any Jewish stream. That includes a higher number of international delegates than usual, according to conference organizers, as well as a strong showing of high school and college students.

In addition to unveiling the survey on membership, highlights of the five-day biennial will include:

  • URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie's announcement of a movement-wide initiative to increase the personal observance of Shabbat by Reform Jews;
  • The first large-scale use of Mishkan Tefilla, the movement's long awaited new prayer book that has begun arriving in synagogues this past month. Copies will be given to every participant and it will be used at worship services during the biennial;
  • Release of three new URJ Press publications -- "The Torah: A Women's Commentary" and two books on men's programming -- as part of an exploration of gender differences kicked off by a two-day pre-conference symposium;
  • A closing-day plenary address by Ingrid Mattson, the president of the Islamic Society of North America -- the same group Yoffie addressed over the summer. Of the many topics to be addressed at the biennial, the most popular are turning out to be those sessions on outreach and membership.
Conference organizers report that hundreds have signed up for workshops on those issues, as well as intermarriage and conversion -- more than for any other topic, and significantly more than those who enrolled for workshops on those issues in previous years.

Movement leaders attribute the spike in interest to a generally positive response to Yoffie's 2005 biennial initiative. In his Shabbat morning sermon that year, he urged Reform congregations to honor their non-Jewish members, to invite those non-Jewish members to convert and to focus on how to remake their congregations so members stay throughout their lifetime rather than quitting after their children become b'nai mitzvah.

Those initiatives "clearly resonated" among Reform Jews, said Kathy Kahn, the union's director of outreach and membership.

Now the Reform movement has some data with which to frame its outreach and membership discussions.

The new membership study involved two years of phone interviews, online surveys, case studies and undercover visits by "mystery shoppers" to Reform services in four cities -- Cleveland, Seattle, Springfield, Mass. and Boca Raton, Fla.

Results showed that current and former members of Reform synagogues mostly join for reasons of community, not for "services" provided.

"Congregations that work go out of their way to integrate new members, inviting them to Shabbat dinner rather than just putting them on committees," said Emily Grotta, URJ's communications director, who conducted many of the study's phone interviews.

Grotta points to one Cleveland congregation that created small chavurot, or prayer fellowships, of members with similar interests, and successfully built a sense of community that permeated the larger congregation.

"You could hear it in people's voices, the difference," she said.

The survey found that synagogue leaders misunderstood members' interest in spirituality and worship.

It included interviews with 910 former members of Reform congregations to find out why they joined and why they eventually left.

Whereas 50 percent said they joined because they wanted a place to worship, synagogue leaders thought worship was important to just 5 percent of those former members.

Synagogue leaders also overestimated the importance of their institutions in the religious lives of their members.

Fifty-eight percent of former members said they "were able to be Jewish without a congregation," a factor that didn't show up on the leadership's radar. Also, 18 percent said they filled their Jewish needs "elsewhere," again a factor the leadership failed to recognize.

That should serve "as a wake-up call to all the denominations," Grotta said.

Interest in worship and spirituality is pronounced among newer as well as former members of Reform congregations, she said.

"What jumped out at us was the number of new people who join for worship, for spirituality, to learn how to become better Jews," Grotta said. "The leaders didn't get that at all."

Money is also important, or rather the perceived value of what members get for their dues: 40 percent of former members of Reform congregations said they withdrew because membership was too expensive. Just 9 percent of the leadership thought cost was an issue.

Overall, the study shows that Reform Jews remain synagogue members if their congregation becomes their community, the place where their friends and family are.

Thirty-five percent of those who left Reform congregations said they "didn't find community" at the synagogue, and 33 percent said it was because their "children didn't connect" after they became b'nai mitzvah.

"If we don't build a sense of community," movement leaders warn in the study's conclusion, then members of Reform congregations "will leave when they have received the services they want."

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