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Institute’s Initial Report Shows Challenges for Each Denomination

November 6, 2006
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A report on who joins American synagogues and why is the first piece of research to emerge from the newly created S3K Synagogue Studies Institute. Prepared by sociologist Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, the report was released Friday. It uses data from the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study to develop profiles of people who join Reform, Conservative and Orthodox congregations in order to help synagogue leaders find better ways to attract and retain new members.

The picture presented of how each movement’s congregations differ isn’t new.

Anyone familiar with the NJPS results already has read that Orthodox congregations have the largest number of younger members, with 34 percent of their members under age 35.

Conservative congregations are aging faster than the other streams, with 34 percent of their “family units” older than 65, and Reform congregations have the largest number of mixed marriages, at 26 percent.

But Cohen focuses his report on the programmatic implications of these and other data from the population study, demonstrating the kind of practical-oriented research the new institute is trying to promote.

Extrapolating from the figures showing a drop-off in affiliation rates among members of Reform congregations, Cohen infers that many Reform families leave their synagogues after their youngest children celebrate their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs. The lesson for Reform leaders, he says, is that they “need to do a better job of growing their congregants Jewishly.”

The fact that so many families abandon membership when their children reach their teens tells Reform leaders “that we have to recognize these people have limited aspirations for the Jewish learning of their children,” and that the movement should do a better job of “increasing those aspirations,” he says.

The aging of Conservative congregations underlines the need for that movement to “seriously address renewing itself,” Cohen says, taking note of the many younger, Jewishly-learned members who are fleeing the movement for Orthodoxy.

And the youthfulness of the Orthodox movement points to “a danger of sectarianism, of the Orthodox separating themselves out from the rest of the Jewish community out of a misplaced sense of triumph,” he says. The challenge for both Orthodox leaders and those of other streams will be to “keep the Orthodox part of the rest of American Jewry.”

The three movements are aware of their particular challenges and have taken steps to address them.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, agrees that Reform congregations need to do a better job of creating the kind of Jewish communal world that will retain members after their children are gone.

“It isn’t news that many people leave the synagogue after their kids’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs,” he says. Reversing that trend and retaining members for life was a big focus of last fall’s movement biennial.

“We asked congregations to rethink” their work, he says, adding that the movement has created specific programs to help individual congregations, is training congregational leaders to focus on the problem and is investing money in formal and informal education for the critical seventh- and eighth-grade age group.

“We can’t wait for people to come to us, we have to reach out and embrace them,” Yoffie says. “We understand the need to be a little more practical.”

The Conservative movement has been addressing the problem of dwindling membership at every national convention, and is engaged in a movement-wide discussion about where the movement is headed.

Stephen Savitsky, president of the Orthodox Union, says he agrees with Cohen that the Orthodox community’s integration into the bulk of American Jewry “is important,” and points out that the movement has been addressing that concern.

He refers to the recent cooperation between the Orthodox Union and the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella organization to send money to residents of northern Israel who suffered from this summer’s war with Hezbollah. He also mentions the “increasing number of Orthodox professionals” staffing Jewish organizations.

But he cautions that “as important as such integration is, we will not compromise halachic standards through any affiliation that may be seen as diluting our commitment to Torah and mitzvot.”

Cohen’s aim in releasing the report was to show that each stream should focus on serving the specific needs of its constituencies rather than casting aspersions on each other for goals and values they don’t share.

In fact, he says, all of the movements share an interest in getting their members to do more Jewishly.

“Each denomination, respective to its constituency, demands more involvement, more education, than their people are doing,” he notes. “They set aspirations for their congregations. They all say, ‘Do more.’ “

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