It’s a nervous time for synagogues and other Jewish membership institutions. The Northeast especially has been hit by a spate of closings and consolidations, as populations shift and congregations can no longer afford buildings constructed in more optimistic times. Jewish loyalty to denominations is waning, and affiliation rates are declining.
And yet, when Pew asked Jews about their pride in being Jewish or their interest in taking part in a Jewish event or program, the numbers were surprisingly high. That study and others exposed a gap between the desires of American Jews and their interest in the institutions built to serve them.
Synagogues remain the center of Jewish life and the loci for Jewish affiliation, but trends like those above have inspired a search for new ideas even among the healthiest and most thriving synagogues. How do you attract new members, and retain the old ones? What kind of programs attract singles, young families, empty nesters, and the under-affiliated? How is a synagogue different from a business?
In this issue, we launch a new series, “Terms of Engagement,” exploring these ideas. The starting point is a new book by North Brunswick Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and his son Rabbi Avi Olitzky that looks at new financial models for synagogues (see page 24). They range from a no dues, “pay-as-you-go” option to “lifetime membership.” In addition to an interview with the authors, we feature an op-ed exploring the “no dues” model, and another questioning whether communities should be investing in programs or buildings.
In coming weeks we will explore a range of options for reinvigorating synagogues and attracting various age and interest groups. We’d like your ideas and feedback. Tell us what has worked and what hasn’t for your institution. Our goal is to create a community ideas bank from which everyone can draw.
Ultimately, the questions we hope to ask are not about numbers and dollars, but about meaning — or, as one synagogue president has put it, what each institution is doing so that it “becomes a place where we connect to something larger than ourselves — to our community, to ideas that can transform our world, and even to a transcendent experience.”