Today’s “former congregant”

The world is a different place than the one that created today’s synagogue structure, and the would-be congregants of today are different than the congregants of days gone by. I wrote about this for my friend Arnie Samlan’s blog. Click the link or read on here. I’d love to hear what you think!


I recently learned the phrase “the former audience,” a term used to describe people who react to and act in a story as it unfolds rather than observing it. People today are empowered. “We did it!” Dora the Explorer sings from my TV to my preschool kids. (Talk about a “former audience”– now you have to talk to the TV instead of just watch it!) Today we can organize with like-minded individuals for a few minutes or many years, in person or online. We can raise money for our own causes and communicate with massive amounts of people through extensive networks.

Might leaders of synagogues think about “the former congregant”? As my colleague Rabbi Arnie Samlan points out, people don’t want to only receive services any more. They want to be a part of something bigger and take an active role in determining its direction.

Here’s my start at a chart comparing the former congregant of today to the congregant of generations past.

Jewish Congregants of Days Gone By Jews Today: The Former Congregant
Had limited options for taking part in the Jewish community (either affiliated or unaffiliated) Can be part of many Jewish organizations, self-organized groups, or networks of friends targeted to their specific needs and interests
Had limited options for donating funds to Jewish organizations (synagogue, Federation, JNF) Can choose from a myriad of organizations with specific causes and political leanings
Identified with a Jewish Movement Doesn’t find messages of large institutions compelling or clear, may feel equally comfortable or uncomfortable in a variety of Jewish settings
Turned to Jewish professionals located inside institutions for information and services Has access to a wealth of straightforward information as well as independent experts available for hire
Exposed to a more didactic model of Jewish education May have been taught to interpret Jewish tradition and own it, exposed to a range of models of Jewish learning in camps, day schools, or family education settings, for example
Had fewer things competing for attention and leisure time Can play a game on a hand held device, talk to a friend or send a message to a network in the middle of a service, class or conversation

There are two crucial reactions for today’s Jewish leaders given this reality.

  1. Figure out what your organization’s added value is. What do you have to offer that “former congregants” can’t do or find themselves? This can be anything from quality conversational Hebrew instruction in a community of friends to ongoing opportunities to make a meaningful contribution to the local community. It can be spiritually uplifting worship or a place that stands for counter-cultural values. Decide why people would need or want to be a part of your organization, and do that well.
  2. Share. Adopt a generous attitude towards resources, partnership, information and leadership. Holding your cards close to your chest is a sure way to find yourself alone at the table while the rest of the gang has left to join a pick up game of basketball. Instead, practice “open source Judaism.” Allow leaders to emerge, help them to implement their ideas and bring together their networks.

Yesterday’s congregants have changed. Today’s congregations have to.