Putting on my other hat temporarily
Varieties of religious experience: walking

Getting people in the doors

I grow heartsick when I think about the implications of American soldiers torturing Iraqis, so I'm focusing closer to home today, on a question that came up in a meeting last night at my shul: how do we get people to come to shul?

Like most mainstream American synagogues these days, my shul has wildly fluctuating attendance. During the Days of Awe, we routinely pack the sanctuary; the rest of the year, Shabbat attendance oscillates between four and twenty. Our rabbi is good-natured about it (I suspect it's futile, maybe counterproductive, to rail against disinterest) but it obviously pains him, and on reflection it bums me out too. Our services are fun, but I don't know how to communicate that to the people who don't come.

Friday night services are short and sweet: an hour plus the oneg (kiddush/socializing) afterwards. Saturday mornings are longer, verging on three hours. I suspect the length is daunting to people who, like me, have endured some excruciating services.

But our service, while long, isn't boring, at least to me. Because we're such an intimate crowd, worship is participatory; everyone sings along as best they can, because we need every voice in the room. (It's not always melodious, but it's heartfelt.) In lieu of the Haftorah reading (which few in our community have the Hebrew, or the stamina, to follow in a focused way), we have weekly Torah study, which tends to be engaging and interesting. (Also, people are welcome to come and go, if they can't last the whole way through. I'll bet most don't know that, though.)

I like our services a lot, and I think some of the absent congregants would like them, too. They'd probably like Shabbat a lot better than they like the Days of Awe -- that's the rub. People who come only for the High Holidays often don't have the stamina for the Festival services, because let's face it, Festival services are long, and it helps to be spiritually "in shape" from attending services at other points in the year. So they're overwhelmed, and they don't come back until the next Days of Awe. The situation perpetuates itself.

Shabbat services, done right, are a pleasure. They're by turns restorative and energetic, familiar and challenging. (Of course, the more often you come, the more familiar the liturgy gets, and the easier it is to slip inside it.) I think many of our congregants would dig what we do. So my question is, how do we get them in the doors?

Part of the problem is, many people just don't think of services as something they want to do regularly. When planning weekends, either we think about social pleasures (hanging out with friends, seeing family) or we think about chores (shopping, laundry, gardening) -- we don't think about reserving Friday evening or Saturday morning for worship. Maybe we carry the baggage of bad childhood services: services we didn't get, services we didn't enjoy, services where time seemed to slow to a crawl. So we expect not to enjoy shul, and therefore we don't come. Can that mindset be changed?

As we approach summer, this dilemma is going to magnify. I'm part of the problem: in winter I'm happy to attend Shabbat morning services, but in summer my husband and I have a ten-year tradition of spending Saturday mornings at our community-supported farm. Last year I ran into a local minister picking cherry tomatoes there, and he commented to me that Caretaker Farm is some of the holiest ground he knows. I entirely agree, because it's so lovingly-stewarded, and because it's such a focal point for genuine community connections. But that means I'll be missing Saturday morning services more often than not...

In a way, though, summer's exactly the wrong time to drop out of shul. If you buy my theory that one should be "in shape" for the Days of Awe, that one can "train" by attending services semi-regularly in the months leading up to Rosh Hashanah, then summer is precisely when we should be drawing people back in. Showing them the sweetness of prayer, the old words, and the new. Weaving them in to the community.

How do other shuls do this? How can we reach the 150 people in our network of small towns who come twice a year and no more, to convince them to give a Shabbat service a try? I know we can't expect them to become regulars, but if half of them would drop in even once a month, it would make a huge difference in our community, and might even make a difference in their lives. But how do we get there from here?