Our solution to the unfriendly shul problem.

GreetersHeshy restarted his blog after a short break with a simple question — should shuls be friendly places?  The board of my shul got together last year to discuss this very issue. We sent out a survey to the membership and checked reviews on Yelp. We got the message. Ouch. We scored in the lowest percentile using the National Standard Shul-Friendliness Test.  Oy. We knew that anything we did to fix things would result in an improvement.

So we hired a consultant who helped us highlight some of the core problems behind the low scores.  We already knew that no one says hi to people who don’t look like they belong. We don’t invite students, young couples, or people who rent apartments over to our houses for meals. We’ve been burned way too many times by people who show up, live here for a few years and then leave. They never donate the thousands of dollars we need to keep the shul operational anyway. So they are not really worth the investment of energy to befriend. But this is pretty standard practice in the frum world, and we didn’t understand why our scores were so much lower than average shuls who are equally unfriendly.

Pouring through the data we learned that people in our shul think we have a policy to mistreat people who are divorced.  As you know, those people are so annoyingly needy, and it just bothers the shul members when they try to mooch a meal and pawn off a kid to play with ours so they can get a little break. Sooooo needy. So we come across with a hostile attitude — one we thought was merely passive aggressive, but it has since evolved to being callous. We came to the realization that our shul is an unfriendly, cold, and passionate-less place. The consultant said that our sense of pride really lowered our scores on the survey.  If we pretended to be remorseful, we might have gotten away with being considered thoughtless, not snobbish.

Things have gotten much better now.  How did we fix things?  We hired professional greeters. This addressed the root symptom expressed in the survey — that no one says hello to anyone new. Well, we now have people who are trained and ready to do the job.

We hired a team of young, hip, college age kids who are paid to be greeters. Everyone who walks in on a shabbos has at least one person greet them with a Shabbat Shalom or Good Yom Tov (as appropriate).  We have trained them in accent reduction and other important aspects of shul culture. Oh, I didn’t mention — our greeters are not Jewish.  We actually decided to go for a whole multi-cultural look, and are mimicking the way the Apple store has all those cute 20-somethings in matching t-shirts.  We decided to go with white-Polo shirts for our greeters, as it’s just formal enough for a shul, but clearly not what someone who belongs would wear. We have greeters from many ethnic backgrounds. It’s very progressive. We’re very proud of our diversity. They even wear badges on lanyard hanging around their necks — that’s pretty hip for a shul.

The number two complaint we got on the survey is that no one gets invited to meals.  This was trickier to solve, since we did not want to give the drifters and poor-folks a reason to show up to shul just to get free home-cooked meals. Our consultant taught us about gamification and incentive programs.  We put the training to action.  Our new policy is that if someone shows up on a Shabbos, they get a welcome brochure with lots of helpful information about the community — mostly the names of women in the shul who sell real estate. If they then show up twice during the week again, they can trade in their brochure for a $10 gift card at a local gas station, but only if they are among the first 10 men to make the minyan.  If they show up for minyan at least three times a week for two months, they get a t-Shirt and matching cap. And if they donate a full page ad in the annual journal, then they show up at the annual dinner with their hat, then they get a $100 gift card to one of the local kosher restaurants. We figure the food is going to be better than anything we serve at home anyways.   It’s a win win all around, as our consultant says.

I think shuls should be friendly, but some shuls simply need to craft their own version of what this means.  I know our shul has taken the definition of friendly to a new level — and we have not heard anyone complain. And by that I mean, no one checks the email account “complaints ‘at’ ourshul.org” to see if anyone complains, since we have addressed our major issues with hired greeters and there is away to get free food if you earn it. What more do these people want from us?

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