Evolution of the Modern American Synagogue from 2000-2020
In 1956, ten families met to share their dream of forming a Jewish spiritual home in a cottage in Randallstown, Maryland. The community grew over the decades through the work of dedicated volunteers and the community’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Esrog. Many couples I meet still speak of a marriage preparation course they took with Rabbi Esrog, where they met many of their lifelong friends. As the community continued to grow, they searched for a new, larger home in Owings Mills to accommodate the growing synagogue.
Everyone was excited about the move, but they could not bear to leave behind the wall of Jerusalem stone that was the chapel in the Randallstown building. The same group of dedicated volunteers disassembled the stone wall, moved it brick by brick to the new Owings Mills location, and reassembled it in the new chapel. The synagogue in Owings Mills became home for thousands of families, a new rabbi, new cantor and a growing pre-school.
When I joined Beth Israel four years ago, I walked into a huge building, clearly built to accommodate hundreds of families. However, today, on a typical Friday night we often struggle to get even ten people to attend services. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the pre-school, which was once home to over 100 children, was forced to close indefinitely because low enrollment made it cost prohibitive to operate. The same dedicated volunteers are still there, building the sukkah, cooking in the kitchen and helping with outdoor programs, but they are much older and less able to help as they once did.
Countless b’nai mitzvah families drop out of both synagogue and religious school the day after their bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. We have tried to engage parents to be the next generation of volunteers, and some are, but the drop-off culture of religious school is difficult to break. I have heard of a new trend among parents of shopping around for the synagogue that has the shortest religious school requirement and lowest b’nai mitzvah fees. Some are forgoing the community experience completely for a service at the party location with a freelance rabbi, a borrowed Torah, and a room full of bewildered guests praying earnestly for the conclusion of the bar mitzvah service so the party can begin.
Somehow, we, as Jews, lost sight of the big picture. We have forgotten that Jewish life is more than just making sure your child has a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. Collectively, we have lost sight of the commitment, dedication, and love it takes to build not just a physical space, but a shared, Jewish, spiritual home for seekers and learners of all ages. Although this is just one story, it could easily be the story of hundreds of synagogues in America.
Although the cost of membership is often cited as the reason for these challenges, cost is only part of the story. As the late sociologist Egon Mayer put it, the issue is not merely that synagogues are expensive, but rather, “for an institution I'm not using, that's a lot of money to pay” (Wertheimer, 2005).
This paper will examine two ways synagogues are trying to address the issues of engagement and cost. The first approach is one of alternate models of engagement, and the second approach is one of alternate models of contribution.
I. Historical background
In the 19th and early 20th century, American synagogues received funding largely
through selling seats in the synagogue sanctuary, much like selling tickets to a concert or sporting event. Those with the greatest means to pay, purchased the best seats. After World War I, American Jews grew tired of this system where, in their eyes the richest people could literally sit closer God on Yom Kippur. They created the dues model as a way to democratize membership. Everyone paid the same amount, and you could sit wherever you want. One could not determine who contributed more merely by the location of his seat (Beryl P. Chernov, 2015, p. 3).
In the 1950s, synagogue membership increased, although more for societal reasons than for religious reasons. Jews were leaving the cities for the suburbs, and they needed a Jewish space in which to educate and socialize their children. They also wanted a place to meet and socialize with other Jews living in suburbia. Surprisingly, although Jews joined synagogues in greater percentages at this time, a smaller percent regularly attended services than do today (Wertheimer, 2005).
II. Synagogues in the Twenty First Century
Broad social change has continued to affect synagogue membership over the last few decades. The 2000-2001 UJC Report, Pew Report of 2013, and 2020 Jewish community surveys reflect a few common trends in the Jewish community over the last twenty years.
A. UJC Report 2000-2001
In 2000, the UJC report noted some overall trends about the Jewish community related to synagogue membership (Ament, 2005). In 2000, it was noted that American Jews overall are an aging population. The median age of Conservative Jews at that time was 52, Reform Jews 50, and those that consider themselves just Jewish 49. The youngest group was Orthodox Jews with a median age of 44. In 2000, only 4% of Orthodox Jews were intermarried, 13% of Conservative Jews, 26% of Reform Jews and 39% of those who consider themselves just Jewish. The rate of intermarriage is particularly relevant to Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, the majority of which do not allow non-Jews to join as synagogue members.
B. Pew Report 2013
According to the 2013 Pew study, one third of Jewish millennials (born after 1980) are secular as compared to only 7% of the Greatest Generation (born between 1914-1927). Secular Jews are more likely to have a non-Jewish spouse and are less likely to raise their children Jewish (Center, 2013). This means that one third of the Jewish population under forty years of age is unlikely to join any synagogue.
C. Baltimore and Washington DC Community Studies
Community studies are conducted on a regular basis in cities throughout the United States. Two of these studies, the Baltimore Associated and Washington, DC Federation Jewish community study were recently completed (Boxer et al., 2020; Janet Krasner Aronson, 2017). They noted some of the trends found in both the Pew report in 2013 and the UJC report from 2000 (Ament, 2005; Center, 2013). The rate of intermarriage between Jewish household couples in Baltimore is currently around 45% (Boxer et al., 2020), and 61% in nearby Washington, DC (Janet Krasner Aronson, 2017). Only 33% of Baltimore Jews belong to a brick and mortar synagogue, and only 25% in Washington, DC (Boxer et al., 2020; Janet Krasner Aronson, 2017).
For those that do join synagogues, the current flat fee for service model does not work. An engaged commitment is required between synagogues and their members for both to thrive. The current model must change in order to accurately reflect the commitment required of the synagogue and its supporters to be successful. (Beryl P. Chernov, 2015; Herring, 2012; Wertheimer, 2005).
III. “ For an Institution I’m not Using…” - Alternate Models of Engagement
In the 1950s, Jews came to the synagogue primarily to educate their children, and to socialize with other Jewish people living in the suburbs. Synagogues were successful in part because they enjoyed a monopoly on Jewish knowledge, Jewish professionals, ritual, educational and social spaces. In his book Tommorow’s Synagogue Today (Herring, 2012), Rabbi Hayim Herring, synagogue consultant, describes the old synagogue model, one before internet and the personal computer and the new model of the 21st century (Isa Aron, 2010, pp. 15-20).
The old synagogue model was hierarchical, with the rabbi at the top, the cantor in charge of music, and committees and staff to present ideas. Those who did not like the direction of the synagogue had little choice, other than to leave or to form another synagogue. Educational access and choice were constrained by geography and other factors (Isa Aron, 2010, pp. 15-17).
The new model shifts from organizations to networks, from Jewish professionals to avocational experts. There has been a move from exclusivity towards inclusivity, from generic programming to individualized experience. Knowledge is freely available, and the fee for service model is moving towards “free for service” at the basic level.
Modern American synagogues must adapt to this new model in order to be successful. Herring examined eight successful synagogues over the course of two and a half years to better understand the characteristics that separate successful, visionary synagogues, from synagogues that are merely functional. (Isa Aron, 2010, pp. 10-11).
A. Visionary Synagogues
Herring found six characteristics of visionary synagogues including:
1. Sacred Purpose
2. Holistic Ethos
3. Participatory culture
4. Meaningful engagement
5. Innovative disposition
6. Reflective leadership
The purpose of these synagogues is reflected in all aspects of community life and communal gathering. Every gathering is an opportunity for teaching, prayer, participation and meaningful engagement. Div’rei Torah are not strictly the domain of the rabbi, nor is worship solely the responsibility of the cantor. Education is not strictly the domain of the school principal. Alternative minyanim, community choirs, parental involvement in religious school and other avenues of engagement are central to these synagogues. The entire staff comes together to envision a roadmap of Jewish learning from birth to old age. These communities are also willing to innovate and reflect on their practices (Isa Aron, 2010, pp. 18-30).
B. Functional Synagogues
Herring also found several traits of merely functional synagogues including:
1. Consumerist Purpose
5. Resistance to change
6. Unreflective leadership
These synagogues lack a commanding, inspiring vision. They operate on a fee for service model with little overlap between different segments of the synagogue population. The religious school families rarely come into contact with the Shabbat regulars, and parents are rarely involved beyond dropping off their children and picking them up from religious school. Children are not welcome in the adult service, and the congregational board leadership has little to do with the worship life of the congregation (Isa Aron, 2010, pp. 13-18).
These synagogues must move to a more reflective, adaptive, collaborative model, or risk becoming irrelevant in the years to come. Herring suggests ways to adapt, and to change the culture of a functional synagogue towards that of a visionary one. Successful religious schools challenge parents to articulate why Judaism is meaningful enough for them to want to pass it on their children and how they can convey the importance of Jewish literacy without being Jewishly literate themselves.
Many lay leaders surveyed from visionary synagogues found that they became Jewishly knowledgeable, because the synagogue challenged and encouraged them to grow. Herring also encourages synagogues to have “multiple gateways to engagement.” (Isa Aron, 2010, p. 7). Most importantly, members in visionary synagogues are asked to commit not only financial resources, but also time, energy and talent to the community. Members are not spectators, but rather active participants either through Torah study, communal singing, creative lay led prayer experiences, or other forms of learning.
IV. “… That’s a lot of Money to Pay” - Alternate Contribution Models
Although the current dues model was actually an attempt to make synagogue contribution egalitarian and democratic, most people today do not see it that way. For many, dues is just another way to separate those with means from those without means to pay. Most synagogues do offer financial assistance, but the process is often cumbersome and humiliating. Rather than ask, many simply opt out of membership all together. Those who stay are faced with continually increasing dues in order to spread the synagogue’s costs over a shrinking number of paying members.
This transactional model also perpetuates the notion that you can be a good synagogue member, regardless of your level of active participation or commitment as long as you continue to pay money to the synagogue. Synagogues need more than just funds to be successful communities and Jews need more than mere synagogue membership to benefit from all the Jewish community has to offer.
Several synagogues throughout the country are experimenting with alternate contribution models to retain members and to more accurately reflect the commitment between the synagogue and its supporters. This paper will focus primarily on the voluntary commitment model.
A. Voluntary Commitment Model (VC model)
One of the earliest proponents of the voluntary commitment model was Rabbi Stephen Wise. More than 100 years ago, Rabbi Wise instituted this model at the Stephen Free Wise Synagogue because he believed this model to be most in line with Jewish values regarding inclusion (Beryl P. Chernov, 2015, p. 4).
In 2013, at the time the UJ Federation study was conducted, 26 synagogues were either using the voluntary commitment model, or implementing it in the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Despite the name, the voluntary commitment model is not simply “pay what you wish”. The synagogue determines a sustaining amount, generally the cost per household based on the total budget and total number of expected members. The average sustaining amount for the synagogues surveyed was between $1,500-$2,900 per year. Members are then given the option to pay the sustainer level, to pay more if they are able, or less if they are unable. Most VC model synagogues continue to charge separate fees for religious school, b’nai mitzvah training and building maintenance (Beryl P. Chernov, 2015, p. 8).
B. Benefits of the Voluntary Commitment Model
Many synagogues explored this model as a means to retain membership and to
raise revenue. However, most reported benefits beyond merely improved finances, including:
1. The ability to have an honest and open dialogue about money
2. Modest increases in membership, revenue and retention, particularly among young families under 35 years of age
3. Increased member engagement and involvement
4. Heightened perception of meaning and value of membership
5. Many who paid less under the fixed structure actually paid more under the VC model
None of the synagogues surveyed reported a problem with people failing to contribute, despite a fear that people would take advantage of the voluntary model (Beryl P. Chernov, 2015, pp. 14-16).
It is important to note that the voluntary commitment model is not for every synagogue. The synagogues in this survey were largely Reform synagogues, between 100-300 members, with a rabbi who served the congregation for at least five years with close personal relationships to members (Beryl P. Chernov, 2015, pp. 8-10).
C. Other Strategies
This model may not work for larger, more conservative synagogues, although there are other strategies that can be implemented to achieve many of the same benefits. One strategy for achieving financial stability and community engagement is for synagogue leadership to be more sensitive to the language used around membership. Rather than the transactional term, member, some synagogues are using the Hebrew term, chaver which in Hebrew means not only member, but also friend (Knopf, 2016). The request for contributions can also be done in a more human and compelling way than simply sending a bill in the mail. Face to face conversations and phone conversations are a better tool for building relationships and retaining members.
Regardless of the funding model used, it is crucial that membership be understood beyond merely a financial commitment. Synagogues can and should ask members to commit not only their money, but also their talents and time to the community. It is equally important that we use all member resources, financial or otherwise, wisely in a manner that reflects their value.
V. Jewish, Personal and Professional Values
I chose to explore this topic, because it involves many Jewish values that are
important to me including avodah, brit, and hidur mitzvah. Avodah (service), initially referred to temple sacrifice, but today can refer to the our service of God through our prayer communities. Although prayer can and does occur in many settings, the synagogue has been the Jewish center of communal worship for centuries. This central gathering place not only allows us to congregate as one, but also to engage in aspects of our faith that can only be done in community like reading from the Torah, reciting the Amidah, and comforting mourners in the presence of a minyan.
Brit (covenant), can refer to the unique covenants between Noah (humankind) and God, Abraham and God, and the children of Israel and God. Covenant also refers to the obligation we have to be present for one another and the obligations we have towards the Jewish community. The voluntary contribution model stresses the importance of brit, and the importance of relationship and commitment between the synagogue and its supporters.
Hidur mitzvah (beautifying Jewish observance), is a reminder to us that mitzvot are
not rules meant to enslave us, but rather are opportunities to beautify and sanctify moments in our everyday lives. While hidur mitzvah can be done in many ways, as a cantor I am most fulfilled by the beauty that voices in harmony can bring to our lives and to our prayers. Each month, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, I organized a special Shabbat service with melodies from around the world, featuring Beit Shira, our synagogue community chorus. The sound of all our voices together is far more beautiful than any one voice would be alone. It is just one of the many ways synagogue membership and engagement can elevate and beautify our shared prayer experience.
As both member and synagogue professional, I believe the current, functional synagogue model is unsustainable. A synagogue with financial resources, but no people within its walls, is not fulfilling its mission as a sacred community. On the other hand, synagogues, like any other entities, need resources to maintain a physical space and to hire dedicated, knowledgeable professionals. The VC model is just one way to address the imbalance between financial commitment and personal commitment to the Jewish community. The VC model is not right for everyone, but everyone can and should take steps to invite and require the whole person to be part of the synagogue community.
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