Innovation Station


Kindness and Inclusivity Build Congregations in New Jersey and Hawaii

Donald and Sandra Armstrong moved to Hawaii after Donald had lived there as a child with his military family and fallen in love with it.

When New Jersey native Sandra Armstrong began writing her “how to” marketing book for Conservative synagogues, little did she dream she would be finishing it in Hawaii. And yet, what Sandra now calls “Jewish Paradise,” turned out to be the perfect tropical setting for the book’s completion.

The premise of the book titled “A Jewish Girl And A Not-So-Jewish Boy” was simple, thanks to Sandra’s 23 years of data and personal experience: When you place your marketing focus on “welcoming” people into your religious community, congregations grow, havurahs flourish and non-Jewish family members engage. 

Sandra first began her “welcoming” process while she and her then non-Jewish husband were members at Temple Israel in Ridgewood, New Jersey. No one could argue with her impressive results there. The once “mom and pop” Conservative temple grew and flourished despite other synagogues losing long-standing members to places like Florida. Plus, Sandra’s efforts helped raise funds for a multi-million-dollar temple renovation. 

In fact, Sandra’s husband Donald felt so welcomed there that he converted to Judaism. So when Sandra decided to buy into Donald’s lifelong dream of moving back to Hawaii 14 years ago, the New Jersey congregants threw the pair a “going away” religious wedding. The Jewish “Hawaiian” wedding ceremony, after a civil union 25 years ago, was icing on the cake.

Here, they are pictured at their beloved Kailua Beach, where the Conservative Jewish congregation is comprised of 90 active participants.

Once Sandra, Donald and their three children settled in Oahu, Sandra found time to complete her book and put its principles into practice for the Conservative Jews there, while she also launched a second career teaching special education.

The island environment couldn’t have been more different from her strictly organized temple life in New Jersey. Now in Hawaii, the local Conservative synagogue, Sof Ma’arav, holds Saturday morning services at the Unitarian Church; and occasionally in a congregant’s private home. Donald serves as its president, while Sandra is the “welcoming chair.” The Reform temple rabbi is a member of the Conservative community, too, while local and visiting rabbis or cantors often volunteer in their lay-led services.

Sandra’s “welcoming” efforts have kept 90 families in this tightly knit group, with 40-50 members regularly attending Shabbat services. All this, despite the transient tendencies of people on the island whose career and military moves make it hard to retain members.

Sandra is heartened by the fact that affiliated Jews comprise only a small percentage of the Jewish people on the island and her marketing efforts have only reached the tip of the iceberg. “We know that the affiliated are a small percentage of all the Jewish people on the island,” says Sandra, whose marketing efforts to recruit more families there have only just begun after her recent retirement from teaching. “We are an Aloha state so welcoming people is part of our culture. If new people walk in, I’m not the only one who goes out of my way to bend over backwards to welcome them. Everyone approaches them in a welcoming way so everyone who comes in is wowed.”

Sandra is dedicated to her premise that when you call or visit someone who hasn’t yet experienced the joy of a vital spiritual community, you can open their eyes in just a five-minute conversation and help them realize what they are missing. In fact, she says, Conservative Judaism would be best served by “welcoming chairs” in each and every synagogue who are all connected through a central source. This way, families who move from one location to another would be “welcomed” into a new Conservative synagogue right away in the new city, once one chair has alerted another to reach out. In fact, what she calls a “national welcoming committee” for the Conservative movement is not just a good idea, it’s a necessity.

“It’s not the intermarriages that will destroy us,” says Sandra, “it’s not having a welcome-in role that will do that. Once calls are made and a new family comes in, they will at least raise their children Jewish, and maybe the non-Jewish family member will feel welcomed enough to convert. Once an intermarriage family comes into a temple and is overwhelmingly and warmly welcomed during festivals and gatherings, they realize the sense of joy and community they’ve been missing.” 

For more information about Congregation Sof Ma’arav, click here.  


Sandra’s Eight Small Steps to Success 

  • Create a “master list’ with a readily available notebook to keep track of everyone who walks in the doors for an event or in your front office to inquire about membership. Then contact people quickly via telephone to request information and make them feel important and valued.
  • Keep a new members list that goes back only two years and spread it around by dividing into “same activity” participants. This creates a sense of community and connection.
  • Call your membership committee the “welcoming committee” instead, and include new and old members on it who are responsible to warmly welcome people who are testing out an event. After an initial positive welcoming experience, people will be much more open to joining.
  • Head your welcoming committee with someone who is passionate about increasing membership and results-oriented to balance the budget.
  • Use a phone tree to invite people to come to a well-attended family temple event. Sukkot, Chanukah and Purim are great celebrations for this approach. New member and non-member interests via your telephone conversations are great to drive your planned activities.
  • Set up a welcome table at the entrance with envelopes and membership applications. Get names, phone numbers and e-mails of guests and immediately add them to your non-member list that you will use to keep inviting them back for more.
  • Once a new member joins, be sure to continue to reach out to invite them personally to join the Men’s Club, tour your pre-school or perhaps have a ladies night out at a private home.
  • Ensure that all members are ambassadors of the congregation. Have them personally invite their unaffiliated friends, and especially ask new members to include their networks of prospective members.


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