Running a Successful Shul Dinner

A Shul Dinner is a wonderful event. The members get together for a wonderful evening together; the Shul is celebrated and strengthened; the service of the honorees is recognized. However it takes a lot of work, and if not for its primary fundraising role, it would probably not be undertaken.

As we’ve discussed previously, even a small 50 member family Shul in a rented space and a part-time Rabbi, can easily cost $75,000 a year or about $1,500 per family. You can’t charge $1,500 per family for membership in a small Shul, so you charge a few hundred for membership, a few hundred for Yomim Noraim seats, hope to raise a few hundred per family at a dinner, and sweat to make up the rest of the budget. The dinner is the key event around which fundraising can take place. Let’s look at four major processes: getting an honoree, picking a venue, encouraging member participation, making the event run smoothly.

Getting members to agree to be honored is not simple. For a small shul of 100 or less active members, getting one couple (or individual) to be honored is fine. In our Shul’s earlier years we would honor 2 couples, but as the years passed we ran short of willing participants, so we usually honor 1 couple now. If we would have had the foresight, we would have honored 1 couple from the beginning.
Some primary reasons people refuse to be honored are:
1) they don’t want to make the financial commitment it implies
2) they don’t want to bother their friends and families
3) they don’t want of feel they deserve the honor
If you set reasonable fundraising goals, you can often overcome objections 1) and 2) by insisting that a big donation or invite list is not expected. Objection 3) sometimes requires the Rabbi to pay a special visit to teach the members about the merit received for accepting the honor for the benefit of the Shul.

After the honorees, comes the venue. Find a few dates that work for the honorees and that don’t present any obvious community conflicts. Call the local halls first, because the less travelling required the better, and it’s always good to do business in your local community where possible. In Queens and Long Island, you can expect to spend between $40 and $60 per person for the caterer and the hall. If you’re a good negotiator, and are willing to tone down the menu, you might bring it home between $30 and $40 per person. Make sure it’s respectable, since you’re asking you members to shell out a few hundred per person, and it’s a let down if they’re served a tired piece of chicken, with some overcooked greasy vegetables.

Next is to decide the participation levels for your journal. Set the dinner attendance cost within the reach of most members, and set the other levels from there. Get a local printer to print your invitations. When putting together your invite list, remember people generally don’t attend or contribute to other Shul’s dinners, so save yourself some postage and printing cost and invite those likely to contribute. Don’t skip on the journal, as it’s a nice touch for the honorees, and it helps you to raise more money with the different journal page rates.

After the invitations go out, comes the ad deadline game. It’s no secret that Jews run a little late when it comes to deadlines, so a liberal amount of Shul announcements and email reminders are usually necessary. Calling members who have not responded is a very wise idea, since people are more likely to respond to a call then to other forms of solicitation. In our Shul we encourage all new members to come, sometimes by reducing their contribution to the catering costs.

Lastly comes the event itself. The goal is to make it respectable for the honorees, enjoyable for the members, build connection to the Shul, all within a reasonable elapsed time. Reasonable timings are 60 minutes for the shmorg or hors d’oeuvres, 60 minutes for the main meal and program, 20 minutes for desert. Throw in a mincha and/or a maariv and some transition time, and your talking 3 hours total. Although in a certain sense, the speeches are the most important part of the dinner, people today seem to have trouble sitting through them. Generally the dinner chairman, the Rabbi, the president, an introduction for the honorees, and the honorees themselves should speak. Inform all parties of the target time for their speech.

You can see there’s a lot of steps, so you need a competent dinner committee, consisting of a dinner chair, a journal chair, and a few other people helping with the planning and execution. It’s helpful if you can get the same people from year to year, because there’s a lot of knowledge that is gained each time a dinner is run. We had our dinner this week and it was a smashing success, due in no small part to our amazing dinner committee.

If you have any questions or thoughts you can leave a comment or email me at [email protected].