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by Rhonda Spivak, May 1, 2017

Dr Ron Wolfson gave an interesting and energetic presentation to a group of some 60 community leaders, which highlighted the need for synagogues and Jewish organizations to warmly welcome /greet people and develop relationships with them, in order to grow their congregations.
"I don't think that anyone working in a Jewish institution should ever ignore anyone," he said, noting that saying hello to people you pass by does not cost anything and helps you in engaging people.
"When I was in the Asper Campus there were three staff people who walked by me, without saying hello. It would have taken thirty seconds to say hello," he noted.
Atleast 50% of you walked right by me when I was out there presenting myself," he added
Rabbi Wolfson spoke about the  example of  the patriarch Avraham who saw three strangers approaching him from afar and jumped up to offer them food and drink.Welcoming guests as done by Abraham is one of the ways of "emulating God."
Avraham greeted strangers and invited them for a meal in order to develop a relationship with them.
He indicated that synagogues should have "greeters" who welcome people into the building" and used the example of a rabbi who grew his congregation by making sure he invited as many congregants as possible to his home. A synagogue ought to also find ways to match up its congregants so they can get to know one another and become friendly. Some synagogues pay for members to have coffee with each other at Starbucks, for example or by having small groups of people who have the same postal code meet each other at a home. This deepens the bonds of community between members. 
"It's easy to leave an institution. It's harder to leave friends,"he pointed out.
Wolfson said that synaogogues ought to have "live people " answering the phone rather than having callers have to go through an answering machine-where they have a variety of different options to press. A live person on the phone is a welcoming sign and synagogues need to make people calling feel welcome such that they will walk through the doors.
He told the true story of one congregation in the United States which in the year 2000 borrowed one million dollars to invest in the future growth of the congregation. After the long-serving, beloved rabbi retired, they hired a high-priced rabbi which cost a half-million dollars. They spent the other half-million on all kinds of programming – big events, concerts, community lectures with nationally renowned speakers etc. Many of the programs were well  marketed and lots of  people showed up for these enjoyable programs . But nothing was done to change the ambience of the congregation, which was widely considered cold and unwelcoming. "Nothing was done to engage the people with others in attendance. Nothing was done to connect individuals with the congregation itself. Nothing was done to find out who they were. Nothing was done to follow up. Nothing was done to convince the members that the institution truly cared about them," Wolfson explained.

The result was that  after ten years of this initiative, the congregation was a million dollars in debt, and membership had shrunk substantially.

Wolfson said that the key to growing a congregation  is to focus on building relationships. "People will come to synagogues, Jewish community centers, federations, and other organizations for programs, but they will stay for relationships. Programs are wonderful opportunities for community members to gather, to celebrate, to learn. There is nothing wrong with programs; every organization has them. But, if the program designers have given no thought to how the experience will offer participants a deeper connection to each other, with the community and with Judaism itself, then it will likely be just another event with little or no lasting impact."

"It's about relationships," he emphasized, and "relationships work starting one on one."

As he has written in the introduction to his book Relational Judaism, "What really matters is that we care about the people we seek to engage.When we genuinely care about people, we wll not only welcome them, we will listen to their stories, we will share ours, and we will join together to build a Jewish community that enriches our lives."

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.