Belonging to a Movement: Do People Really Care?

Some friends once shared a story about how they picked a synagogue when they moved to the area. They visited the Conservative and Reform synagogues that were nearest for Shabbat worship. They also met with each of the rabbis.

One thing one of the rabbis had said as they were leaving their meeting kind of stuck in their heads. He said that the Hebrew School car pool in their neighborhood would definitely be going to his synagogue.

So for many people at the synagogue, the carpool was really the deciding factor.

For synagogues in a large suburban area, marketing is essential. You can drive within a 5-mile radius of my house and you will pass by 3 Conservative synagogues, two Reform and a Reconstructionist. Lots of choice. This doesn’t even include the Orthodox synagogues.

Whether it is the carpool, distance, or the Shabbat band, the stream of Judaism isn’t a deciding factor anymore for many. I think a great survey question would be whether the average “Jew in the Pew” knows whether their synagogue is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, or Reconstructing Judaism (or even if it is unaffiliated and what that means). And what factor such membership played in their decision to join that synagogue? The answers would probably be alarming.

A recent blog by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove caused me to think about this issue a great deal. He wrote that, referring to synagogue affiliation and camp attendance, “denominational labels are no longer the drivers of identity they once were”.

Does Joe Congregant know or even care that their Movement was a big help in the recent search for a new rabbi? Or that the website that the synagogue has is free to the synagogue and is hosted and maintained by the Movement? Or that the new prayer books came from a Movement’s publisher at a discounted rate? Or that the woman who recently came to a board meeting to help facilitate a board retreat, and who did a great job, was trained by the Movement?

Some might. But for the most part, people are paying dues – not a paltry sum, no doubt –  and expect the synagogue to be run in an efficient manner. They want the things that need to get done to get done. Movement affiliation is nice, but does it really matter?

And what about synagogue leadership? The question often asked is what do we get in return for what we pay in congregational dues to the Movement organization? A midsize congregation of 500 families could be paying $50,000-$60,000. Maybe they get that a chunk goes to support a Seminary/educational institution. But how does the synagogue benefit? The internet has been like open-sourcing to all kinds of information to help synagogues in a variety of ways. Help with a search for a new rabbi is nice, but that shouldn’t be happening very frequently. How will the Movement help us retain members? Create a youth group to engage our middle schoolers and high schoolers? Create worship that is both engaging and meaningful?

These are just some of the challenges of Movement affiliation in what is now a post-denominational world.

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