While many other Conservative congregations around the country are losing members, or even shutting down, Congregation Beth Shalom, which celebrates its centennial anniversary this year, has been bucking the trend: Its membership has increased by more than 6 percent in the last year, and it has added several young families to its rolls.
But the congregation’s senior rabbi, Seth Adelson, is not about to let his flock rest on its laurels. There is too much at stake, for both Beth Shalom and Pittsburgh’s wider Jewish community, he said.
So Adelson has introduced an initiative he calls “Derekh” or path, a broad strategy of engagement that he hopes will take both affiliated and non-affiliated community members into the next 100 years.
“The synagogue of the future cannot be the synagogue of the past,” Adelson explained, noting that people now connect to Jewish life differently than they did in past generations.
“People are less likely to join institutions,” Adelson said. “And people are less likely to participate in many of the standard offerings that synagogues have traditionally offered.”
The intent behind Derekh, he said, is to try to reach more people “by presenting them with a whole panoply of options of new ways to engage with Jewish life, with a particular emphasis on learning, on getting in touch with the Jewish book shelf, on finding ways to connect our textual heritage with how we live today.”
Through the introduction of five portals — limmud (learning); hesed (acts of loving-kindness); mindfulness; culture; and Israel — the congregation intends to build a new center for Jewish life and learning to benefit and transform Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.
It’s an ambitious goal, but one worth the effort, according to Adelson.
“Judaism is as valuable, and as fresh and vibrant today as it has always been,” Adelson said. “We just have to find ways to connect it to people’s lives and how they live in the 21st century.”
Although the initiative is in its early stages, a blueprint for the plan has already been produced, setting out possible components and programming ideas for each of the five portals. For example, limmud might include small learning groups, as well as larger retreats and special events with “avant-garde Jewish learning.” The culture portal could include bringing to town high-profile Jewish authors, musicians and artists. The Israel program could offer regular congregational trips to the Jewish state for various affinity groups, as well as lectures by Israeli academics and journalists.
Additional Jewish programming is sorely needed here, Adelson said.
“I feel like for a community of this size, we are underserved in terms of programming,” he said. “I think there is room for growth, that we could have bigger named speakers coming in. There are so many exciting things going on in the Jewish world in terms of contemporary ideas and presentations, and we can bring them here.”
Fundraising for the initiative will cover the expense of hiring someone accomplished in Jewish education and entrepreneurship to take the helm of the Derekh project, and to make the programming affordable, or free, so as to engage the greatest number of people.
“Our intent here is for this to be for the whole community,” Adelson said. “The goal is to reach beyond the walls of this congregation. We have to try to not only extend invitations, but to make it as easy as possible for people to come.”
An important part of the initiative will be to partner with other Jewish institutions in the city, said Adelson, who noted that Beth Shalom already has begun conversations with other community leaders about the prospect of collaborating.
“The key to the Jewish future is integration,” Adelson said. “The territoriality of the past should remain in the past. We, as leaders of Jewish institutions, have to think that we are all preaching to the same congregation, and we all have to cooperate together if we are going to move forward. And we can’t be bogged down by words over turf.”
The Derekh initiative, emphasized David Horvitz, president of Beth Shalom, is “not a Beth Shalom-only thing. We want this to be embraced by the entire Jewish community. We hope that as transformative as this is, it will be attractive to a lot of people.”
If the program achieves its objective, Horvitz said, “it may rekindle a Jewish desire in people who are unaffiliated,” who may find the various portals of entry to be a more comfortable way into, or back into, Judaism.
Despite Beth Shalom’s recent growth, it is imperative for the congregation to look to the future, said Rob Menes, the congregation’s executive director.
“There is ‘doing well’ in the old model of Conservative Judaism, and then there’s ‘doing well’ in the future,” Menes said. “This is about looking at the future. If we think we can do what we’re doing — getting a few new members here and there — we’re fooling ourselves. There has to be some changes.”
A committee has not yet been formed to take charge of the project, but Adelson is revved up to get things going.
“We’re bullish about the future,” he said. “Yes, we are growing, but we can’t just grow in numbers; we have to grow in connection.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.