Back in my day, I was quite the high school basketball player. I had flashes of brilliance on the summer camp circuit. And even in a couple of high school games. We shut down Ronnie Lee from Lexington High School for a half. He went on to become an All-American and play for the Detroit Pistons for 10 years.
My dreams of playing college ball remained just that. I was a 6’2” forward. I would have needed a few more inches and a bit more quickness. Rowing Crew and Intramural Basketball would satisfy my need for being a part of a team and for competition.
Is a bigger congregation really better than a smaller one? Synagogue life is a far cry from Big Time College Basketball or the NBA. A recent article by Rabbi Seth Goldstein about synagogue size raised this question, along with others. I agree with Rabbi Goldstein that sometimes congregations are too focused on increasing membership. The reality is that more members does increase the synagogue’s bottom line. But in a year’s time, is a synagogue really going to grow its membership by leaps and bounds to impact the budget that much? Will the budget impact be that dramatic that there will be increased funding for new staffing and new programming?
I don’t think so.
I take issue with Rabbi Goldstein on a few matters. He offered that most synagogues are capitalistic. The need for members and money trumps everything. What I believe and often write about is that it is the strength of interpersonal relationships, engagement and involvement that are really the key elements to a synagogue’s success. If people feel engaged and that their lives matter, paying dues or whatever you want to call it today will not be an issue.
Rabbi Goldstein also feels that small synagogues and their congregants are at a disadvantage Jewishly because of their size. And that larger synagogues should redistribute their resources so that the members of smaller sacred communities can have the same learning opportunities as their counterparts in larger synagogues.
Being part of synagogue movements such as the URJ, USCJ, RRC where larger synagogues pay more in dues to the North American organization than smaller synagogues was one way of leveling the playing field, so to speak. The parent entity could provide programming as well as consulting services that could benefit congregations of all sizes. The Internet, and other technological advances in music and video have also enhanced the capabilities of smaller sacred communities.
Besides, there are many small synagogues in small towns throughout North America that never think about that they have to focus on membership growth. That is just not even within the realm of possibility.
It seems that there are always a few congregants who are aware when someone new – who is Jewish – moves to the community and has even an inkling of interest in being part of a Jewish community.
Focusing on engagement and developing relationships with meaning is the key to success with such new people – as well as those who are already a part of the community.