A few months ago, I wrote about the Etz Chaim synagogue in Bentonville, Arkansas. More recently, I corresponded with Etz Chaim’s president, Betsy Rosen, because I was curious about how the synagogue has fared after receiving the publicity that accompanies a New York Times feature article. I also asked Betsy to identify for me some of the biggest challenges facing this young synagogue, located in a much different part of the country.
From her response, I learned that Temple Beth Sholom may have more in common with Etz Chaim than I would have expected. She identified 3 major challenges facing the synagogue.
First, membership recruitment and retention. She commented that in order to sustain itself, Etz Chaim strives to find creative ways to link the Jewish families in the area to become members. This is key “not only financially,” she noted, “but more importantly to build a presence in our community for our neighbors and children to see Judaism in a positive light.” Temple Beth Sholom faces a similar challenge. Whereas in Bentonville, Arkansas, Etz Chaim is the only game in town, that obviously is not the case in our geographic area. All the more reason, though, why we must continually strive to attract new members and to keep engaged our existing ones. This challenge has never been more compelling than it is presently.
The second challenge Betsy identified is “creating traditions.” Because Etz Chaim is a young, non-affiliated congregation, its members face the daily task of defining the synagogue – figuring out what kind of place it wants to be, while “being sensitive to different practices our families have and backgrounds they are coming from.” At Temple Beth Sholom, we enjoy a rich, sixty year-old history of traditions and customs. This should not – and cannot – mean, however, that we always must be set and rigid in our ways. To the contrary, in order to thrive, we must be flexible and bring new and creative thinking to our efforts. I am not referring to matters involving Halacha and religious practice, but, rather to our approach to our programming and to our policies. We have built a beautiful building. We should do everything possible to enable more people to become part of our caring community. It is clear that some approaches that have always worked in the past might not be appropriate or most effective in the present and future. We currently boast some very innovative and successful programming. We must continue to think “outside the box,” instead of resting with the tried and true.
The final challenge Betsy described also sounded familiar: “We see the same ‘core’ group volunteering for leadership roles, hands on work, etc.” I suspect this challenge exists at more synagogues than not, but we certainly are facing it at Temple Beth Sholom. To be clear, there are many, many dedicated people in our congregation, who all work in a myriad of ways for the betterment of our shul. But we need more help. Many good ideas go unfulfilled simply for lack of enough “doers” to take on important tasks. Our officers, directors and trustees obviously are all volunteers, with many responsibilities outside the synagogue. We have many committees that are under-populated. As a result, important projects and initiatives sit on the shelf.
To be sure, there is a renewed vibrancy at Temple Beth Sholom that congregants and others in the community have noted in recent times. The challenges described above, though, remain present and pressing.
I welcome your thoughts and ideas. Perhaps more importantly, I welcome your involvement. There is something for everyone at Temple Beth Sholom these days. The work is personally rewarding and contributes immeasurably to the vibrancy of our shul.