Building Community: Legitimate Programs vs. Gimmicks

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi

At  a recent meeting of rabbis of small and isolated congregations, we had a discussion about the difference between legitimate program ideas and gimmicks.

All of us struggle with building and maintaining our communities in a Jewish community which is shrinking.  There is a great temptation to grab ahold of any gimmick, trick, or slick program just to get people in the door.  Take these, for example:

Free iPad for the first person to arrive on Shabbat morning each of the next 5 weeks!

Next week – a 15 piece band accompanying the Shabbat morning service!

Tired at shul?  Starbuck’s coffee served before the rabbi’s sermon!

Sometimes we work hard to create a successful program which gets people through the door and into the seats on Shabbat morning, only to find out that all of the “non-regulars” who came and were excited by the program don’t return.  This kind of program is a gimmick – we might work hard and fill up the seats, but we haven’t made any long term impact on the community.

If, however, the program is built up over time so that it adds something to the community, it becomes a legitimate programming idea, not a gimmick.

The difference between gimmick and good programming idea can often be determined by whether it fits into the mission and vision statement of the congregation (see the end of this article for a statement of our mission and vision), and whether the organizing group is committed to maintaining the program for a long term period of time.

The three tongue in cheek examples I gave above do not support our mission as a congregation — it wouldn’t matter how many iPads we gave away, it wouldn’t affect the energy of our Shabbat community.

Scholar in Residence weekends can be an example of a very expensive one time program that might fit into the mission of the congregation, but doesn’t necessary have a long term impact – it brings people out once, but doesn’t build consistent community.

Our religious life committee in general has done well in choosing programming wisely and supporting it long term.  The Sanctuary Shabbat speaker series has been ongoing for 3 1/2 years, and I believe has contributed to our Shabbat community. This year, by the way, I feel especially good about integrating the Scholar in Residence into Sanctuary Shabbat and choosing a scholar who did not charge an outrageous fee.  We had an enjoyable learning-filled weekend and didn’t have to feel guilty about spending $6000 and not drawing DeVos Performance Hall size crowds.

We have consistent (and always fun) parties on holidays like Sukkot, Simhat Torah, Purim, Shavuot, and Lag Ba’omer.  Because they are an ongoing program, our community has come to expect and look forward to gathering together to celebrate holidays.

Help us continue to be successful! The Religious Life committee itself is relatively small, but the job is does is critical to the success and growth of our community.  The committee is therefore seeking to create a “Religious Life Auxiliary,” a group of people who would be on call via phone or email to come help set up or cook for a program, or clean up afterwards.  You will not be required to come to meetings – simply respond to an email request to show up a certain time on a certain date to help.  If you are willing to be a part of the Religious Life Auxiliary, please contact Rabbi Krishef (Rabbi@AhavasIsraelGR.org or 949-2840).

Mission Statement of Congregation Ahavas Israel:

Congregation Ahavas Israel creates a vibrant egalitarian Conservative Jewish community helping each individual follow his/her spiritual path using traditional Jewish practice.

Vision Statement:

To achieve our mission, we strive to be to be a community which embodies Torah:  To make every decision and every act reflect our commitment to Torah.

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