In the introduction to his excellent book Relational Judaism (2013), Dr Ron Wolfson relates a frightening story of synagogue membership decline. In the year 2000, one of the largest congregations in North America celebrated its 100th anniversary in style. It had a membership of nearly 1,500 households, huge by American standards. But, just 10 years later, Wolfson visited the same shul which was by now a million dollars in debt with a membership that had shrunk to just 300 households. What had gone so badly wrong?
It turned out that the leadership of the community had in fact noticed some subtle signs that their persistently high membership rates would not always be as reliable as they once were. The demographics of the area were changing, the building was ageing, and their beloved long-serving rabbi was approaching retirement. So, they began a programme of rejuvenation and investment in the community, hiring extra personnel and putting on expensive and lavish programmes that promised the earth to attendees. And then they waited to see the expected results in membership growth that sadly never came.
The reason the membership didn’t grow has to do with an interesting feature of the recent JPR report into declining synagogue membership in the United Kingdom. Various aspects of the report have generated healthy debate across the community, which can only be a good thing. But the authors of the report admit that they faced a challenge in how best to measure the data.
Historically, synagogue membership has always been based upon the number of households within a community. In order to ensure statistical continuity with earlier membership studies, that was the model adopted by the authors of this report, too. They acknowledge, however, that it would be more accurate nowadays to express membership statistics in terms of individual adult members, rather than family units.
There are a number of practical reasons for this, including the existence of families in which only one parent is Jewish, partners who hold different synagogue memberships, as well as adult children living with their parents who are members in their own right.
But the real significance of this point arguably goes far beyond a mere practicality.
One of the most critical tasks of any synagogue is to look itself squarely in the eye and ask whether it is caring and catering for all of its members, without exception. To be sure, shuls routinely declare that they indeed do so. But there can be a world of difference between making a declaration and ensuring that it filters through into practice.
The real reason for the free-falling membership of that American shul, according to Wolfson, was that they failed to develop deep relationships with the individuals who came to their new, dynamic and exciting programmes. And just when the shul needed the nurturing of those relationships most, people were treated as statistics attending events, rather than as individuals whose lives, issues and dilemmas really mattered to the shul leadership. And without that, there was only one direction the shul would go. “People will come to synagogues and other Jewish organisations for programmes”, argues Wolfson, “but they will stay for relationships”.
The notion of identity has never been more fluid than it is today. People fundamentally deserve to be related to as individuals rather than assumed to fit into a neatly defined “household” box. In addition, as they journey through life, many people experience changes in circumstance which impact upon the way in which they perceive their Jewish identity. By contrast, there is one thing which remains entirely constant for every shul member throughout his or her entire life. That is the fact that they are unique individuals, with unique hopes, dreams, doubts and aspirations.
This is why a move towards measuring membership in terms of individuals rather than households may just be the critical shift in thinking that the mainstream British Jewish community needs to undergo.
A relationship with “households” is not the same as a relationship with “individuals”. And if we accept, to paraphrase Martin Buber, that “in the beginning, there is the relationship”, then this is where our primary efforts at membership engagement and growth must be directed.
When a shul learns to relate to its members as individuals, rather than part of a particular demographic group or household statistic, they will be able to unlock the key to the ultimate elixir of community growth.
Rabbi Birnbaum is Rabbi of the Hadley Wood Jewish Community