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Small congregations discuss the big picture
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Small congregations discuss the big picture

Rabbis and lay leaders share ways to flourish with fewer members

White Meadow Temple has been struggling with issues facing many small congregations in an era of dwindling budgets and shifting demographics.

With only 160 families, the congregation’s leaders constantly watch the budget and have to be judicious about how to spend limited resources. Sometimes, that requires flexibility and creativity.

One way Rabbi Benjamin Adler managed this year was through a joint program with a nearby small congregation, Temple Hatikvah in Flanders. Together Adler and Rabbi Moshe Rudin of Hatikvah coordinated a joint matza-baking program before Passover.

“It wasn’t just a demonstration — we made matza that could be used for Passover,” said Adler. Rabbi Rudin, Adler said, “picked up the shmura matza flour; we got a blowtorch and kashered our ovens and our kitchen. Their congregation and their Hebrew school kids came and joined us on a Sunday for a great program.

“We’re stronger when we can do things together; I’d like to do that more often.”

On June 4-6, Adler and Rudin were among 50 representatives of small Conservative congregations who gathered to share ideas such as their joint program at United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s first conference focusing on small congregations. Professionals and lay leaders from 11 states attended the gathering outside Chicago, each representing synagogues with fewer than 250 member families.

The goal was to provide strategies for the communities to increase engagement and facilitate communication between clergy and members.

Participants came away feeling their initiatives are gaining the backing of national congregational arms, which in the past have been accused of having a big-city bias.

“Approximately 40 percent of our congregations are what we consider small,” said Rabbi Charles Savenor, director of kehilla enrichment at USCJ, which says it has some 600 congregations in the United States. “This conference represents us putting more institutional effort into this area.”

The Union for Reform Judaism, realizing that nearly 400 of its 900 congregations have 250 families or less, has started the Small Congregations Network, which is aimed at increasing support to these communities and encouraging them to communicate among themselves about what strategies have been helpful. The network has started to look outside the URJ for effective strategies, taking good ideas wherever they can find them.

“It’s not just information that the Union for Reform Judaism creates and produces,” said Merry Lugasyi, the network’s director. “We’re now looking to other resources and whatever information is accessible.”

Likewise, the Orthodox Union has been running its Emerging Jewish Communities Fair periodically since 2006, highlighting various small communities. The fair encourages people to move to the communities by discussing the advantages of being part of a small congregation.

Some small synagogues are successful because they acknowledge what the Jewish movements and congregations across the country are starting to realize — that small communities are fundamentally different from large ones. For starters, programs that are the norm in big cities may fail to attract enough attention in a congregation that depends on a much higher percentage of participation in order to survive.

These smaller communities, often covering a relatively large area, need to experiment with new and exciting ways of engaging their congregations and creating programs that their members look forward to attending.

Ensuring engagement is of paramount importance, but it’s not the only issue. Having a smaller congregation mean smaller membership fees, and being located a distance from Jewish communal centers means limited available resources. Innovative programs that could breathe new life into dwindling communities may need significant funds to operate, which small congregations rarely have. The solution is to rely on volunteers.

‘Healthy communication’

One aspect of the conference that Adler thought was particularly useful was the focus on keeping volunteers energetically engaged and fresh. “At smaller synagogues, the rabbi is often the only full-time employee, if even that. You can’t do all the things a synagogue needs with that kind of staffing; you need volunteers. That’s a struggle because you can’t rely on the same volunteers over and over.”

Congregation Kol Ami in Tampa, Fla., has been using volunteers to draw people to its classes. Torah University, as the Conservative synagogue calls its innovative program, provides education for adults and children utilizing the rabbi, cantor, and members of the community.

By offering credits towards a “graduation,” the program employs the academic method in a way that attracts more students than would a simple lecture series and has earned national awards for Kol Ami from the Conservative movement.

Savenor said the key to success for programs at smaller congregations is “healthy communication and relationships” between the laypeople and clergy. “Communication and role expectations are especially critical,” he said.

Another issue is providing high-quality Jewish education beyond what programs like Torah University can offer. Volunteers may be well intentioned and enthusiastic, but often they are not trained educators, and smaller communities may not be able to fund full-time staff.

Smaller congregations do have their advantages, said Rabbi Steven Burg, managing director of the OU. With limited resources, the rabbi may be more involved in the details of the congregation, allowing closer personal relationship not likely in larger communities. Young couples might also be attracted by the lower prices in smaller cities.

Adler also pointed out that in smaller congregations, “sometimes you can just try something new and see if it works, and people are happy you’re trying something. They don’t say, ‘Why didn’t you go through the proper channels?’ or ‘Why didn’t you have the board sign off on this?’”

Adler was thrilled to see the movement addressing his needs. “Seeing United Synagogue moving toward more engagement with smaller synagogues will really benefit the movement because smaller synagogues make up a vital part of the movement.”

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