Laura: Hi everyone, I’m Laura Max Nelson and you’re watching The BusinessMakers Show brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. I am beyond honored to be here today with Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss of Congregation Shma Koleinu. Congregation Shma Koleinu is a Jewish congregation in Houston that began just over a year ago, Rabbi Scott welcome to the show.
Rabbi Scott: Thank you Laura.
Laura: So we have you on here today because your congregation is doing something really different when it comes to due structures. Millennials, as we know especially tend to be a little bit afraid of any organization or any entity that’s going to charge them a significant amount of money per month. Jewish congregations tend to have dues and payment structures that require that; what are you doing differently?
Rabbi Scott: Well for starters we’re not charging people dues.
Laura: You’re not charging people dues. So how are you making money; how does this work?
Rabbi Scott: Well the central premise of Congregation Shma Koleinu is what we say on our cards and our letterhead; join us, you already belong. And it is so important to the essence of CSK that anybody who wishes to be a part of our community understands that they can walk in, they can participate, they can get engaged because we’re here to serve the Jewish community.
Laura: So of course most religious or spiritual organizations have an ideal to be open to everyone but then they have to support themselves. They have to usually ask people to make some kind of monthly or regular payment because they need to be able to provide the programming that they’re providing, so how does CSK manage to sustain itself while not telling its congregants you need to pay up.
Rabbi Scott: I think it ultimately comes down to value and helping to create something that really matters to people; that really serves them. It’s funny Laura, I’ve sat through so many meetings over the years in synagogues and inevitably the comment comes up we don’t want the synagogue to be like a business, right; because if you have the electric company or the power company – if you don’t pay your bill they’re going to turn off.
Laura: Right and that takes away from the spirituality of a religious organization because many people they are many people who are afraid of that.
Rabbi Scott: To say the least. The funny thing though is what I’m finding with CSK – what I’m finding as I’m working with incredible lay people and incredible staff is that if we don’t start treating the synagogue more like a business then we do it to our own detriment because a good business understands that its…
Laura: Its products, its programs.
Rabbi Scott: Its products, its programs but as well as its health is entirely reliant upon how valuable the customers, the clients, believe it is.
Laura: So you’re providing a product to somebody, you’re providing programming for people who are interested. You’re providing Friday night services and the goal is to have congregants, to have community members, contribute based on what they feel they are receiving.
Rabbi Scott: My hope is that people are touched by what it is we offer; that they feel that they really belong, that they feel very connected and then in turn they want to turn around and serve; serve us, serve the community, support us.
Laura: So there are probably a lot of people, particularly people from older generations out there listening to this and going how is that ever going to work? That’s never going to work, people are really afraid of having any kind of institution that’s based solely on people giving from the bottom of their hearts, not because they’re being forced to give. Does it work in your experience and is this really the way of Jewish congregations going forward?
Rabbi Scott: Well it does work, it is working; we were founded 14 months ago and we are chugging along and moving and growing.
Laura: And throughout that process you’ve told me in the past that there has been a lot of hesitance; people have been afraid is this going to work and month after month after month it’s actually increasing. It’s getting better and you’re seeing that it is actually working.
Rabbi Scott: Yeah, it’s working; we have almost 100 people at a Friday night service, we have 75 children in our education program and we’re expanding. We’re expanding our reach and I think this is the piece that I think is the most important. The ability to think innovatively about how we serve people with Judaism is a crucial piece of both how we stay relevant, how we come to matter, but also how we continue be perceived as valuable by those who we support.
So for example Purim just came and went and Purim is the holiday when we remind ourselves of yet another time when the Jews were threatened – their survival was threatened – and as we say the theme of every Jewish holiday – we made it. Not only we made it, they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat. So we celebrated Purim in a really different way; we went to a wine bar in Rice Village and people came and they had a wine tasting because drinking wine is part of the tradition of Purim.
Laura: It’s really a great holiday.
Rabbi Scott: It’s fantastic. And then we engaged in a conversation and a presentation about Jewish comedy and the ways in which the story that we read on Purim is a way that it helps us Jews laugh at our history but also be emboldened by it. We’ve also created a wonderful program called the Kosher Pretzel and we are doing this in cooperation with YogaOne in Bellaire. YogaOne is working with us, they’re providing us with studio space and we invite people for yoga, meditation and introspection all with a Jewish twist and of course a nosh.
Laura: We all need a nosh, we all need a nosh. For those of you that don’t know that’s a bite in Yiddish, right?
Rabbi Scott: That’s right, that is.
Laura: So what I think is so cool about you and what Congregation Shma Koleinu is doing is you’re proving that we don’t need to be afraid of a no due structure. We can embrace it and that this is really the wave of the future and we’re riding it. And my question is, is Congregation Shma Koleinu the first institution to do this or is it one of the first? Who else is doing this and are they succeeding?
Rabbi Scott: Well the question we keep on asking is can we do this? Can we afford to do this? But as we’re seeing the numbers, as we’re seeing traditional affiliation drop drastically throughout the country it’s not a question of can we do this, really the question is now how do we do this and how do we make it work? And it’s definitely catching on. CSK is one of a very few congregations that is relying 100% on voluntary contributions, but it is growing in different ways, shapes, and forms.
In New York City just last month the federation organized hundreds and hundreds of people who were there to learn about what? To learn about how you move your congregation forward from a voluntary perspective. And it’s such an incredibly important move in that direction and we want to get ahead of the curve. We don’t want to find ourselves in these institutions sort of scrambling. We wait 5 years, 10 years and all of a sudden what was clear – we could see it on the horizon, but it’s really already here – we’ve got to grab hold of it. There’s a lot of culture change going on; there’s a lot of shifting the ways in which we understand how we make our congregations work. We have to understand that being a part of a synagogue is a choice.
Laura: It is a choice.
Rabbi Scott: And it goes along with lots of other possible choices that our Jewish community members are making. It’s no longer 1955 when there wasn’t a matter of choice; of course you were going to belong, of course you were going to be a member. Today we have to recognize that value and experience and a sense of meaning and intimacy and organic community can only come if we as the leaders of the Jewish community look to serve people and help people to understand that when they walk in they’re not aliens, all right? They’re not people who don’t know the language and who don’t know the customs.
Laura: They’re welcome.
Rabbi Scott: Right; which is such the common experience for so many people when they walk into synagogues these days. I want people to come in and feel casual and connected and most importantly I want people to understand that their greatest concerns, that their greatest celebrations, that their family, that they themselves are the most important commodity that our Jewish community is built upon.
Laura: Well I have to say it’s so refreshing to hear these words come out of a young rabbi’s mouth.
Rabbi Scott: I’m so glad you said young.
Laura: Because you are young – you are still a young rabbi – because so many of us think of institutionalized religion, particularly institutionalized Judaism, as not having that kind of flexibility. And what I hear you saying is that you’re getting ahead of the curve and you’re saying let’s not be the Blockbuster of religion and go out of business and not know what happened to us. Let’s figure out what Netflix is; how can we move from video rentals to Netflix? How can we really appeal to what people are looking for now? So the world, and Houston especially, is very lucky to have you in it and if people would like to join you for Friday night services or just find out more about Congregation Shma Koleinu, where can they do that?
Rabbi Scott: They can go to www.shmakoleinu.com; that’s shmakoleinu. They can also go to the website and they can give us a call and all of our information is there. And most importantly they’re all welcome. You’re all welcome; every single one of you please come and join us.
Laura: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for being on the show. And thank you all, I am Laura Max Nelson and you’ve been watching The BusinessMakers Show brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. We’ll see you next time.
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