What Cantors Do to Get Families to Services… and Why

Cantor Lizzie Weiss

This post originally appeared here on the URJ website on December 22, 2017.

As a relatively new cantor, I approach each day as a learning experience and am thrilled by the number of congregants who show up each year for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. During these services, my goal is to offer enough of the “old” to keep them feeling nostalgic, while also presenting a modern twist on Jewish music. Once the High Holidays are over, though, I’m left wondering what we can we do to get people back into the sanctuary before the next Rosh HaShanah rolls around.

One of my goals is to nurture and support our religious school community by trying to make our tradition’s ancient service relevant and fun for a new generation of Jewish families – and asking why people show up at temple is a critical first step when contemplating any service because, as many cantors can attest, planning a creative and special service doesn’t mean much if no one shows up.

I had to revisit the “why” when wondering why families were skipping our Shabbat Spark service, held several times each year and geared specifically for religious school students and their families. Neither a big band (with some of the most talented musicians in Los Angeles) nor our no-cost Shabbat dinner was enough to keep them coming.

What would it take for more people to show up to experience this family-friendly service – or any service, really? Themed services? Extra instrumentalists? Alternate venues?

I started to think: Why, growing up, did my siblings and I show up at temple?

As longtime Jewish summer campers, we showed up because of the supportive atmosphere our synagogue and camp communities offered, including opportunities to excel, mentors who cared for us, and a feeling that we would be missed if we did not attend a concert, a Shabbat service, or a retreat.  

I tried to keep those memories at the forefront of my work as I brainstormed ways to revitalize our Shabbat Spark service and entice more families to attend. 

Starting with just two students and eventually expanding to 15, I created the Temple Emanuel Soul Singers, a group of prayer leaders for our Shabbat Spark service. Focusing specifically on the meaning – the soul­ ­– of the prayers, rather than on the quality of their voices, I worked with these students, who now lead services with invigorating ruach (spirit) and intentional, mood-setting singing. Along with the addition of the Soul Singers, religious school students now create poetic interpretations and readings around themes such as listening, freedom, and peace.

The result? Our community has flourished, and more families than ever are attending Shabbat Spark services. Why? Because we, cantors, are the musical, emotional, and spiritual glue that gets people through our doors. We are using music and soulful worship to help reach congregants and enable them to feel prayer. I call this approach “integration” and I believe strongly that it must precede innovation to nurture growth.

This year our temple created significant programming around the theme of ahava (love). Inspired by the newfound successes of our Shabbat Spark services, we decided to design an innovative Love Shabbat, featuring a “Soul Strings Shabbat” that tugs at the proverbial heartstrings with string instruments accompanying the liturgy.

As always, I had to ask: Why? Why would people show up to our Love Shabbat when they could go to Disney Hall or the Hollywood Bowl instead – and be equally moved?

And as it always does, the answer involves intention and the opportunity to honor our congregants, while giving them space to share their stories and experiences during the month of love.

In the end, it’s not the music alone that brings people to our services. Rather, the service becomes an opportunity for congregants to share their own experiences and be a part of a community of shared experience. 

– Cantor Lizzie Weiss