Alan Pierce is the founder of the five-lawyer firm of Pierce, Pierce and Napolitano in Salem with an expertise in Workers Compensation, Personal Injury and Social Security Disability law. In addition, Pierce has been president of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly for the past seven years. He is currently overseeing B’nai Abraham’s reconsideration of the relationship between the synagogue and its congregants in order to reposition it for success in the twenty-first century. Pierce has also been president of the Jewish Heritage Center of the North Shore for the past 10 years. As a Red Sox aficionado, Pierce was invited to speak at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for its Ted Williams Commemorative Weekend in 2004. He did his undergraduate studies at UMass Amherst and got his professional degree at Suffolk Law.
People seem to think that being a temple president is a thankless job. Do you agree with that cliché?
Well, if you notice, I’m smiling. I’m into my seventh year as temple president. This past July first was the end of my third two year term, and I had agreed to stay on because we were embarking on a new initiative to reshape our congregation for the 21st century. We’ve taken a look at synagogue survival on the North Shore and people aren’t looking for now what they were looking for before.
The market has changed?
The market has changed. Demographics have changed. We have the phenomenon of increased intermarriage, although many of those couples are raising their children Jewish. Of course, we have seen population shifts from cities to suburbs to exurbs or whatever they call the suburbs of suburbs. And we are finding members are spread out throughout a much larger area.
So how are you approaching the changing marketplace?
We have engaged some experts to guide us and we’re reevaluating how to approach what we do. We’re trying to figure out how to make synagogue membership – and I’d prefer to refer to it as belonging to a synagogue rather than becoming a synagogue member – we’re figuring out how to make belonging more meaningful and relevant so that people will choose to join with us as a socially active Jewish community rather than as a member who pays dues and gets a particular service. We don’t want to be a fee for service institution, we want to build a relationship-based community.
What is a relationship-based community and how do you make this change?
Ron Wolfson wrote a book called “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community,” and in it he describes us. We have embraced his thesis and we are seeking to create a structure that makes it easier for our congregants to build closer relationships. We’re also looking at ways that we can better present ourselves to the unaffiliated members of the Greater Beverly community who can look at us not just as a place to come for the High Holy Days or for festivals or special programs, but to feel like they’re part of a Jewish Community. I think we’re heading into a cycle in our history, unfortunately, where it might become even more important as Jews to feel that we can have a place where we can connect with each other.
If you visualize this, you’re describing a round community with people relating to each other as opposed to a linear relationship between a service provider and a customer.
Exactly. When I was a kid, the synagogue was also a community center because there were few other options for Jewish kids to socialize with each other, plus you had family pressures for any ethnic group to socialize with each other. But the assimilation over the past 50 years has made the Jewish institution as a community center less necessary for some people.
What are the specific challenges you face?
The area does have a lot of synagogues, and we’re all trying to do the same thing. We’re trying to balance our books and we’re trying to serve our congregants, recognizing that what once worked may no longer do so.
How do you change something that’s so locked in place?
That’s what we’re in the process of learning. We started this initiative last spring and it’s in gear right now.
You run a big law firm. How do you have time to also run a temple?
Well, first, B’nai Abraham has a great staff. The board is very capable and very involved, and I speak regularly with our executive director and rabbi. It’s also an advantage to live nearby, and to pass by the temple while commuting to work. It’s easy to drop by during the day or on the way home.
Is your congregation shrinking?
We’ve been in a growth pattern during this decade. In the heyday, from the 1940s through the 1960s, there might have been close to 300 families. About 10 years ago we were down under 150. Now, we’re closing in on two hundred, and we know there is room for growth within the Greater Beverly area. There are still a large number of unaffiliated families. And we have seen our membership slowly and steadily grow over the past decade and are working hard for that to continue.
What attracts people to a congregation?
The literature tells us that no matter how many open houses you have or how many discounted or free dues incentives you have, or how many programs you have to draw people in the door, people are most frequently drawn to a synagogue by word of mouth or because it’s where friends belong.
How do you generate the word of mouth?
One of the ways is for our members to start associating more with each other and to expand out into their friends to a service or program. Some of these events we’re going to be doing will be outside the confines of the temple. We may have a social event for some of our younger members that might be in a restaurant or a bar. It might be a book or a movie club or a bowling league or something that their friends are already a part of and they might be welcomed into. I look upon each of our congregants as a potential “member ambassador.”
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