Jewish Sightseeing HomePage Jewish Sightseeing
  2004-12-10 Reaching unaffiliated Jews 

Harrison Weblog

2004 blog


How to reach unaffiliated Jews:

remember market segmentation, Dec. 10, 2004

CARLSBAD, Calif—The subject that the boards of synagogues and Jewish agencies perennially ask themselves came up during an enjoyable dinner party which Nancy and I  had the privilege to attend this evening at the home of Gerry and Marilyn Greber. 

How can unaffiliated Jews be attracted to the fold?

Among those taking a stab at the question was Fred Daniel, a retired marketing executive for Sears.  First, he said, people need to understand that unaffiliated Jews occupy the entire  spectrum of age groups, so therefore have different needs at different times of their lives. An approach that may appeal to retired persons may not appeal to young marrieds with children, nor to single persons just starting to climb the ladder of their careers.

As the people sitting around the Grebers' table qualified for the senior bracket—myself and Nancy included (by the AARP definition, anyway), along with Fred & Shirley Daniel,  George and Toot Wergeles, and the Grebers themselves—we decided to focus on that particular "market segment."

Someone noted that quite a few seniors who live in the Oceanside-Carlsbad area attend free High Holiday services hosted at Camp Pendleton by such chaplains as Rabbi Joel Newman, who made a point of welcoming them. Many attendees donated money to the rabbi's fund afterwards in appreciation for the fellowship, it was noted.

Why pray with an assembly of military personnel—who are likely to soon be off on other assignments—rather than with an established congregation?  In addition to a feeling of  respect and appreciation  for our service men and women, there can be some pragmatic reasons.  Among them, Daniel suggested, "no building fund."

He explained that many people who retire to San Diego County have contributed to synagogue  building funds in their previous cities of residence—in some cases, in our mobile society, not once but on several occasions. Join a synagogue and build a structure?  "Not again!" many unaffiliated seniors respond.

Gerry Greber pointed out that seniors often are on fixed incomes, and some simply can't afford to commit to yet another building fund. He said that Congregation Beth Am is willing to make dues adjustments in such cases.  This prompted a chorus from other dinner guests about other synagogues that also modulate fee structures according to a congregant's ability to pay.  Certainly it is true of Tifereth Israel Synagogue, where Nancy and I worship.

Daniel suggested that some unaffiliated seniors may feel conflicted about not being  members of a congregation. They may have kaddish to say for a loved one, may want the serenity and friendships that synagogue memberships often can bring— yet, they are unwilling to commit themselves.

This may be especially true, he suggested, when seniors who visit a congregation on a given Shabbat feel that no one really is interested in making them feel welcome; that, too often, a cursory hello or "Shabbat shalom" is all the human interaction they will receive.

The same phenomenon may be true of Jewish agencies, Daniel said.  Sometimes agency leaders give the impression that they don't care about the people, only about extracting fundraising pledges from them.

This, of course, is anecdotal evidence gathered during a dinner conversation.  But suppose further research indicates "building-fund fright" is indeed a major impediment towards affiliation for this market segment.  Would synagogues be wise to waive building fund payments for seniors who say they just don't want to go through all that expense all over again? 

Additionally, it is fair to ask, just how friendly is your synagogue? Are there procedures in place for welcoming and learning about the newcomers?  Donald H. Harrison