Synagogues expand communication efforts
As New Jersey emerges from winter and from Covid protocols, growth is an increasingly important priority among Monmouth and Middlesex County synagogues. While certain accommodations made in response to the pandemic are probably here to stay, area synagogues are returning to a more expansive approach to membership and community relations.
“Good relevant programming and welcoming smiles have done wonders for us,” said Rabbi Dovid Harrison of Red Bank Congregation Beth Shalom. Offering daily as well as Shabbos services, the synagogue has seen a boost in attendance and participation. Yet behind those smiles and programs is a great deal of outreach from his and other local synagogues.
Basic to outreach is communication, and virtually every congregation has been taking advantage of digital tools to do so. The pandemic has only accelerated that trend. In addition to websites and having a presence on social media, no congregation seems to be without a newsletter, and many synagogues generate their own content.
The Synagogue of Deal has found it so effective that, beyond a What’s App group and emails, there has not been need for much else. Communication increases closer to summer, just as the size of the congregation increases substantially then, but there is a concern that people not be burdened with too much email, according to the synagogue’s business manager. People come back every year.
Other congregations, however, are much more deeply invested in electronic communication. Rabbi Yaakov Tesser of Young Israel of Aberdeen, Congregation Bet Tefilah, posts daily on What’s App, sends out a weekly email and occasionally distributes a video on Jewish law or practice.
Congregation Torat El puts out a lengthy monthly bulletin including acknowledgments of donations, flyers for upcoming events, Divrei Torah and a calendar.
Holiday parties are an almost universal means of cementing social bonds among the membership and attracting interest from prospective congregants while, at the same time raising needed funds.
Hanukkah and Purim parties have been so successful that they have become more and more elaborate. Congregation B’nai Israel of Rumson hosted Purim Palooza with macaroni and cheese and magic. The Highland Park Conservative Temple held a magic show with rabbit petting before the evening Megillah. Congregation Torat El held a carnival with bounce house, video game truck, DJ and food prizes. Red Bank Congregation Beth Shalom hosted Purim in Italy with cocktails, dinner, masquerade and entertainment following the evening Megillah reading.
Costumes for all of these events, naturally, were de rigueur.
Special events, including guest lectures, workshops, films and other presentations require extensive planning but are often highlights of a synagogue’s year.
Congregation Ahavat Olam of Howell has joined with Temple Beth Am Shalom of Lakewood, Temple Beth Or of Brick and Congregation B’nai Israel of Toms River to host a Service of Remembrance featuring survivor Ruth Millman as keynote speaker on Yom HaShoah.
“Come early,” spokeswoman Judie Singer said. “There will be an overflow.”
Congregation B’nai Israel of Rumson hosted a three-day symposium featuring scholar-in-residence and interfaith specialist Dr. Keren R. McGinity from March 16 through the Kiddish after Shacharis on March 18. Synagogue Executive Director Tara Siers anticipates future programming along this line, perhaps every other year.
From May 5-7, Congregation Torat El will host a musical weekend with Artist-in-Residence Rabbi Josh Warshawsky. Musical services will be followed by meals and workshops.
Although staging such events is obviously a prodigious undertaking, it does not eclipse the more regularly scheduled programs that synagogues arrange to develop and maintain a high level of connection.
Every month, the Rumson synagogue hosts First Friday, with services followed by an often playfully themed Shabbos dinner, and every Tuesday, the Rabbi teaches a Torah class. Occasional get-togethers, such as hallah braiding classes and book club meetings, serve to keep interest high. Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen hosts knitting and crochet classes, hallah bakes and a book club.
Addressing the needs and interests of discrete segments of the population is one way that congregations try to inculcate a sense of belonging among its current and prospective members.
In addition to its regular services, Shaare Tefilah Bene Moshe hosts a Youth Minyan on Shabbos from 8:45 AM to 11:15 AM. If that seems to be too long for most youth to sit through, the service is supplemented with raffles, prizes, treats and T-shirts for attendance and for participation.
The regular services at the synagogue are interactive to accommodate those who are unfamiliar with synagogue practice. Attendees at the minyan are encouraged to raise their hands if they have questions or comments.
For advanced learners, there is a Monday night Gemara class. Young Israel of Aberdeen hosts a nightly Kollel for men, while the Red Bank Congregation offers events exclusively for women several times a year, along with six-week courses for adults each season.
Congregation Ahavat Olam has a weekly Israeli dance class for women, chair yoga for the older people and activities designed specifically for students in the Hebrew School and, especially, for those in the Hebrew High School.
“Parents don’t realize,” Singer pointed out, that without this kind of attention, “after the bar or bat mitzvah, they’re gone.”
Nothing, of course, can compare in effectiveness to individual attention.
Members of the Red Bank synagogue visit local families and businesses to put up mezuzahs, distribute Shabbos candles and visit Jewish patients and residents in the local hospital and nursing homes. Congregation Ahavat Olam hosts special events for new members and delivers hallah and sometimes wine for Shabbos.
“Constant contact and follow-up are necessary,” Singer emphasized.
One aspect of outreach that the pandemic has introduced and is here to stay is virtual attendance and electronic communication. The Rumson synagogue live-streams and Zooms its services, as does Temple Beth Ahm.
“COVID has put a damper on our activities,” said Singer of Ahavat Olam, “but we’ve come back with everything. We’re all live and kicking.”
Congregation Ahavat Olam
106 Windeler Rd.
Temple Beth Ahm
550 Lloyd Rd.
Congregation Beth Shalom of Red Bank
186 Maple Ave.
Red Bank 07701
Congregation B’nai Israel
171 Ridge Rd.
The Synagogue of Deal
128 Norwood Ave.
Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth
201 South Third Ave.
Highland Park 08904
Congregation Shaare Tefilah Bene Moshe
20 Whalepond Rd.
Congregation Torat El
301 Monmouth Rd.
Young Israel of Aberdeen, Congregation Bet Tefilah
479 Lloyd Rd.