Sunday, March 27, 2016

The magic number is 10

A Conservative shul with an enormous membership might have weekday services every morning and every evening. A Conservative shul with a tiny membership might have services on Shabbat with no regular weekday services. Regardless of the number of services, each service requires a minyan of 10 Jewish adults.

My Conservative shul has a typical membership: neither enormous nor tiny, but smaller than it once was. The interests of that membership in daily services has waxed and waned, and is presently at that awkward point where not enough people show up to guarantee a minyan, but too many people show up to have it be clearly pointless to hope for a minyan. That awkward number is reinforced by minyan game theory, in particular the minyaner’s dilemma.

If you are not personally committed to going to the service, but you definitely want to go to the service if by doing so you will be the 10th adult so that the service can happen, then you need to know how many other people are definitely going and how many other people are in your position. Assume there are not quite enough regulars to make a minyan. The more irregulars there are, the greater the chance that enough of the irregulars will show up to make a minyan without you showing up. But all of the irregulars are in the same position, and they are each making the same guess about the behavior of the others. When there are not enough regulars, the difference between a sustainable service and an unsustainable service is not actually how good the congregation is at probability. The difference is how the irregulars feel about being the 12th or 14th adult at the service. You need to feel really good about that in order to typically have enough of a cushion that when the usual variation in attendance happens (due to weather, illness, vacations, or key sporting events on television) you don’t often drop below 10.

There are probably ways to affect this by building in escalating rewards. With 10 adults we get to have the service. With 12 adults we get to have dessert afterwards. With 14 adults we get to have a beer afterwards, or we all get party yarmulkes. Or we could skip the party yarmulkes and just act as excited about the 14th person showing up as we do about the 10th person showing up. After all, that 14th person showing up today is what makes it far more likely that the 10th person will show up next week.

My shul gave up on daily weekday services some years ago. Now there’s just a Wednesday evening service each week, with a Thursday evening service added once a month when there’s a board meeting on Thursday evening. Most of the regulars who want a weekday service just come on Wednesdays now. Not enough board members want to go to a service before the board meeting to reliably make a minyan, so as board members we were recently asked whether we want to continue having a service before board meetings. To encourage honest answers, we were told that all answers were ok. Some people said no, some people said they already show up and are frustrated that there isn’t a minyan, some people said yes but they would not personally show up for it, and not enough people said that they had not been showing up and would start showing up regularly. After reading the responses, I thought the conclusion would be that we should stop having the Thursday evening service. Instead we were scolded over email for our wrong answers, and we heard extensive lectures at the next board meeting about the importance of worship services, the importance of community, and the obligation of supporting synagogue functions that we are not interested in so that other people will support the functions that we are interested in.

Aside from the inanity of a group of volunteers being subjected to self-righteous scolding, there was no attempt to examine how far this logic would go. If I am interested in 5 synagogue functions a month and there are 50 to choose from, how many am I obligated to show up at? 10? 30? All 50? Is there any limit to how many daily services we should hold despite a sufficient lack of interest in actually showing up? When I go to a function I’m not interested in, how clear do I need to make it that I’m not interested in being there in order to satisfy the people who need to know that other people are making sacrifices so that more functions can happen? If I go to 10 functions that I don’t want to go to each month, and then I start enjoying 3 of those functions, do they no longer count?

I can see going to a service out of religious obligation or community obligation. I can see a lot of valid reasons to go that do not require me to be delighted to be there. But what I heard at the board meeting is that my attendance at the service will be valued only if my heart clearly is not in it. That seems like a terrible paradigm for a religious service and a destructive model to create for the next generation. I’d rather go back to the party yarmulkes idea.

1 comment:

Ed said...

Well, and one thing American Jewish organizations have learned is that American Jews respond very well to being sternly told that they should perform rituals that they don't find meaningful out of a sense of guilt to some other Jews somewhere else in space and time.

Where 'respond very well' involves avoiding synagogue entirely, of course.