What Can We Learn From Christians?

I’m not sure. Judaism is a very different religion. Orthodox Judaism in particular is a highly demanding way of life. Sure, groups such as the Happy Minyan and Aish HaTorah can make the medicine of fundamental Jewish life go down easier, but in the end only people willing to work hard and constantly deny themselves can make it as Orthodox Jews.

It’s nice when you are welcomed at shul and it’s nice when there’s lots of singing at shul and it’s nice when you are invited to a lovely home for a meal, but in the end leading a Jewish life is every bit as demanding as training for a marathon.

Going to shul will never be as fun and easy as church because Judaism is focused on this life while Christianity stresses individual salvation to the next life. Shul will never be as "spiritual" as pagan religions such as Christianity which focus on cannibalistic-type rites such as eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the god who descended to earth to save you eternally.

Sociologist Steven Cohen says 90% of Orthodox Jews were born into Orthodoxy. The ba’al teshuva movement is vastly over-stated.

Rabbi Gil Student writes:

I didn’t find all the answers in this book but I did see many interesting practices. Here are a few of them:

  • Welcoming newcomers: Many churches enthusiatically welcome newcomers, including many individuals who were truly welcoming and were happy to give tours and help newcomers follow the services. Many synagogues already do this but there is much room for improvement. However, I’ve never heard of synagogues giving free multimedia welcome packages (brochures, CDs). Some of that is Shabbos restrictions but maybe we can find a way to get a newcomer’s name and then find his address and after Shabbos send him a welcome package (or, even better, personally deliver it).
  • Slick packaging: Videos, DVDs, brochures, gift shops full of religious trinkets. Do we not do this because we lack the scale to produce material economically? Is it Shabbos restrictions? Or are Jews just too cheap to buy things at a synagogue gift shop?
  • Lively singing: This exists in some synagogues, but not many. It’s not like we don’t have contemporary Jewish music that we can use (although the book doesn’t mention it). You don’t even need a microphone or band for good singing. But most synagogues have very little music and what there is, is always the same tune from 50-75 years ago (think "Etz chaim hi").
  • Alternative lifestyles: There are church services for bikers, for wrestling fans and for many other types of people. Jewish services are all the same and do no utilize hobbies or other interests to bring people in. The author describes a Christian wrestling service he attended at which, in between matches, prayers were said and preachers spoke to the crowd. Jews don’t do that.

These are only a few of the lessons the author learned from his year of attending church (and visiting a monastery, and interviewing the head of the Black Hebrew movement, and much more). Can and should we incorporate them into the synagogue? Before we answer that we need to ask whether the experience of religious entertainment is real. Does it draw crowds because it is entertaining or because it is religion in a more appealing form? Is it watered down religion or a contemporary translation of old school religion?

Steg writes to hirhurim: "My rav has tried studying Rick Warren’s books to learn from his methods, and hasn’t given up yet, but has come to recognize the huge challenges involved. One major problem is that Orthodox Jewish prayer services are halakhically defined. There are certain things we need to do, and certain ways they need to be done. You can’t tailor the service or worship experience to the congregants the way that many Protestant services can. Another problem is language — while technically, there is much that could be done in the vernacular, no Orthodox shul is going to dare go there for fear of stigmatization. Hebrew is a major barrier for a newcomer to an Orthodox shul. Who wants to hang around for 2 or more hours on a Saturday morning while everyone mumbles in a strange language around you? In order to feel comfortable in an Orthodox service, newcomers need an immense amount of patience and buy-in, and to really "get it", an inordinate amount of preparation. That’s just not going to happen most of the time."

Beck writes: "There is a feedback mechanism that keeps shuls small: as the population grows, it becomes more likely that at least one member will decide he can’t stand the rabbi, or cantor, or kugel at kiddush, or whatever, and will start a breakaway minyan. Churches, from what I can see, don’t do that."

Michael Sedley writes:

While on Shlichut in a major North American city, a large Orthodox shul near our house made several attempts to attract new members, some of them mentioned in your post, but the effect was (at least to me) totally off-putting.

They did send a "welcome package" but it consisted of an Artscroll book which was of almost no interest to me and just showed me that they are not responsible with the money that they want me to pay them. If they had taken any interest as to who i was and what type of sefer I may actually open they may have had a better chance.

When I decided not to renew our membership they sent a letter saying that I would forfit the right to be buried in their cemetry – given that they should have known that I live in Eretz Yisrael, and a burial plot in Chutz L’Artertz was not something that would attract me to their membership.

A much better way to attract (and keep) members is a story I read a while ago in the JP –

A non-religious Jewish woman moved to Alaska and before the High Holidays she left messages at the only 2 congregations in the phone book, a Reform Temple and a Beit Chabad.

The Reform Temple mailed her a colorful "welcome package" explaining how much membership would cost and what she would get for her membership.

The Rav of the Chabad House called her and invited her for Friday Night Dinner.
Guess which one she became affiliated with (clue – it wasn’t the Reform Temple).

Shabbos and personal connections is the way that we should be attracting new members, not gift shops and multi-media packages.

Larry writes:

I’m surprised that no one has mentioned a service length of 2-3 hours compared to the generally shorter length of services churches.

Also, I remember the first time I went to a UU church I was astonished by the fact that the service was a framework which varied from week to week, as opposed to our shabbat morning services which are 90% identical every week.

I like services at C shuls more than I do those at O, and a major reason is the congregational singing. I also appreciate the fact that everyone is literally on the same page, as opposed to the cacophony of your typical O shul.

Anon writes: "One way to dramatically raise interest is for rabbis to prepare sermons (or divrei Torah) that are truly relevant to the real-life issues that people face, presented with the degree of intellectual sophistication that people are used to in their professional lives, and are grounded in the authentic sources of Torah. That would require a radical revamping of the way rabbis are trained."

Tzvee writes: "i think it is too much to expect that the average new york area orthodox shul move from an atmosphere of smart-alecky cynicism, clubby snobbishness and downright unfriendliness to one of welcoming and openness. so I suggest that you forget about this idea…."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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