Monday, October 17, 2005

Fannies in the Seats

The New Year began with a bit of a disappointment.

Our synagogue, like many Orthodox shuls, offers a beginners' (we call it "explanatory") service for those whose backgrounds are more limited and wish to have a better understanding of what's going on during the High Holy Days. The service is given by a very respected member of our community, a man who is knowledgeable and explains thing well. For our community, which is aging and showing signs of a demographic dwindle of its traditional Jewish population in favor of younger, more secular Jews, the service should have been a boon.

Only problem is, no one showed up.

Well not quite no one. First day Rosh Hashanah there were three; second day, one. Ouch.

Now I know that every Jewish soul is an entire world and that I should celebrate the small victories as well, and in fact the lone gentleman who came both days was extremely appreciative of the opportunity. Still, I was perturbed.

I took a walk that morning from our shul to another a few blocks away. A friend had told me that they had just finished renovating the building and I should stop by to check it out, so I did. I was amazed. Here was this old, formerly decrepit, sanctuary that had been restored to its former glory. The anteroom was all polished marble. The terrace outside was landscaped. Downstairs, a chapel, classroom, and kitchen were brand new and begging for use. I was awestruck.

Yet the problem persisted. Upstairs, attending services, on the Jewish New Year, were fewer than thirty people. Perhaps there were a paucity of Jews in the neighborhood, I thought as I walked back. Just then, my thoughts were interrupted by a young man on a cell phone. "Happy New Year," he said as he walked by me. Two other people offered New Year's greetings on the six-block walk back to my shul. Clearly the people are there.

And the shuls are there, the programs are there, the classes are there. All that's missing is fannies in the seats.

I shared my experience with two members of the shul whom I ate lunch with. They, too, were livid. And we resolved to do something about it.

That Sunday night I got a call from one of them. Could I come over and take a look at a flyer she had put together inviting people to services on Yom Kippur? We worked on the flyer for awhile and then I went about my business—still backlogged from all the midweek holidays. Monday passed, Tuesday came. Erev Yom Kippur.

I got to shul and found out what happened with that flyer, and what happened was this: While I was spending late nights at the office, my two friends—who also have full-time jobs, mind you—were printing and distributing this flyer all over the neighborhood and beyond. Under people's doors. On telephone poles. In a local newspaper. Forty-eight people had responded. Forty-eight! If even half showed up, and that was a stretch considering the torrential rain we were having, it would be, to borrow my father's phrase, a major victory for the Allies.

We waited eagerly as the eleventh hour approached (Literally. The service was called for 11:00 AM). Almost instantly they appeared. Drenched from the downpour, they came. They came carrying umbrellas and pocketbooks. They came with their cellphones and attache cases. But they came. By ten past the hour, the place had filled up. Thirty-one people had showed up.

And we were ecstatic.

Many chose to stay after the explanatory service. By Ne'ilah, at least ten were still in shul. As soon as the shofar blasted, we ran for pen and paper to get phone numbers and email addresses. Many of our guests simply handed us their business cards. We hope they'll come back for more; we certainly need them.