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.