‘It’s not an easy sell’

‘It’s not an easy sell’

Beth El is making a concerted effort to be more accommodating to busy families. (Photo provided by Andy Schaer)
Beth El is making a concerted effort to be more accommodating to busy families. (Photo provided by Andy Schaer)

What the 2013 Pew survey of American Jewish life made clear — that membership at Conservative congregations is shrinking — is unquestionably being felt in Pittsburgh. And that poses a difficult challenge for leadership of local congregations: how to reverse the trend?

Only 18 percent of Jews currently identify with the Conservative movement, according to the Pew survey, which also reported that 30 percent of those who were raised Conservative have moved over to the Reform movement. And those who are left in the pews of Conservative shuls represent an older demographic; the median age of Conservative Jews is 55, the highest of all the Jewish denominations.

Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha in Squirrel Hill is no longer affiliated with the umbrella organization the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, but still identifies as Conservative, according to Michael Eisenberg, president of TOL*OLS. The congregation’s leadership knows that the key to survival is bringing in a younger cohort, he said, but is struggling to figure out how to do that.

“We are trying to expand in the younger ranks,” he said. “A shul membership is just not as valued an item in people’s lives as it was years ago. That’s what we’re facing.”

It’s not an “easy sell,” he said.

“People are wondering ‘why am I paying these dues? Where is the value?’” he said.

Eisenberg believes it is time for a “transformational change,” he said, but is at a loss to identify what that would be.

“The 1970s model is not attractive, but we don’t know what the answer is yet,” he said. “We know we want to do something. It’s a point of frustration.”

While he declined to share membership numbers, Eisenberg did compare recent High Holiday attendance with that of the 1970s.

“We have a main sanctuary that holds 1,200 people,” he said. “We used to hold two seatings for the High Holidays. Now you can’t even conceive of that. We used to be booked solid, every seat. It’s not like that anymore. I think this is one of the things all the shuls are grappling with.”

One initiative that has met with some success is a special Friday night service for young families, complemented by a potluck dinner.

“It shows them the synagogue is an OK social place to be,” Eisenberg said. “It’s successful. But the flipside is their ability to afford full dues is not as good. That’s a challenge. We have a special reduced rate to make it attractive.”

While TOL*OLS has a viable religious school, it has no youth group.

“Teens are a tough group to attract,” he said.

One change in policy that is helping somewhat with membership, according to Eisenberg, is the congregation’s Rabbi Chuck Diamond’s recent decision to officiate at interfaith weddings. Although that decision was a deviation from the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly’s prohibition of that practice, Diamond is not bound by that mandate as he is no longer a member of the RA.

“If you tell a couple ‘I’m not going to marry you, but you can come back for services,’ it’s a big turn-off,” said Eisenberg. “This was helpful in terms of membership.”

When a young interfaith couple becomes exasperated with non-inclusive policies of more traditional congregations, he said, they often move over to the Reform movement and take their parents and their grandparents with them.

“A lot of Conservative shuls are suffering because a flock of interfaith couples and their families are leaving shuls,” he said. “The Conservative movement might have been more membership hearty today if its rabbis had done interfaith marriages back in the 1970s. In hindsight, that might have helped.”

The Pew statistics on intermarriage show a grim projection for a Jewish future. While nearly all Jews who have a Jewish spouse said they are raising their children Jewish by religion (96 percent), among Jews who are intermarried, only 20 percent say they are raising their children Jewish by religion, with an additional 25 percent saying they are raising their children only partly Jewish. Thirty-seven percent of intermarried Jews with children say they are not raising those children Jewish at all.

Leaders of other Conservative shuls in Pittsburgh maintain that expanding inclusivity policies for the non-Jewish partners of its members is a way to revive membership.

While Beth El Congregation of the South Hills’ membership numbers are steady for now, the congregation is being proactive in taking initiatives to ensure its vibrancy, according to Andy Schaer, president of the board.

Beth El has launched a campaign branding itself as “Modern Conservative,” according to Schaer, who describes the new marketing strategy as a “riff on Modern Orthodox.”

One of the tenets of Modern Conservatism, he said, is to focus on inclusivity of those with disabilities, the LGBTQA community and the intermarried.

“Modern Conservative sees interfaith families as an opportunity, not as a threat,” Schaer told the congregation during an address on Rosh Hashanah. “It’s recognition that we can’t expect the non-Jewish spouse to embrace Conservative Judaism and support raising Jewish children if they don’t feel welcome in our shul.”

Beth El, which is a member of the USCJ, is still bound by certain halachic mandates of the organization, and its rabbi, Alex Greenbaum, is still a member of the RA, which prohibits its members from performing interfaith marriages.

“We are not looking to move away from the USCJ or from the RA,” Schaer said. “But we are looking to find ways within halachic law to involve and include the non-Jewish spouse. If our intent is to engage them and to raise their children as Jews, we need to involve them.

“If we have programming that is relevant to interfaith families, and involves them, I don’t think they have to move over [to a Reform congregation],” he added. “It is not a foregone conclusion that because we are not doing weddings, we are not a congregation for them.”

Beth El’s Modern Conservative platform — which so far is unique to Beth El, and not an organized movement — is a response to the needs of today’s busy family as well as the other diverse cohorts that make up the congregation.

 “It’s the intent to recalibrate ourselves to the way our congregants and prospective congregants really live,” Schaer said. “Keep in mind we are trying to reach the least observant, the most observant, teens, kids, empty-nesters, retirees. We are developing programming that fits the way they truly live.”

Examples so far, according to Schaer, include take-out Shabbat meals once a month for families that don’t have time to prepare dinner; a pre-Kol Nidre dinner at the synagogue, so congregants could enjoy a relaxing meal without having to rush to clean up and get to shul on time; and a new learner’s minyan led by Rabbi Amy Greenbaum that runs concurrently with the main Shabbat service.

One tough challenge, Schaer acknowledged, is getting children and teens to services on Shabbat and on holidays and getting young families involved.

A recent initiative to make being a member of Beth El easier for young families was to reduce its religious school program from three days a week down to two days, which Schaer said was responsive to their needs.

 “We’re so fragmented in terms of our time,” Schaer said. “We have more going on. There are too many distractions, and it’s too hard to focus. Some of it depends on what colleges you’re looking at. Modern Conservatism recognizes that world exists.”

Schaer analogized Beth El’s new platform to fast-food restaurants that offer a myriad of choice.

“Another way to think about it — my favorite frame of reference – is in food terms,” he said in his Rosh Hashanah address. “It’s much more like Panera and Chipotle than it is standard fare. It provides options to chose from, allowing you to ‘pick two’ or build your bowl. Chipotle has just 25 different items on their menu, but with them customers can create more than 100,000 unique combinations. … Virtually everybody can get what they want. Modern Conservative is the ability to pick and choose from an array of quality programs and services and assemble the experience that works best for you and your family, without judgment.”

In contrast, Beth Shalom, which has been seeing a resurgence in membership since the arrival of its new rabbi, Seth Adelson, is holding fast to traditional Conservatism, according to its president, David Horvitz.

“We’re in a new phase of our congregational life,” Horvitz said. “We have a new rabbi, and we are starting to attract new members. Things are on the upswing.”

The congregation is focusing on three elements to maintain and attract new members: kiddusha, community and connection. Adelson, said Horvitz, has been having parlor meetings with small groups of members, getting to know them personally and having them get to know each other and forming connections. With an emphasis on kiddusha, “he is imbuing within our congregation a sense of holiness.”

Part of the congregation’s focus, said Horvitz, is learning, and Adelson will be teaching small groups of adults with the idea that those students will then go on to teach other congregants.

“Lots of our congregants are learned and can teach,” he said. “A lot of our people want to have learning and to see how Judaism affects our lives today. Kiddusha will move us in the right direction.”

Like the other Conservative congregations in the area, Beth Shalom also faces a challenge when it comes to involving its older children. But families with younger children are coming to shul.

“We have a wonderful young families’ service for Shabbat on Friday nights, for families with 4- to 10-year-olds,” he said. “We get a 100 people. It’s unbelievably attended. And some of our young families are putting together a kiddish on Saturdays twice a month. People are staying at the kiddish. Kids are running around in the gym. They stay and play.”

While it is sometimes a struggle to get a minyan on Friday nights, he said, Saturday morning attendance has doubled since Adelson arrived in August.

Still affiliated with USCJ, Beth Shalom will not be “progressively breaking down doors” when it comes to intermarriage, Horvitz said, although “we do want to be inclusive within the confines of Conservative Judaism. We are going to adhere to Conservative concepts.”

“We are traditional Conservative,” he emphasized. “And it’s working. It’s now up to us to build on that.”

For Adat Shalom, near Fox Chapel, the congregation — which disaffiliated from USCJ a few years ago — has been successful in picking up new families that have moved to the suburb and boasts a strong preschool program, which serves as a feeder for members, as well as a robust Hebrew school, according to Andrea Lehman, president of the congregation.

“We have a nice group of young families that serve as good ambassadors for us,” Lehman noted. “But we have problems with the post-bar mitzvah phase.”

Families tend to disaffiliate following a child’s bar mitzvah, and the congregation currently has no youth adviser, although it is in the market for one

The demographics of the congregation, she said, “skew older.”

“At Adat Shalom, the largest cohort is simply empty-nesters,” she said, adding that programming such as Friday night dinners helps to get that cohort to come to shul.

But personal connections, she believes, is the key to generating involvement.

“It’s a different world now,” she said. “You can’t just say, ‘We will build it, and they will come.’ We need people reaching out. People respond more to a personal touch.”

Like other shuls, Adat Shalom does not always get a minyan on Friday night. But once a quarter, on Saturday mornings, the congregation hosts two contemporaneous services: one traditional, and one “lighter” and contemporary, which has been very popular.

Still, maintaining membership is a challenge, particularly in light of the demographic realities.

“We have elder congregants who are not necessarily staying out here,” she said. “Some of them move to the city or to Florida. The younger groups are doing great on their own, but for us, the empty-nesters are the key.”

Like Adat Shalom, New Light Congregation in Squirrel Hill, with about 110 family units, is struggling to serve an aging membership, according to longtime co-president Barbara Caplan, who serves alongside Marilyn Honisberg.

“We are losing members,” she said. “We’ve tried to reach out. We talk about membership. We’re aware we are an aging synagogue.”

But, so far, there are no policy changes in the works to attract new members, she said.

“We are not really doing any new programs,” she said. “We just try to reach out as much as we can. People don’t seem to be interested in joining synagogues these days. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

At Parkway Jewish Center near Monroeville, membership has dwindled to fewer than 80 families, said Bob Korfin, who has served as the congregation’s president for two decades. Although the congregation identifies as Conservative, he said, most of its members do not really observe Conservative halachah in practice.

“It’s kind of a joke,” he said. “We are not living halachically as Conservative Jews. Most of the members do not have kosher homes. I drive on Shabbos. I shop on Shabbos.”

Although a few years ago, someone suggested the congregation engage in outreach to address the issue of membership loss, Korfin does not think it will help.

“I think it’s a waste of time,” he said. “I think people who are unaffiliated wish to be unaffiliated. Our members are older, and there are not a lot of Jewish people moving to the Eastern suburbs, although Chabad is growing. The Chabad rabbi and his family are wonderful.”

Korfin said has no problem with his members participating in events at other congregations, and, in fact, he publicizes those events.

“I don’t stand on ceremony,” he said. “I think there should be more cross-pollination. We are small, and it doesn’t hurt a thing to participate in other congregations’ events.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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