Synagogues aim to evolve to fit changing needs

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

They come for the wedding. They come for the bar and bat mitzvah. They come for the High Holidays. But the question that troubles Rick Kodner doesn’t revolve around lifecycle events.

How do you get them to come the rest of the time?


“What’s happened is that unless they have very compelling reasons to be with the synagogue, they are finding other resources,” said Kodner, an immediate past president of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel. “We’ve become a secondary use of discretionary funds.”

That frightening prospect cuts to the very heart of what synagogue affiliation means in 21st century America. It raises questions with consequences that are redefining both the spiritual content and the fiscal models that Jewish houses of worship have assumed as a given for generations. Where that process will lead seems anyone’s guess but nearly everyone knows it’s evolving – and forcing synagogues to evolve with it.

The dues – and the don’ts

According to the decade-old National Jewish Population Survey, 47 percent of respondents who considered themselves Jewish held membership in a synagogue. At 86 percent, Orthodoxy had the highest rate of affiliation among the three largest streams of Judaism. Just over three of every five Conservatives held membership, while just under half of Reform did. The lowest rate of affiliation belonged to those who defined themselves as “just Jewish” at 15 percent. Still, about 44 percent of those respondents said they’d attended a service in the last year.

Nearly two of every five membership-holding households were Reform. About a third were Conservative and just over a fifth were Orthodox.

Interestingly, about 44 percent of the overall Jewish population boasted no Jewish membership in any Judaic organization, synagogue or otherwise.

In addition to his role at BSKI, one of three Conservative congregations in the area, Kodner is also involved at the national level with the General Assembly of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He feels synagogue affiliation is falling in today’s Jewish community as people increasingly view the synagogue primarily as a provider of lifecycle ceremonies rather than an ongoing part of their existence.

“The problem is that they no longer see the synagogue as a social place,” he said. “When I was growing up you had Boy Scout troops, Cub Scout troops, it was a source of entertainment as well as the spiritual.”

Kodner believes this has led to a decline in everything from synagogue membership to involvement in youth groups.

“The synagogue has lost its place and unless you have a young dynamic rabbi or cantor who can engage the kids enough in a different way, these families are leaving,” he said. “They are saying, ‘Why should I pay dues? We go once a year and our kids aren’t interested in being part of it.'”

An increasingly mobile populace is given more options than ever before about where – and even whether – to affiliate. It’s a far cry from decades ago when affiliation was simply expected.

“In my parent’s generation there was no choice,” Kodner said.

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, an Orthodox congregation in Olivette, agrees there is a multiplicity of outlets and alternative sources of Jewish life challenging the synagogue, many of them virtual.

“It used to be that in addition to Jewish books, the only way that a person could meet people, and learn to fulfill their religious and spiritual needs was to belong to a synagogue,” he said. “But that has dramatically changed with the Internet. People can access a variety of different resources without leaving the four walls of their own home.”

It’s part of a trend that he said institutions outside of Judaism are experiencing as well due. An explosion of electronic options for worship and education have given way to a greater diversity of religious viewpoints, particularly among those who identify as disinterested or spiritual but not religious. People are finding unaffiliation a more viable and comfortable option.

Shifting demographic trends in larger society may also be changing the composition of families, often a key aspect in the decision to affiliate.

“Divorce is more socially acceptable,” said Smason. “I’m not saying that it’s good or bad but it is a fact that more people are getting divorced than there used to be. I think there are also more older singles than there used to be 25 years ago.”

Smason said disinterest, apathy and a lack of Jewish education continue to be substantial threats to the community. He says a greater sense of unitary peoplehood is one answer.

“You can find an individual who is completely irreligious and they are just as Jewish as someone who is strictly observant,” he said. “Jewish identity is not dependent on creed, race, ethnicity or belief. It’s being part of a people.”

It’s also dependent on Jewish institutions doing more to engage congregants.

“Unless we, in a very proactive way, kick ourselves out of any complacency we might have, take the bull by the horns and say we need to do a better job, the trends of the last 25 years will continue and Jews will continue to disappear,” Smason said.

Cost, connection and commitment

Rabbi Judah Isaacs, director of community engagement with the national Orthodox Union, said cost has been a big issue, particularly for the Orthodox community where a day school education is often considered a given as is kosher food, typically a pricier dining choice.

“What’s really hitting us hard is the affordability issue right now,” he said. “We have to look collectively at how we address the affordability of Jewish life to ensure that Orthodoxy can thrive in North America.”

Still, he said, the movement is growing, now at about 500 congregations, though he could neither say how many congregants that represented nor did he have figures on past affiliation rates.

“The Orthodox community invested itself strongly in the day school movement and that has resulted in a new generation of highly committed young Jews who are affiliating with Orthodoxy,” Isaacs said. “We’ve also had a lot of success with our youth movement with NCSY [National Council of Synagogue Youth].”

The Union for Reform Judaism has about 900 congregations representing almost 300,000 families, a number that spokeswoman Annette Powers said has remained basically stable over the past decade.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism referred questions to the national Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinical arm of the movement. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice-president of the assembly, said that Conservative Judaism has seen “modest contraction” in the United States though it has experienced substantial growth abroad, particularly in Western Europe and Israel.

She believes some of the decline in U.S. membership can be attributed to demographic shifts in the Jewish community away from areas such as the Northeast and parts of the Midwest. Schonfeld also said the movement has a high “retention” rate, meaning its members tend to build long-term relationships with their synagogues.

“What we have seen at the same time is an increase in depth and commitments of activity within our congregations and a greater turning towards Torah as well as more participatory services,” she said.

‘What it means to be affiliated’

Like Kodner, Ken Birenbaum, a member of Congregation Shaare Emeth, a large local Reform temple, does see a problem with engagement being centered on lifecycle events.

“We have a need at different points but I think the question is how do you instill into someone the desire to stay with it, not just for the lifecycle events, which are finite, but for the spiritual experiences and ongoing values it teaches us,” he said.

Nonetheless, he said he’s optimistic about the future. He said the Reform Movement comprises some 1.5 million Jews. The key is simply engaging them in a way that keeps people in the system.

This is not new stuff,” he said. “This is just a rehashing of old habits over whether someone chooses to join or disconnect.”

In that sense, it’s all about leadership and that gives him hope. Birenbaum was a part of the search committee that recently selected the national Union for Reform Judaism’s new president who takes office this month.

“We have a lot of wonderful local and national leaders who are re-envisioning what it means to be affiliated with a faith-based entity,” he said. “I actually think we’re living in a golden age on the cusp of a spiritual renewal.”

Birenbaum said interfaith marriage, seen by some as a challenge, is actually a blessing since it introduces more people to Judaism.

He believes synagogues should worry less about numbers and more about building relationships with congregants.

“We frequently worry about maintaining the structure, the entity and that leads us to ask for money when, in fact, our greatest resource is our human capital,” he said. “If you connect people with the organization because you care about them as people more than you care about their membership dues, then the dues and the commitment will come.”

Shaare Emeth’s Rabbi James Bennett said his gut feeling is that a slight downward move in affiliation may exist but it’s difficult to say with certainty and people shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

“There probably is a trend in that direction but I’m very cautious about people throwing assumptions around and making policy decisions without knowing what the real numbers are,” he said.

A more important question, he feels, is how American Jews are redefining what it means to be a member of a synagogue.

He recommends avoiding alarmism.

“It’s easy to see this as a crisis as in ‘Oh my gosh the financial models are crumbling,'” he said. “It’s also an opportunity for new models of relationships between people and the Jewish community and different institutions. We’re really just seeing the beginning of a rethinking of what it means to be affiliated as a Jew.”

Bennett said he knows of congregants who may attend one synagogue for services and a different one for educational events. While he said history and tradition are still important to many congregants, Jews today tend towards a “consumer mentality,” picking and choosing more where and how they want to worship and expecting more from institutions in return.

“It also helps people to see that relationship as mutual,” he said. “The congregation can’t just expect automatically that you are just going to pay your dues without question but rather we have to help people feel their responsibility is being reciprocated.”

Finding a ‘comfort level’

Carla Weintraub feels she’s found that sort of reciprocation where she attends.

“I was looking for a place to give me comfort, structure and community,” she said.

She found it at Congregation B’nai Amoona, the largest of the area’s Conservative synagogues. Weintraub said she began going there after a family crisis but quickly found she felt at home. Like the Reform movement she’d previously been a part of, she liked how B’nai Amoona was rooted in tradition and yet was egalitarian. Eventually, she was motivated to learn Hebrew and later, to travel to the Jewish State.

“I’d been to Israel before but what I had learned in the year prior to that gave me such a deeper understanding as I traveled,” she said. “I knew I was Jewish but now by going to minyan, learning to read Hebrew, being able to go up on the bimah and being able to participate, it was just a new awareness of my tradition.”

Meanwhile, Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation thinks the answer to the growing synagogue dilemma can be found in more partnerships, community-mindedness and cooperation.

“It’s pretty basic,” she said. “The more we see ourselves as connected, work together and break down the walls between all the synagogues and institutions, the healthier we’ll be.”

About Can We Talk?

Can We Talk? is a quarterly series from the Jewish Light, JCC and JCRC, with support from B’nai B’rith, pairing stories, op-eds and editorials with a community discussion event. This series focuses on ‘The Changing St. Louis Jewish Community: What does it mean to be Jewish today.’