Shabbat morning at my shul had a record low attendance for a shabbat morning, about 30 in the sanctuary, all adults, about 24 men and 6 women. Icy weather in the forecast but not until after usual concluding time. No doubt some of the usual people on vacation, as we were, having saved as much vacation as their companies permit and therefore taking part of December away but entire swaths of the sanctuary appeared vacant. The service itself seemed no different with the exception of a guest speaker, the Federation's new Israeli representative, a nice young man still struggling with English but providing a meaningful Dvar Torah just the same.
My wife being more figuratively under the weather, I went alone, situating myself in the Men's Section at the far corner which gave me a view of a very sparsely populated sanctuary. It was a Torah reading as usual, not too long but extended by those irritating Aliyah Sound Bites for six of the portions. Short haftarah done by a pillar of the congregation who struggled with it, though it is always for the congregation's benefit to have people pushing the limits of their skill with new projects. And the sermon and the liturgy and the announcements and the kiddush. Hard to tell why it took as long as it did. If I were the mystery shopper, would I return? Would I extend my monthly commitment to two shabbatot at AKSE a month to expand this experience? No. Could I change the experience in a meaningful way to enhance its attractiveness? I don't think so. For the most part, the service is the service. It has its expectations which are largely fulfilled each week. It's content becomes relatively static, as does the community which partakes of it. There has to be something in place other than the liturgy that causes people to be in shul instead of the mall or watching their flat screen. Events always bring out people who want to go to the event, whether it be a Bar Mitzvah, Aufruf or visiting scholar but too many events look contrived and devalue the people who would ordinarily come for worship in favor of transients. Some come out of obligation, but it is hard to create obligation short of inviting people to do things while they are there. I suppose make work projects like ushering or advance Aliyah invitations would boost attendance slightly and temporarily. Expanding the cohort of proficient Torah readers, ba-alei tfiloh, or haftarah readers would create a more ongoing sense of obligation. And there is the weekly Rabbi's remarks which by now are what they are.
But is attendance the best metric? If you have ten men do you really need an eleventh? There are really only two centerpieces that most congregations have. One is High Holy Days that portend the reality of dues payments and financial stability. The other is shabbat morning that makes two statements, one about the synagogue as an institution and the other about its membership. Educational programs, social service projects, governance and schmoozing all bring a congregation its unique character but if the worship never materializes that synagogue's purpose will never be fulfilled.