Shuls Exist for Their Members

There’s been much discussion in recent years about the Decline of the American Synagogue. Perhaps the primary reason for this decline is that Shuls often forget the cardinal rule: Shuls primarily exist for their members.

Mission One is a Place to Pray
The primary purpose of a Shul is to provide a place for collective prayer. Yet, we often lose sight of this. Prayer is a difficult endeavor and it needs focus to achieve success. The Shul needs to address the collective prayer needs of its members. This begins with making sure that our members have a fixed place from which to pray. My sense from the comments to last week’s post is that people are too quick to ask a member to give up their seat. Yes, we shouldn’t be rude to our guests but we also can’t lose sight of the fact that a Shul’s primary calling is as a place for prayer for its members. Make an extra effort to ensure that members get their rightful seat.

Take Complaints Seriously
Members will complain about the speed of the davening, the announcements, the temperature the sermon and everything else in between. Due to the fact that in a collective situation some people will be unhappy, Shul authorities sometimes (often) poo poo their members’ complaints. This alienates members and causes Shuls to drift further away from their purpose of serving their members. Take your members’ complaints seriously. Try hard to address their needs and explain why sometimes the collective membership’s needs will leave their individual needs unmet.

Don’t Forget The 80%
A rule of thumb bandied about is that approximately 20% of a shul will be active members on boards and committees. These involved members will know more about what’s going on. Often, non-involved members will complain of being uninformed. A common response to this complaint is: if they want to know, get more involved. I think this response is incorrect. Not everyone has the time, talent or focus to be involved. We need to appreciate the 80% who pay their dues, come to Shul and want to know what’s going on. When members feel unwanted, they go elsewhere and then Shuls panic about how to increase membership. Show true caring for all your members.

Make Greater Purposes Explicit
Sometimes Shuls have a greater purpose other than providing a place for their members to pray. This can be a wonderful thing but there are two potential problems. First, the members did not collectively agree to this greater purpose. Second, the members are not even aware of this greater purpose. Sometimes Shuls don’t make this greater purpose clear because they’re afraid they will lose members. Eventually, you will need to come clean, so take the high road and explicitly tell members what the Shul is about.

Beware of “Depersonalization”
People often get upset with “The Shul”. Sometimes the reason is because it’s more comfortable being upset with a collective, impersonal entity than to be upset with your neighbor. Other times, it’s because the democratic process purposely substitutes process for people so that decisions are truly collective. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the leadership functioning as “The Shul” but be aware of the potential to alienate members if that becomes the standard operation procedure. A solution would involve making sure that the Officers and the Board make efforts to communicate with as many members as possible on a person to person basis.

It’s a wonderful thing when a Shul is serving the needs of all of its members, but it takes work and focus. Above are some pitfalls to try to avoid.

9 thoughts on “Shuls Exist for Their Members”

  1. Assuming that the decline is a real phenomenon, I wonder if it’s most pronounced among:

    1. Shuls where members come out of habit, as opposed to commitment to principles.

    2. Shuls where members are expected to think and dress alike.

    3. Shuls where members are radically divided over issues.

    4. Shuls where members are radically divided over personalities (each other, officers, rabbis).

    1. I think it’s probably more accurate to say that the Shul/Synogogue does not occupy the same centrality as it did in the past.

      I think one of the major factors is the subject of this post and the other major factor is that people have more choices so it’s easier to walk and less need for allegiance.

      1. Not just choices about shuls, though. Jewish communal life takes place in many venues that are not shuls today, places that either did not exist or were unknown even to affiliated Jews decades ago. Also, in the previous generation the rabbi was unfortunately the proxy for religious observance, so the shul was that much more important. Today among the observant community that is less true than ever — not only with respect to mitzvah observance but to knowledge and appreciation of Judaism.

        1. Ron, I agree that the reasons you listed are major factors in the diminishment of Shul centrality.

          However, for an individual who davens at a particular Shul, I think that the availability of many alternatives is a key factor.

  2. “Make an extra effort to ensure that members get their rightful seat.’

    Make an effort to arrive on time if you want your seat to be available.

    1. Bob, some people have household situations where it is difficult to get to Shul on time every week and some people have a lot of trouble getting up in the morning. Even a regular early-birder might have a situation on a given Shabbos where he is late. The gist of this post is treat your members right, because they are the Shul.

  3. Unfortunately, it is wishful thinking that the today’s shul exists primarily for communal prayer. I am sure that if a poll is taken (or has been taken to compare), the place where one goes to pray these days is primarily based on the social aspect. Everyone needs a shul to daven, but WHERE you go is based on the social aspect.

    1. Yussie, I would agree that people often choose a Shul because of the social aspect (or the geographic aspect), but at it’s essence or primary purpose for existence, I think it is correct to say that the primary purpose of a Shul is to provide a place for collective prayer.

  4. I doubt that I am alone in this concern, but Baalei Tefilah whose Tefilos evidence a lack of proper Nusach or Perush HaMilos and Baalei Kriah whose leining is indicative of rushing and a lack of preparation are my pet peeves. I recall one local shul that tried with its rav’s consent to abolish the right of someone with a Yahrtzeit to be a Baal Tefilah, and you would have thought that the rav and gabbaim were about to be lynched for doing so. I also agree that Hosafos and overly lenghthy Mi SheBerachs following each aliyah are issues which can be addressed as a means of streamlining the davening.

Comments are closed.