Monday, March 16, 2009

A Cap on Synagogue Membership

This hardly seems like an economic time when any synagogue – or any dues-collecting organization – would want to cap its membership. Nonetheless, I think rabbis and synagogues would benefit from a formal by-law restricting the number of synagogue members.

This is probably a good time to mention that I, like all synagogue rabbis, love working with people, helping people, etc, and that synagogues benefit from a diversity of members and multiplicity of opinions.

The problem, though, is that every new member introduced into a synagogue
a) reduces the synagogue’s effectiveness in reaching people and
b) adds exponentially more work for the rabbi.

First, a larger membership reduces the synagogue’s effectiveness:

I spent a year as a baal keriah for a shul with 13 families, I spent four years as rabbi of a shul with 70-ish families, and I have now been rabbi, for eight years, of a shul with 220-230 families. There is no question in my mind that an increase in membership results in a sense that people are colder, more cliquish and more distant.

There are published studies on the way human beings interact in different-sized groups. Among their discoveries is that after a certain number, groups break down into sub-groups, rather than interact as a whole. People find enough “like” people, so that they cease meaningful interaction with those who are sufficiently different, and instead limit themselves to a cluster of like-minded friends.

So after shul, at kiddush, you’ll find people gathered together, talking about their lives, and only waving, smiling and saying a quick “Good Shabbos” to those who are not in their sub-group. They’ll visit certain houses for meals and invite certain families over more frequently, they’ll participate in certain projects with others, they’ll attend programs which people in their sub-group attend.

There are things a rabbi can do to influence this reality – speeches about mingling tend to be less effective, actual projects that involve mingling do better – but it’s really just human nature.

And second, each new member adds exponentially more work for the rabbi.

A good rabbi knows the names, careers and stories of his members’ extended families. He cares about their lifecycle events, asks after them, welcomes them when they visit town. A good rabbi is involved in his members’ lives, to the extent that they encourage it; he calls, visits, celebrates and commisserates. And with every new family, this adds to his responsibilities.

As I said, rabbis enjoy doing all of this – it’s not a burden, or we wouldn’t be in this field in the first place. A rabbi who doesn’t like people is out of the rabbinate fast (or ought to be, anyway).

But, realistically, the more time the rabbi invests in relationships, the less time he will be able to invest in classes, programming, community work, administration, etc.

But here are some problems with having a Cap:
1. The catch is to find a membership number that enables the shul to function vitally, robustly. I know of no way to do that with any real precision; there is always a desire for more.

2. Another catch is the question of what we do for the people who are left out in the cold. In a New York/New Jersey, that’s not a problem; there are plenty of spin-offs and breakaways. I know of one shul in New Jersey that actually has a cap, and the rabbi has helped people form breakaway shuls. But outside of major Jewish population centers, that’s a lot harder.

3. A third problem is the ego issue, for both the rabbi and lay leadership. People take pride in the size of their shul – and they also have a hard time dealing with competition.

4. And, as I mentioned at the start, economics pushes us to take in as much money as we can these days, and, in truth, any day.

So for these practical reasons, I don’t think capping membership is the wave of the future. But, at the same time, it really should be.


  1. It depends on the shul, and it depends on how the shul is organized. We daven in the 3rd largest YI in the country, with a membership of 1100 families. Our size works for us, not against us. On Shabbos there are 6 different regular minyanim, with two added for Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur. 5 of the minyanim daven nusach ashkenaz; one davens nusach sfard. One is a hashkomah minyan for those who want the earlier start. There is a "teen" minyan, although people of every age can and do daven there, that allows our "youngsters" to participate in ways they wouldn't get in a larger general minyan. That kind of accomodation isn't possible when a shul is small or caps its size.

    We have an assistant rabbi who shares the load with the main rabbi. As far as administration, the rabbi is not involved with the actual running of the shul but with policy making. There are active committees that take care of shul business, removing some of the burden that rabbis in smaller shuls carry.

    The membership interacts within their own minyan and with members from the other minyanim. But a bit of realism is needed here: you cannot be "best friends" with 250 or 1100 other families. Members have their social groups that they feel most comfortable with. However, no one gives kiddush in their minyan and invites only a few people; everyone is invited and everyone comes.

    Re the burden on the rabbi, I'm not saying it's not there, but in very large shuls, or at least ours, there are plenty of people who can and do give lectures and shiurim other than the shul rav, another way our size works for us.

    There is a plus to the large size politically. Our size gives us more "clout" when we have a request to make of local government. Candidates for office all get their chance to speak at the shul. The shul asked for, and immediately got, a concession from the city for erev Pesach. In the morning extra garbage trucks are lined up by the shul so that people can dispose of their remaining chometz even if it's not their regular collection day. The whole community benefits from this, including all the other smaller shuls.

    I guess what I'm saying is that capping a shul's membership may not always be the answer, but changing the way the shul is administered and organized may be.

  2. Just use the economic concept of marginal utility = change in total utility/change in number of units consumed, where your case uses # of families and your ministering to each additional family.

    BTW, with your lovely statement of how busy you are, have you found anyone to be assistant rabbinic family yet?

  3. Our shul is about 350 member units (some families, some singles), I think. It might be closer to 400, though, not sure.

    And all of the stuff you describe happens - we have subgroups, we have different committees and havurot where like-minded members get together to act on things they care about. We like it that way.

    We also have 2 full-time rabbis and a fantastic staff, as well as volunteers. In a community where formal Jewish participation is seen as "optional," we're able to offer enough variety of classes, lectures, events services, etc., that there really is almost something for everyone, and we're able to get people involved Jewishly who otherwise might not be interested.

    I don't think we expect our rabbis to be experts on our individual lives unless we make an effort to share that with them, and learn about them and their families. But norms may be different in a non-Orthodox synagogue.

  4. Malcolm Gladwell discusses this concept, which he refers to as the Rule of 150, in /The Tipping Point/ (preview available on Google Books, starting on page 175).

    A way to combine the advantages of a small shul with those of a large one (as stated by ProfK) could be to have a loose confederation of shuls that join together when the economy of scale calls for such. This is already done to some extent in communities of a certain density.

  5. The orthodox community here at Penn is very large, and suffers as well as benefits from its very large size. The sheer numbers (and of committed people) give us opportunities in terms of shiurim, guest shiurim, kosher dining hall, etc. etc., but the cliquishness certainly exists, and there is surprisingly little interaction between frum and non-frum people, simply because I can get around having enough of a social life with just frum people.

  6. ProfK-
    Thanks for taking the time to write such a full description. For me, that would not be a good situation; I would not want to be a shul rabbi who wasn't closely involved with everyone. And what one person calls a "social group," another person calls a "clique."

    The Talmid-
    Thanks for asking, but that is a story and a half. Some of which will possibly come out on this blog later in the week, or next week.

    I guess that those who like it, like it; those who don't, get bitter. But the rabbi tends to hear from the bitter ones.

    Josh M-
    Yes, I thought I had seen it in the Tipping Point, but I was too lazy to check. Thanks for identifying it.
    And yes, I agree that the loose confederation works well, in communities that can do it.

    Exactly the challenge. Is anyone doing anything to address it?

  7. Trying to increase the interaction between frum and non-frum Jews? Yes. Trying to change the social environment to be less cliquey? Not that I know of. Because (almost) everyone is happy with their cliques, no one sees the need to change anything. The people who aren't happy with it are the ones who are (therefore) only marginally involved in the community, and such people are not likely to bring about revolutionary changes.

    To be honest, I am not saying that I'm not guilty of the cliquey behavior myself. I am generally an introvert, the kind of person who prefers to have a few close friends than many casual friends. There are a lot of people whose names I don't know, and I blame myself for that. But that doesn't mean I'm happy with the situation as it is.

  8. And what one person calls a "social group," another person calls a "clique."

    What is the difference between a clique and a social group.

  9. Social group is the view from the inside; Clique is the view from the outside.

  10. "As I said, rabbis enjoy doing all of this – it’s not a burden, or we wouldn’t be in this field in the first place."

    call me a cynic, but some rabbis are more sincere and others are less sincere. this is not a critique of the rabbinate, but of human nature. like every other profession, some people go into the rabbinate for the right reasons and others do so for the wrong reasons.

    my problem with a cap is economics. when i see multiple shuls within walking distance all i see is a waste of communal funds that can be better applied elsewhere. just this week i was in west orange. 3 minutes away from the megashul is a shtiebel that is now putting up a formal building. wouldn't all that money be better used to lower tuition at the local yeshivah or to enduce public school parents to send their kids there?

  11. Lion-
    Agreed (re: multiplicity of institutions). Everyone's a consumer, and everyone thinks they ought to be able to have it their way. It's brutal.


  13. Michael -
    Indeed - and nearly a year after writing this post, I gave a class using exactly that point. Source sheet for it (with that wikipedia link) is here.