Engagement Through Focus Groups: It’s A Start

My apologies for not blogging for a while.

For the past 15 months at my synagogue –Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ – I have been a member of its strategic planning committee. Before we could really do strategic planning, we had to identify what we believed were some significant challenges.

A little background: TNT was created in 1980 from the merger of a Reform and Conservative synagogue. . During the 1990s, there was a tremendous influx of baby boomers and their families and the community doubled in size to more than 400 families. Dual membership with both the Reform and Conservative movements was an important part of the synagogue’s culture and identity. In 2000, one of the more interesting experiences was when the neighboring Conservative synagogue filing a grievance with the USCJ which led to TNT becoming solely affiliated with the URJ.

That is a story I will save for another time.

Some of our challenges are happening at many synagogues today. People leaving the synagogue once their children have had their B’nai Mitzvah and there never seems to be enough money to do all of the things the staff and the board wants so much to do are just two familiar examples. A few years ago, TNT merged with another Reform synagogue in a neighboring town that came with 100 members. And yet our membership has remained in the neighborhood of 450 families during this time.

To add to this mix, in the next few years, our rabbi of 34 years and our Religious School principal of 18 years will be retiring.

Engagement has been one of the topics I have blogged about. I didn’t have to do much convincing with my colleagues that this was an opportunity to reach out and have a conversation with a critical mass of our community, see what people think is important to them about our synagogue as well as their concerns. So over the course of a year, we held focus groups with various natural groupings of people – synagogue committees, Choir members, and the folk who work on the Purim Shpiel. We also had open meetings. Through our efforts, we were able to meet with 125 people representing 110 families.

What did people say? All kinds of stuff. Some people want more music at Shabbat evening worship, and some people want less music. 10 people in a room have 11 opinions!

You can read the TNT2020 Focus Group Report here.

There are several key takeaways. One is that the focus of the staff and leadership has to be on engagement of everyone. People are looking for community. If engagement becomes our focus in all facets of synagogue life, and for all ages, perhaps this might change opinions that synagogue affiliation ends with your last child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

Many people expressed concerns about dues. Our synagogue has a group of folk participating in a year of study of this topic with the URJ Communities of Practice where the focus is to change to a model where people pay what they want to. Last week, we presented our findings to the synagogue’s board. Rabbi Kushner commented that our focus should be on connecting with congregants. I have often shared with synagogue leaders a similar view:

If you touch people’s heads and hearts, paying dues obligations will no longer be a concern.

Based on so many comments we heard, we felt there is a need for a communications plan. Do people read the weekly emails from the synagogue? Should we have a blog? Why is it that all of the information people provide about their interests at the time they join the synagogue just sits on that paper form?

And of course, many people had expressed concerns about the upcoming retirements of our Rabbi Kushner and Iris Schwartz. So succession planning was something that our committee, and many people with whom we spoke, felt is important.

The real work has to start now. I am confident that our efforts evidenced by this report will not just get dusty on someone’s desk. It presents a roadmap for the synagogue’s board and staff to follow. The board members present were enthusiastic, appreciative, and excited to have a vision and plan for their upcoming work.

Rabbi Kushner made another comment to our group at the end of the meeting. A former congregant came back to visit and was impressed with how much the building has grown. Rabbi Kushner told him that we have had two capital campaigns, and now we are having a campaign to build community.


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