Chapter Three: The Problems:
Part One – Membership
Finding and retaining members in a synagogue is always a full time job. Membership dues are one of the most significant sources of income for an American synagogue, a line item that often represents over half the income in the congregational budget. Membership size isn’t just for bragging rights; it’s one of the most important financial considerations a congregation faces. For most of the 20th century, the school of thought regarding membership was twofold: offer what families needed and subsequently require them to join in order to access these programs. In most non-Orthodox synagogues in the 1950’s, this meant providing a place for a bar (and later a bat) mitzvah for the families with children at age 13. Synagogues responded to this need by creating afternoon religious schools (as a supplement to public schools) to provide the training necessary to prepare the boys (and later the girls) for this life cycle event. Congregations required membership in the synagogue (a “residency” requirement) to attend the school and required no less than five years of school to “graduate” into the bar/bat mitzvah class. Those who did not meet these educational and “residential” requirements were not permitted to have the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony in the synagogue.
Eventually synagogues began to establish preschools to involve families earlier and their youth groups became affiliated with national organizations to keep children involved longer after the bar/bat mitzvah. Jewish summer camps and youth trips to Israel were also created to increase a student’s commitment to Judaism and through the children, the commitment of their parents. The problem, which still exists today, is that the children would not take their studies seriously unless the parents made Judaism a priority in the life of the entire family. Since many families were members only because they wanted the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony in the synagogue, their children’s Jewish education was rarely a priority.
To be fair, bar/bat mitzvah was not the only reason to join a synagogue. Most congregations were social hubs of the community. There were not just organizational meetings, but social events, educational events and community forums that were part of the programming. There were classes in Adult Education for those who may not have had a good Jewish education as children. (Women were a big part of these classes since the early European Jewish immigrants did not believe in a religious education for girls. As the United States moved toward rights for women, American Jews began to follow suit. Girls were soon accepted into religious schools, but the mothers who had been denied the education were in need of Adult Jewish studies and often times eager to learn and become bat mitzvah as adults.) Non-Orthodox congregations were measured by the size of their memberships, the larger the membership, the “better” the synagogue. Some did prefer smaller congregations, but the more robust synagogues also built large, beautiful buildings and offered more benefits for the family looking for a bar/bat mitzvah for their children.
Orthodox congregations did not open religious schools. They relied on a loose network of private Jewish day schools to educate their children, schools that incorporated Jewish learning into the general studies curriculum. While this eliminated the need for an after school program, it imposed a much bigger financial burden on families. Orthodox congregations, therefore, stayed small for quite some time.
That was then, but this is now. Children, with their time seriously overbooked, spent less and less time in their after school religious programs. Slowly, in response, synagogues began to decrease the amount of time required for classes from three, to two and finally to one day a week, and from six to three to two hours a week. As the divorce rate went up, the amount of time children spent shuttling between parents meant that parents were less interested in losing their precious time with their children to an after school program. Sunday School programs were moved to Saturday. Shabbaton weekend “marathons” were developed to add more hours to the religious school year. Eventually, parents began to ask why they needed to have a bar/bat mitzvah service at all (their own Jewish education being rather limited and not seen as something that was responsible for their success) and they began to have parties without the service. Synagogue membership was in perilous decline.
Orthodox congregations, however, began to grow. Populated by those who had a day school Jewish education, they touted their “traditional” approach to Judaism and a more participatory service. The service was not just a bar/bat mitzvah event, but the rite of passage was just one small part of a community spiritual service. Some newly ultra-Orthodox groups began to offer free religious training and bar/bat mitzvah without the educational or “residential” requirements, accepting only donations for their services. The families accepting this “deal” had to accept also that women played little or no role in the Orthodox service and a bat mitzvah for girls was out of the question.
As the 21st century dawned, a new wave of demographic changes became apparent. Jews in their 20’s were postponing marriage until their late 30’s. Sometimes they lived together for more than five years; others just stayed single. There was also an increasing number of divorced parents who found that the congregations they had been a part of for years suddenly had nothing for them as singles. Non-Orthodox synagogues were set up for families. None of the programming was suitable for these unmarried, young Jews and older, divorced Jews. Synagogue preschools were suddenly seeing parents in their 40’s. Families were not interested in synagogues until almost 20 years later than families of the 1950’s.
It was a demographic perfect storm. The 21-year-old parents had turned into 40-year-old parents, who had already spent almost 20 years outside the synagogue that had no programming at all for these young single Jews. After living 20 years without a synagogue, what could a synagogue offer them now? They had lived so long without becoming a member of a synagogue they had no need for dues, or other programs. Even if they wanted a bar/bat mitzvah service, they did not see the necessity of five years of dues and five years of religious school. These parents were often willing to have a family service and private tutoring and cut out the synagogue altogether. Synagogues that had built their financial base on young families and the afternoon religious school suddenly saw their membership base dwindling and no longer in need of the basic services they were offering. Young, single Jews and Jews without children had no reason to join a synagogue that offered little or nothing to meet their spiritual and social needs. These young Jews began to look for alternative places to worship, places better equipped to meet spiritual, social and educational needs.
The Problem: Part Two – Finances
The school was considered a kind of “loss leader” in the normal synagogue budget, in that it was heavily subsidized by all the membership, even those without children or those with grown children. Educating children was seen as the basic purpose of a congregation. Since virtually all congregations had this kind of a policy, we created a community where the vast majority of Jews, at least at some point in their lives, had been members of a congregation. The average membership for a family lasted, on average, about seven years, which would give these families time to celebrate the rites of passage with their two children and then, if the children did not get involved in a youth group, or the parents did not become involved in synagogue leadership, they would quit the congregation and move on to other things in their lives. Most formal Jewish education stopped at a13 and youth groups gradually turned to a more informal kind of learning for those that remained.
The decisions regarding membership insured that the financial health of a non-Orthodox congregation rested upon the religious school. In the 1950’s, during the height of the baby boom, there were more than enough children to fill the schools. But as that baby boom passed through to college and beyond, the birth rate of the American Jewish community began to fall. Jewish parents waited longer to have fewer children. As previously stated, today, many mainstream congregations still believe that parents of children join the synagogue only to provide a bar or bat mitzvah for their children. But as parents wait longer to have children, there is now a delay of some 20 years before these parents who still wish to join a mainstream congregation develop a need to join. With the decline in membership, the decline in finances is inevitable. Since the balance of synagogue financing depends a great deal upon donations, without a membership, donations are also in decline. Thus, my colleagues at the JTSA forum I mentioned above were still looking for parents to join their schools and ultimately join their congregations. But the very young Jews they covet so much are not parents; indeed many are not even married! It is a demographic that has disappeared! As synagogue membership continues to age, the drop in donations and support becomes more and more acute. Synagogues today struggle to cut budgets and staffing as their membership declines, but this only accelerates the drop in membership since without the funding for new programs and the volunteers and staff to run them, they are mired in a downward spiral. Less funding for programs, fewer programs to reach out to the community, fewer members to make up a vibrant the congregation. The actual costs of running a synagogue are not all that flexible. Most of the real costs are fixed. This financial problem is a challenge that cannot be solved by merely cutting the budget. Synagogues need to enhance the income by getting more members to join, but the congregations don’t change their culture to attract the singles and families without children that they need. The financial crisis is so great in some communities that what may be needed is an infusion of “venture capital” to ultimately reverse the downward spiral.
The Problem: Part Three – Buildings and Locations
In the 1920’s most synagogues were located in urban areas where the working class Jews could be found. Large U.S. cities had large Jewish populations centered in inner city housing. After World War II, Jews joined the rest of the American population in a mass exodus to the suburbs. Inner cities remained slums inhabited by new immigrants and poverty-stricken minorities. For the Jewish community, for the next 40 – 50 years, the suburbs were the place where Jews lived and where synagogues flourished.
Some of the most amazing synagogues were built at the beginning of this period. While urban synagogues decayed, suburban synagogues were being designed by some of our country’s greatest architects; extraordinary cathedrals of glass and stone able to accommodate thousands of Jews who would attend annually for the High Holy Days as well as for somewhat smaller groups for Shabbat and holidays. High bima (pulpit) and fixed pews were the style of the day. Fuel was cheap, so heating and lighting were not considered extravagant.
When the fuel shortages of the 1970’s hit, congregations began to realize the problems that accompanied these high maintenance buildings. Heating and air conditioning became costly. The fancy architecture was expensive to repair and replace. Falling memberships meant that large parts of the building would be unoccupied most of the day but the large halls made it difficult to just close off one part of the building to save on costs. Large sanctuaries that held hundreds of people were now holding services with 200 or fewer worshipers on a regular basis. Since these sanctuaries were furnished with pews bolted to the floor, it was impossible to use the large room for anything other than a large formal religious service. When the room was in use, the whole room had to be illuminated and heated/cooled. The cavernous halls only made more obvious the small number of people in attendance. When a family celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding, guests would fill the hall, but on a regular Shabbat, the numbers were shrinking and the sanctuary looked sadly empty.
As the number of children within the synagogue dwindled due to the decrease in the size of Jewish families, there were also empty classrooms and meetings rooms. As staff positions were cut, the number of empty offices increased. But the worst was yet to come. Young Jews stopped moving to the suburbs.
At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, large sections of the inner city began to gentrify. Old neighborhoods were rebuilt and young Jews began moving into the apartments and condominiums to shorten their commutes to and from work and reinvent the urban lifestyle. Old inner city synagogues began to see some revival and some actually were able to renovate and take advantage of this new urban community. Since this revitalization was being organized by young Jews, many of which were professionals, the revitalized congregations did not look at all like their suburban counterparts. This has proven to be the testing ground for what the new synagogue of the 21st century would look like. Later we will examine some of these congregations in greater detail.
The Problem: Part Four – Of Cliques and Fiefdoms
There is a kind of “cycle” in the time-lines of not-for-profit organizations. Founders get things started. A second round of leaders takes the vision of the founders and grows the organization. When the vision is finally realized, instead of revamping the program, the leadership holds the line thinking that the vision of the founders will be carried forever into the future. These leaders become entrenched in their roles in the organization; they resist any effort to change or update the vision in response to the changing needs around them, and the organization goes into decline until it is forced to close or is revitalized when a new group with a new vision finally takes over. I often point to the March of Dimes as an example of having to refocus the goals of an organization. The March of Dimes was founded as an organization dedicated to ending the scourge of polio. After many years, the organization found itself truly blessed; its goal had been achieved. Polio was defeated through a vaccine and a great killer of children was no more. The March of Dimes no longer had a cause. It had a choice to make: close up and congratulate itself on a job well done, or reestablish itself. It chose to revise the organization and is now a prominent organization working to eliminate birth defects in children.
Synagogues (and other houses of worship) are not exempt from this time-line. With the right leaders and vision, a religious organization can experience great growth and success. When these leaders fail to pass the baton to the next generation of leadership, when they become more interested in keeping their duties and protecting their “fiefdoms,” the organization becomes stale and goes into decline. New leadership will either have to work hard to break up these fiefdoms, or go elsewhere and start their own organizations. Either way, it equals bad news for synagogues. These leadership “cliques” will eventually tire of the work and wonder why no one is helping them fulfill their duties anymore. Without the ability to work their way up in the organization and without any valuable input as to how a more updated vision statement can be formulated, young leadership simply migrates to where they are appreciated and the remaining leadership gets older and finds itself unable to meet new challenges.
Insiders and Outsiders, Veterans and Newbies
Synagogues, like many other houses of worship, have insiders and outsiders. The insiders are the “regulars” who attend almost every social and religious function and are usually the ones in charge of planning and working to get the programs going. They are typically angry at the “outsiders” who never seem to support the synagogue at their level of commitment.
The issue here is less about not wanting to give up “turf” and more about being “welcoming.” The insiders share history, experiences and friendship, and those who are outside are left in the cold. Insiders come to events, sit together, know when and where “the good stuff” (the better cake, books, seats etc.) can be found and make sure it is all reserved for them. Outsiders stand around wondering if they will ever be welcomed into the inside or if they will forever be on the outside looking in.
I was once in a community that was looking for a rabbi when I was told that the real insiders in this synagogue were those who had lived in the city for three generations or more. I realized that as their rabbi, even I would remain an outsider! I decided to take a position elsewhere.
Without, what my friend Dr. Ron Wolfson of the American Jewish University calls a, “culture of welcoming,” a synagogue is doomed to fail. We live in an age where everyone has a myriad of choices vying for their “spare” time. More and more, Jews do not waste time trying to “break in” to a group of insiders. They go instead to the congregation that makes them feel welcome.
The Problem Part Five: Demographic Challenges
We can see that the problems I have listed have their roots in many different places. In some cases, they began with decisions made by community leaders over 50 years ago. In other cases, events were a result of mitigating circumstances beyond the control of leadership.
Young Jews – The Jewish community is changing in many different ways. Young Jews are moving from the suburbs back into inner cities. It is true that as they begin having children, the cost of housing in the city makes it harder for them to find appropriate living spaces at reasonable prices. However, instead of going out to familiar suburbs, they are moving to homes closer to the cities to keep commuting costs down and are not interested in the larger, “McMansions” their parents once aspired to own. They prefer living in neighborhoods with local shopping and short walks to provide for the needs of their families without increasing their “carbon footprint.”
Baby Boomers – In addition, as the Baby Boom generation aged, they were looking for something very different than what their parents had required. Just 20 or 30 years ago, senior adults were younger (retiring around age 65) and wanting to live with other seniors their age. These large senior communities are now filled with residents in their 80’s and 90’s. Baby Boomers had no interest in these large senior communities. Despite the low cost of these condominiums, today’s retirees are looking to live in communities of mixed ages. They do not see themselves as “old” and they are not ready for a life of tennis and golf. Retirees today go on adventure tours, travel all over the world, and may still be scuba diving, mountain hiking and have extended workout routines at the gym. They are older, retiring from their work after age 70 even if they can retire earlier. In fact, some retire younger, and then start a new career, working another ten or 15 years before retiring for good.
Large condominiums that once catered to Jewish retirees now have half the number of Jews they once did. Other Jews are not moving in to replace those residents that move away in order to be closer to children or go to assisted living. In Florida, large senior-only congregations are shrinking fast and closing their doors because the same boomer retirees that won’t live in 55+ communities won’t join a 55+ congregation. Since new communities are mixed ages, these senior congregations that do not have religious schools and gear programming only for seniors are failing at a faster rate than the mixed-age congregations. The need for senior congregations has almost completely disappeared.
American Families – Sixty years ago, the core membership of American, non-Orthodox congregations was mostly families with parents that married in their early 20’s and were having children by age 25 or so. This demographic has also disappeared. More and more Jewish singles are waiting much longer to get married. Some wait until they are finished with graduate school at age 26 or 27, others wait until their careers are set, choosing to marry well into their thirties. Many young Jews don’t see any reason to marry, choosing to live together with a partner for anywhere from five to nine years. Some rabbis have reported that young Jews who marry, only marry a partner when they decide to have children. Thus, we see many couples returning from their honeymoons pregnant. If they are in their late 30’s when they finally marry, they will be over 40 by the time they enroll a child in preschool. If a synagogue only offered programs and schools for parents with children, they now have to wait an additional 20 years for the family to join. Cost conscious parents in their 40’s wonder why they have to join a synagogue for religious training when they have lived without the synagogue in their life for so many years already.
Religious Denominations – Denominations in American Jewish Life are also in decline. While there are significant philosophical differences between Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, American Jews, today particularly young Jews, really don’t care very much about these differences. Young Jews are not concerned with “labels.” They will join a synagogue of any denomination as long as it has a program that is of interest to them — an educational program that stimulates them and makes them feel welcome. In fact, many less religious Jews will even join an Orthodox congregation if these conditions are met. While the leadership of synagogues and national organizations can point to what they consider to be real differences between the denominations, in reality, the public just doesn’t care. The amount of Jewish law required, egalitarian issues, personal responsibility for practice, and creative prayer that represent the practical side of denominational issues are really non-issues today. They will follow whatever practice and procedure a synagogue requires, but only if it meets their needs in other ways. These Jews take what they need from their synagogue and then decide to what degree they wish to be involved in other aspects of synagogue life.
Inertia – In spite of all these changes, American synagogues refuse to change. Most of the problem is inertia. The people who are in charge, the lay leadership and the clergy are happy with the “status quo” programming. Often they have spent years molding things to their satisfaction and fail to recognize that the challenges they faced when they set out are not at all comparable with what exists today. Synagogues remain school-centered in spite of evidence that there are fewer children and they are reaching them much later. Synagogues remain focused on married couples in spite of evidence that they are not reaching the coveted younger demographic because they are mostly single. The programming of a synagogue is still built on outdated social programs that are of little interest to Jews of all ages.
For all these reasons, synagogues are in decline.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are many ways congregations can meet the challenges facing our Jewish community in the 21st century. It is time to examine the solutions.