I was having a fascinating conversation with a close friend about the ongoing struggle of many Jewish communities to decide where to put their financial resources. Do you spend $$$ to increase the engagement and activity of Jews who have made an effort to be involved in the Jewish community (i.e. joined the JCC, send their kid to the Jewish early childhood center, perhaps even joined a synagogue) OR do you try and reach out to those who defined as unaffiliated. For this post “unaffiliated” will mean those who currently do not pay dues to the JCC or synagogue. Unaffiliated, in my mind, is a decision to not be part of a denomination or organization, not a lack of Jewish identity. The question remains, with limited resources where do you allocate dollars and cents to make the most significant impact?
Omaha is a town with three stong synagogues, an active Chabad, a beautiful Federation complex, a weekly Jewish newspaper, a top-notch JCC, a state of the art nursing home and a first-rate early childhood center and Jewish Day School. Do I believe there are Jews, living in Omaha, not affiliated with any of these institutions? Of course! Do I think the reason is that they are unaware that the Jewish community exists? Absolute not! Should we spend community dollars trying to reach out to these individuals? Absolutely, but if and ONLY IF, it also betters those members of our community who are already affiliated (synagogue member, JCC members, send a kid to early childhood center…etc.) on some level.
The members of our community who have made some investment of time and/or money, whether in a synagogue or JCC, have opened the door and said albeit quietly, that further/increased engagement is possible. The Omaha study estimated that “64% (3,300 households) of the 5,150 Jewish households in Omaha participated in or attended religious services or programs at or sponsored by a local synagogue in the past year…The 64% compares to 66% in Houston, TX and 60% in Broward (County, Florida).” (Omaha Community Study 7-25). Even more astounding is that 86.1% of JCC members participated in or attended religious services or programs at or sponsored by a local synagogue in the past year.
Here is the question we must answer! Do we want to raise the 64% (3,300 households) who attended religious services or programs at or sponsored by a local synagogue in the past year OR do we want to increase the religious services or programs that the 64% (3,300 households) attend next year? Do we want to raise the 86.1% of JCC members participated in or attended religious services or programs at or sponsored by a local synagogue in the past year OR do we want to increase the religious services or programs that the 86.1% attend next year?
Taking someone who is already engaged in some form or fashion, whether that be a synagogue or JCC member from one program to two is exponentially easier than trying to convince someone who is currently sitting on the sidelines.
There are those that look at the data and see hidden Jews in Omaha. I look at the data and see plenty of Jews who are hungry for Judaism and already purchased something off the menu. Does that mean we don’t publicize our programs to the broader Omaha community or offer scholarships for new Jewish families moving to Omaha; of course not. However, our focus should be on listening to those who have already crossed the threshold, to those who have already put a toe in the water. If we spend our money wisely, they will take the joy of their experiences, the joy of our tradition to their unaffiliated friends in a way that no amount of money or advertising ever could.