Three-day-a-year Jews: Are they good for the shuls?

Thu, 08/02/2012 - 6:25am -- Synagogue Counc...

Let us know what you think about Alan Teperow's blog post on the "three-day-a-year" Jew phenomenon. 


Who are those three-day-a-year Jews? And who first coined the term?

Chances are, we'll never know. But my intuition and experience tell me it is a pejorative statement used by synagogue leaders to describe that group of members who come to shul only on the High Holidays. Those of us in the shul business -- and there's no business like shul business -- probably feel the loss when people join just to come on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. After all, shouldn't we want more? Our synagogues aren’t bursting at the seams each and every Shabbat, so who could blame us for wanting the thousands of individuals, couples and families who flock to us three days a year to come more often?

And therein lies the rub. Let's say, for argument’s sake, that we require weekly attendance for those who join our shuls. Even if we could, I would not want to to turn Judaism into a religion of coercion. It, therefore, behooves us to create worship that is uplifting, programs that are appealing, communities that are endearing, adult learning that is engaging, and fee structures that are affordable so that those who want to belong – and retain their membership – are able to do so. 

But, these Jews already belong to our synagogues. They commit their resources to support the institution so that they, and the rest of us, can enjoy all that the synagogue has to offer. 

Is it possible, then, that three-day-a-year Jews are good for the Jews? In fact, in other than a small number of cases, I would venture to say that the entire notion of the "three-day-a-year Jew" is a misnomer. Do these individuals religiously ignore all mail and email from the congregation? Are they virtually absent from major events of the congregation, such as a special milestone gatherings? Do they refrain from attending Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebrations of friends and family? Are they completely invisible at religious school happenings, special lectures, Israel celebrations and moments when the community needs to come together in unity? Will they never need a minyan while in mourning, or clergy to perform their children’s wedding ceremonies? Have they totally opted out of the great learning opportunities offered by our synagogues? Obviously not.

As I was writing this, I checked the internet to see what anyone else had to say about the topic. Here’s what Rabbi Joshua Hammerman – who, among other positive qualities, is an avid Red Sox fan -- says on his blog entitled On One Foot: “The ‘three-day’ moniker was just another way to foster guilt and degradation, to reinforce the hierarchical nature of Jewish life and to highlight the alienation many feel from institutional Judaism. But it never had much to do with true levels of Jewish engagement.”

Circling back to where I began, have those of us who lead synagogues created a convenient excuse for underengagement? We wonder where everyone is on Shabbat, so we blame the three-day-a-year Jews. Granted, it isn't easy enticing people who aren't regular daveners, or knowledgeable worshippers, or fluent with the language of prayer, to attend services. But, many of our congregations have impressive Shabbat communities and their successes are replicable. 

So, thank you "three-day-a-year Jews", if you exist at all, because you are incredibly important to us. Synagogues need to meet our members where they are, develop portals for enhanced involvement, and create the most engaging communities we possibly can. 

Only then can we hope that our “three-day-a-year Jews” -- besides helping sustain us financially (for which we are grateful beyond measure) -- intensify their connection. In doing so, they will not only strengthen our congregations but enrich their lives as well.