Membership is growing at Dor Hadash, bucking national trend
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Membership is growing at Dor Hadash, bucking national trend

There doesn’t seem to be just one reason for the influx of new members at the congregation, Gordon has concluded.

(File photo)
(File photo)

The past two decades have brought a drop in membership at brick-and-mortar houses of worship on a national level, according to a 2021 Gallup poll.

Pittsburgh’s Congregation Dor Hadash, however, is seeing growth.

The Reconstructionist congregation — one of three congregations attacked in the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018 — has ridden a wave of new members for more than two years, according to Janice Gordon, its membership chair.

The congregation only recently began keeping membership records, Gordon said, so looking for trends is a bit difficult. What is clear, though, is that the congregation is at a high-water mark, with more than 165 households and 260 adults calling Dor Hadash their spiritual home.

Membership began to increase after the Oct. 27 shooting. Dor Hadash member Jerry Rabinowitz was murdered in the attack, and member Dan Leger was seriously wounded.

“We had an unusually high number of people joining the congregation for the first time, and we had several people who had not renewed their membership in previous years who rejoined the congregation,” Gordon said.

While it might make sense that people joined the congregation as a show of solidarity, what happened afterward is more puzzling.

The last two years, Gordon said, have shown an even greater number of people becoming members —despite the pandemic forcing the synagogue, like others in the city, to shutter its doors and stop offering in-person events.

“I thought, ‘Who’s going to want to join the congregation during a pandemic?’ As it turned out, I was completely wrong,” Gordon said. “We had 15 new households join during each of the years of the pandemic — 22 adult members the first year and 19 the second year.”

The new members include not only single adults and couples but also several families with young children, which has added to the congregation’s religious school rolls.

“We have a thriving and innovative Zoom educational program,” Gordon said.

New members have been anxious to join congregation life, Gordon said, noting that volunteerism is now at its highest level.
“It’s provoked all sorts of connections and conversations and exciting ideas,” Gordon said, acknowledging a synergy between activities at the congregation and new members joining.

That synergy seems to have provided a pipeline to one of the most desired demographics in congregational life: the young adult. Sixteen of the newcomers are between the ages of 23 and 39.

Those members, Gordon said, are creating programming that is attracting other young people.

“They’ve sparked a lot of creativity and enthusiasm and new life,” Gordon said.

After chatting with each new member, Gordan said she has concluded there doesn’t seem to be just one reason for the influx of new members at the congregation.

“Some of them know people who go to Dor Hadash, some of them move to town for a job or graduate school and simply look up congregations in town, go to our website and decide it best fits their needs,” she said. “Others come here for a job, and they might have a Jewish coworker and discuss their wish to join a congregation. The coworker says, ‘I think Dor Hadash is your kind of place,’ even though from what I’ve been told, their coworker isn’t even a member.”

Others, she noted, are specifically looking for a Reconstructionist congregation or have heard about Dor Hadash’s religious school.

New members are not the only thing generating enthusiasm at the congregation, which is housed at Rodef Shalom Congregation: The lay-led congregation is seeking a “spiritual guidance leader,” according to Bruce Herschlag, Dor Hadash’s president, Herschlag said the person hired “will support our ritual practice while allowing and honoring our lay-led structure.”

In the meantime, he said, the congregation is excited about its upcoming bat mitzvah celebration on March 20, honoring the centennial of the first bat mitzvah celebrated publicly in the United States, that of Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement.

And while Herschlag is happy about the positive trends at Dor Hadash, he might be a bit too superstitious to talk about the last few years of growth.

“I don’t want to jinx it,” he said. “We are happy about it and welcome all people who are interested in a lay-led organization based on Reconstructionist principles and social action.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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