It had been a while since I attended Kabbalat Shabbat at our Reform synagogue, once a Friday night destination during my year of kaddish when I needed a quorum of ten Jewish men at a time when my work obligations would permit my attendance. Having had a fond experience, I continued to attend periodically in the years thereafter but a congregational decision to move the service an hour and a half earlier, similar to the other two congregations, made attendance unrealistic for me. Then recently I got home early, the candles were lit early in winter, dinner served, and still time to get there.
Shabbos most anywhere comes with a handout on arrival: who will be davening, which Rabbi or guest will give the sermon, events in the coming week that cannot be missed and might even be worth the price of admission. This time at this congregation, a summary of a congregational survey and related focus group opinions accompanied the usual Shabbos bulletin. Ordinarily I would expect some confidentiality to this but I was probably the only non-member other than the organist present. It made for brief but thought-provoking reading. Their members had been questioned on how they became affiliated, what keeps them engaged, what they might like the congregation to be like five years hence. Very little of the reported results constituted a surprise. People liked the clergy, past and current, friends who were members often brought them along as the initial contact with the synagogue, some were consumers of things synagogues offer from Hebrew school to Sisterhood. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, the strongest attachments came from personal initiations to participate. People joined committees because an individual asked them to. A sign-up sheet to volunteer to daven shacharit is probably less likely to get the schedule filled than a personal call from the gabbai inviting you to do shacharit next Shabbos. Not all congregations grasp that, and those that do not grasp it adequately can create some rather inflexible USY cliques that carry on to reassembly at Hillel in college, but these folks seem to know better. And they like having kids present in the building. It makes everyone feel like they have a future. So yes, the survey and its results were proprietary but with conclusions that probably could have been projected without having actually done the project.
While the conclusions had a measure of pre-survey predictability, there is no surrogate for being asked what you think. Sometimes the feedback is very simple. You call a service rep at the help line and an email comes the next day asking you to rank several attributes of yesterday’s phone bank contact. However, after half a century of being a consistent participant of a Jewish community, whether Hebrew school, teen group, Hillel of two major universities and a few congregations, nobody has ever asked me what I think about my participation and how it might be upgraded. I’m more of a consumer perhaps. The leaders build a trough and count how many snouts partake of what’s in it with no regard for whether the contents might be refined from what is offered. Certainly people making small talk will ask what I thought of the Rabbi’s Yom Kippur sermon or the fundraiser gala, but they seem to be counting dollars or attendance as the metric of what people think. I’ve never been asked about a composite experience and don’t often volunteer the thoughts though I imagine the Federation annual solicitor can figure out that requests to be put on the Do Not Call List reflect organizational interaction to some extent.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism recently announced that they have engaged a professional firm to tease out what their members think about their experience to date, what they might aspire to moving forward, and maybe even acquire a better sense of how to put a cap on some fairly consistent attrition. You not only have to solicit opinion but be sensitive to the opinion, something which the Reform congregation seems to have done very well.
A few year ago a book called Relational Judaism by Ron Wolfson became a focus of moving congregations from a top down model to more of a people matter model. It’s still a work in progress.