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Ahead of Convention, Reform Look for Ways to Keep Members Involved

November 4, 2005
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When the Union for Reform Judaism got together two years ago for its last biennial, the focus was on Torah and tradition, the reinvigoration of Jewish learning and worship from a Reform perspective. At this month’s national convention in Houston, they’ll be talking about how to keep their members in temple long enough to enjoy that heritage.

“The most serious challenge facing North American Jewry today is the low rate of synagogue affiliation,” URJ president Rabbi Eric Yoffie writes on a Web site devoted to the topic.

The numbers are “so serious,” Yoffie says, that he’ll launch an initiative at the Nov. 17-20 biennial to promote lifelong synagogue membership. It’s the first time he has announced a major initiative in advance of a biennial.

With 900 synagogues and 1.5 million members, the Reform movement is the largest Jewish stream in North America, claiming 39 percent of all affiliated Jews, according to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey.

But the movement also has the highest dropout rate, with 38 percent of members eventually leaving the fold, according to San Francisco’s Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

Then there are those who don’t belong to any congregation — 54 percent of American Jews, according to the NJPS.

Reaching out to those unaffiliated Jews “remains high on our agenda,” Yoffie says, but he adds, “we have a particular responsibility toward those who enter our gates and then ultimately walk away.”

That means convincing Reform Jews not to drop out of synagogue life after their kids’ bar mitzvahs. It means reaching out to elderly members who have paid their dues for years and now feel marginalized.

It means making sure the synagogue is a warm and meaningful place for singles, interfaith couples, gays and lesbians, childless couples and everyone else who isn’t among the 32 percent of American Jews who join a synagogue for their children’s education.

“Only 23 percent of our members are two-person families raising children, yet look how much of congregations’ budgets are devoted to them,” says Kathy Kahn, the URJ’s outreach director. “There needs to be significant recruitment and retention of singles, empty-nesters, seniors, gays and lesbians, people who are out there waiting to see whether they have a place in our congregational family.”

Too many congregations focus on getting new members on the rosters, and don’t follow up to make sure their needs are being met later down the road, Kahn says. She points out that most Reform Jews who drop out do so after family life-cycle events such as a bar or bat mitzvah or confirmation.

Holding onto the “empty-nesters” — couples whose children are out of the home — is “a crucial focus for congregations,” agrees Rabbi James Prosnit of Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, Conn.

Noting that his 875-member congregation “is very intergenerational,” he says, “as you look around, you see a lot of people who were well connected to our synagogue life 15 years ago, but they’re not old enough for our senior’s program. They ask, what’s the role of the synagogue for me when my kids are gone?”

Some Reform congregations have created special programs for each age group, and will share some of those ideas at the biennial.

The East End Temple in Manhattan found itself struggling to hold onto its members when it moved recently to a new location.

“New York City itself is competition,” says Bette Levy, the temple’s vice president of programming. “Besides having four temples in a four-block radius, we’re competing against Madison Square Garden, Shea Stadium and the theater.”

To make members feel part of a community, the temple created three separate social groups: one for people in their 20s and 30s, one for empty-nesters and a chevrat nashim, or women’s group, for elderly women living alone.

“Many of them had been founders of the congregation, and as their spouses and friends died there was a sense of isolation,” Levy says. “The rabbi changed, the board changed and they saw their opinions were less important to people. Like an old shoe, they felt pushed aside.”

Today the women in chevrat nashim have become a distinct, recognizable group within the congregation.

“The temple looks to them as honored elders,” Levy says. “They didn’t feel that way before.”

Temple Chaverim in Plainview, N.Y., placed an ad in the local paper showing two birds sitting on an empty nest, and invited parents who originally had joined the synagogue for their children’s sake to “belong for yourself” now that the kids are older.

The temple organized a wine-tasting trip for empty-nesters in September, and the adult education committee is planning a book club and a trip to Washington. These may not be new ideas, but temple administrator Kim Schweitzer says the focus on keeping older adults interested is working.

The synagogue has managed to retain half of its post-bar and bat mitzvah families this year, she says, adding that “we normally lose 75 percent or more.”

Two years ago, Community Synagogue in Rye, N.Y. created specific tracks for members at every stage of life, and with funding from a concerned congregant was able to hire a professional to run its senior program.

The result, says Rabbi Daniel Groper, is that the synagogue building is busy throughout the week, with “adults coming into the building during the daytime, learning and socializing.”

Groper says many of his colleagues see the same need for intergenerational programming, but not all of them act on it. Finances are the main obstacle.

“The ones who do are usually the larger congregations,” he notes.

But it’s not just about programs, some rabbis say.

Rabbi Harry Danziger, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinic arm, says most of the 1,700 families in his Memphis congregation “stay cradle to grave.”

While that membership longevity “may be partly cultural, being in the South,” he believes it’s also due to a warm, familial atmosphere that is consciously cultivated by synagogue leadership.

Members’ important life moments are acknowledged and celebrated, Danziger says, “to make certain that we are a congregational family. We leave organizations, but we don’t leave family.”

Sometimes just bringing attention to the problem helps. Prosnit tried to organize a weekly discussion group for what he called the “after-car pool crowd” in his Bridgeport congregation, but it never got off the ground; members said they didn’t want it.

Still, Prosnit says that just bringing those people together to talk about their needs helped reintegrate them into synagogue life.

“The fact that we recognized the need and brought people together to talk about it is probably more important than whatever programs we might create,” he says.

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