Over The Wire

April 26, 2013
BY By Maayan Jaffe
B’nai Israel is raising the bar on synagogue engagement. What can others learn?

Not B’nai Israel.

In the last eight months, according to Rabbi Mintz, B’nai Israel has gained a whopping 25 new member units, individuals or families, (making 160 paid member units) and is engaging several hundred more through its young adult programs and other activities.

“We’re seeing something interesting,” said Rabbi Mintz. “We are bridging the gap. We have families with very young children — newborns, ages 1, 2, 3 and 4 years old — coming to Tot Shabbat. We are also seeing empty nesters moving down to the Ritz Carlton [area], to Harbor East and high-risers on the water. There is discussion about having a middle-aged group or empty-nester group. … Instead of seeing only people in their early 20s and late 80s, we’re seeing families in their 30s and empty nesters in their 60s.”

Why the reverse trend? How can a Modern Orthodox synagogue, located on a narrow street in downtown Baltimore, boast members from across the Jewish and generational spectrums?

A paragraph about B’nai Israel in an April New York Times reads as follows: “Entering on the first floor, the visitor is greeted by a warm room filled with books and plaques, but it is upstairs, in the sanctuary, that glory reigns: two tiers of seating (with a gallery for women), a raised center bimah, the original gas lamps (converted to electric) and a gorgeous, carved aron kodesh (ark) in Moorish style, with palm fronds and gilded accents, and the Hebrew Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, in tablet-like form at the apex, as if to proclaim: we’re here, and we’re not going away.”

OK.

While it may not be a scientific formula, Rabbi Mintz and his congregants said they have some ideas as to what is pushing the synagogue over the top. It starts with relationship building.

real relationships
Relational Judaism is about putting people first before programs, building a relationship with those we are hoping to engage in Jewish life, explained Wolfson, who is also the author of “Relational Judaism: Using The Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community” (Jewish Light).

“As the first step of affiliation, synagogues, as all Jewish institutions seeking people to belong, ought to think through how people are welcomed into their communities and how they are invited to share their spiritual journey stories,” he said.

Rabbi Mintz said this has been a focus for him over the last eight months since he came to Baltimore.

“People want a relationship with the rabbi, so I spend time meeting with people, hearing their life stories. It’s one-on-one, bringing one person in at a time and connecting [him or her] to other people in the community,” said Rabbi Mintz.

To build relationships, you need a Pied Piper, someone with the right pedigree based on his or
her background and experiences, someone with an infectious personality. For B’nai Israel, Rabbi Mintz is that person.

“The rabbi and his wife are amazing role models. They are great people, amazing parents, and I think they have just made this community. It’s not often you have a rebbetzin with a Ph.D.,” said Dr. Anna Fishbein of Rabbi Mintz and wife Tammy, who holds a doctorate in psychology.

Dr. Fishbein moved downtown at the end of last summer. She thinks the rabbi “is the face of the synagogue. … Nothing can be more telling than to see how vibrant the synagogue and the community has now become with them. The Mintzes are our secret potion.”

Anna Klein tells a similar story. She and husband Daniel moved to the area five years ago. But only since the Mintzes came, she said, did they really get involved in B’nai Israel.

“They are beyond wonderful — young, with so much energy,” said Klein. “We feel we have a close friendship with them. … A lot of the young people say that.”

Hoffman noted that The Associated “had nothing to do with” Rabbi Mintz’s hire. But from the outside, he said, he thinks the synagogue board “made a great choice.”

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