Rachell Krell feels connected to Judaism and to God. But she hasn’t been to services in years and isn’t part of a synagogue.
“I would love to eventually go back to services if I found a temple that was a good fit for me,” she said.
Krell, a senior at Northern Arizona University, said the focus of the synagogues she has attended has been about “keeping the temple going,” instead of “what is the value of this place?”
Krell is among the half of American Jews who attend religious services a few times a year or less, according to a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center published in May.
Of 11 possible reasons for not attending religious services, the top choice was “I’m not religious.” Other common explanations were “I’m just not interested” (57%) and “I express my Jewishness in other ways” (55%).
Several local synagogue leaders say they aren’t surprised, but few have answers for how to engage more people.
“Synagogues need to rethink how and what we mean to American Jews,” said NefeshSoul Rabbi Susan Schanerman.
“I think those of us who are lay and professional leaders are well aware of these challenges,” said Temple Solel Associate Rabbi Debbie Stiel.
“The Pew report supports what we’ve already found,” said Marvin Berris, former president of Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley.
Temple B’rith Shalom Rabbi Julie Kozlow said the board structure in synagogues in general has room for improvement. "We have to make synagogues feel more like home, and less like corporations," she said.
“People don’t know the possibilities, the richness that Judaic studies and worship can bring to their everyday lives,” said Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley Rabbi Alicia Magal. “But we have to take them where they are.”
Orthodox communities have generally not experienced this problem, said Young Israel of Scottsdale Rabbi Ephraim Weiss.
“I think it’s very much ingrained in Orthodox circles that it’s just something you do — you go at least once a week. You want to be part of that social circle, and people are hungry for that.”
But the pandemic changed that dynamic, he said.
People have either gotten more comfortable praying at home, have found other options or fallen out of the routine of going to shul at least once a week, he said.
But, unlike in some other realms of the Jewish world, Weiss believes most people will return when the threat of COVID is gone.
Many synagogues share a common arc of membership: young families join to give their kids a Jewish foundation and then stay somewhat active until the b’nai mitzvah. But after that, the families and kids seem to disappear from synagogue life altogether.
“We have to make sure that they understand that Judaism is a lifelong learning. And we’re not done, we just started,” said Frank Jacobson, president of Congregation Or Tzion.
The majority of members are older than 55 and it’s been difficult to draw in young adults.
“We’re never going to be more compelling than a movie theater for a weekday or a Sunday night. That’s just not what synagogues do,” said Temple Beth Sholom of the East Valley Rabbi Herschel ‘Brodie’ Aberson.
Berris said it’s not just young adults who are challenging to reach. Local retirement living communities often have social clubs and activities that draw in synagogue members.
“They provide some Jewish content for people that no longer want to be affiliated with the synagogue movement or temple. It is very difficult to reach these people. They don’t seem to have a need for any of the religious services except the holidays,” Berris said.
TBSWV and other synagogues have identified interfaith families as a prospective demographic that may be interested in temple membership.
“It’s in our best interests, in the interest of the Jewish community at large, to provide a place for interfaith families to be welcome,” he said.
Synagogues across the spectrum are also looking to programming as a way to draw in and keep members.
“There are many gateways into Judaism and we try to provide access through as many as possible," Magal said. “We want to offer something for every taste, and we’re a small synagogue."
Schanerman said the topic of programming is a regular discussion at board meetings.
Solel tries to provide a “variety of programs and activities that will appeal to different age groups and stages of life,” Stiel said. The synagogue has a hiking club, a knitting group, a book club and Torah study, for example. “When people join the temple, we ask them what committees and groups they are interested in being involved in, and then we connect them to leaders of those temple activities.”
Or Tzion is “always looking to figure out ways of new programs and new ways of engaging our community,” Jacobson said.
But programming is not the only answer.
Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein, executive director of the Center for Rabbinic Innovation, a project of the Office of Innovation, has some ideas for synagogue growth. But, she warns, they aren’t easy to implement.
“It’s not about specific programs, it is not about the institution, as an institution, it’s really about relationships,” she said.
The first step is for synagogues to get crystal clear on what the vision and mission is for each congregation. “Is it about preserving institutional norms? About meeting people where they are and evolving a Jewish life with them? What is the ultimate purpose of your work?" Epstein asks.
Magal said her synagogue is an extended family for her congregants, most of whom are retired and don’t have relatives nearby.
“We are here for people in their joyful times, we’re here for people in their sad times. We support each other,” she said.
Kozlow wants her synagogue to be a “house of Jewish life.”
“It’s got to be a place where people love to come, where they feel welcome, where they feel no judgment for wherever they stand in their Jewishness, and, above all, the spiritual essence of the religious endeavor has got to permeate everything,” Kozlow said.
All Jews have had different childhood experiences, she said. “We can’t be everyone’s synagogue that they grew up in, we have to be something else that respects all their different experiences, but reflects the fact that we are just an amazing mix of people.”
Aberson said that synagogues need to be the “everything of the Jewish community.” Synagogues are a place to connect with people on a personal level, for people to sing together, to find people to have Shabbat dinners with and to learn about Judaism, he said. But it’s OK for people not to want those things.
In some ways synagogues with massive memberships “are kind of missing the point,” he said. “Because you can’t have those kinds of communities. It ends up being more of a service-oriented institution than community.”
Congregation Kehillah Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman said she definitely wants her congregation to grow, but she always wants it to be small enough that she can offer what is most important: a relationship. A relationship with the rabbi, a relationship with the other congregants and a relationship with God, “whatever you perceive God to be,” she said.
“I always want the congregation to be small enough, so that I, as the rabbi, know everyone and I’m reasonably accessible to them,” she said. “A big part of our congregation is the relationship that is formed between congregants also.”
Once a synagogue knows its mission, then each leader must find the people who are, or could be, interested but aren’t already showing up—"and then be ready to change how you operate to achieve your mission with them, not for them," Epstein said. It’s a risky, time-intensive process.
“You have to go and meet people you don’t know, who might not like you or might be worried that you have an ulterior motive that they don’t like,” she said.
It takes time and hard work to find the people who have some Jewish interest but are not interested in synagogue life, and then start a conversation. “You have to go out not trying to recruit them, but actually trying to just know them and understand what gets them up in the morning.”
This has been considerably more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are people who want to connect, but don’t quite feel safe coming out yet. Then there are people who are most anxious to resume in-person synagogue life,” Sharfman said.
Before COVID, Sharfman said Kehillah would do “all sorts” of meet and greets, and host social and cultural events.
“People would be invited to come visit the synagogue, meet with our members, meet with the rabbi. Many elements of this we can still do, but it is going to look and feel different given the reality with COVID,” she said.
Kozlow recently hosted an in-person meet-and-greet at the Phippen Museum in Prescott.
“The purpose of the meeting is quite spiritual. And yet, in this day and age, it needs to come off as a social gathering,” she said.
Aberson hasn’t had much time to implement his vision for outreach since he arrived in 2019, but he has ideas. “It just kind of depends on not having COVID be a problem or other wide-scale communicable diseases,” he said. “There’s models from the L.A. Jewish community that I want to employ here.”
For example, he would like to work with large companies that could host discussions on Jewish topics over lunch and get to know people, as well as spend time at coffee shops.
“I’d like to get off of the synagogue grounds and meet people where they are — their neighborhoods, their workplaces — and be in the community and actually be a part of it in my capacity as a rabbi,” he said.
Temple Kol Ami Rabbi Jeremy Schneider said his synagogue has sustained 10 consecutive years of growth. "The biggest testament to our growth has been my ability to connect with the members and families that choose to be part of TKA," he said. "Creating a welcoming culture where everyone felt at home was the key."
But many synagogues are limited in their resources to be able to spend as much time as needed on relationship building with new, and most importantly, prospective members. Most synagogues have a financial structure based on membership and program fees, Epstein said, making it a challenge for synagogues to be driven more by community.
“If your whole community has been predicated on membership dues, and you have a facility to keep up, it’s hard to say, ‘Okay, now shift to this relational thing that people may not pay for for a long time,’” she said.
This shift necessitates a different way of thinking for funders, she said.
“It’s imperative for those who have resources and care about the future of Judaism to actually go and say, ‘Here are some resources for you to do this relational community building. I’m willing to support this initiative for three years until you see some of the people you’ve engaged wanting to invest in their own communities.’”
One of the reasons Or Tzion switched its dues model to an annual “Gift of the Heart” payment of whatever amount a congregant thinks a membership is worth, Jacobson said, was to encourage relationship building, as opposed to a transactional relationship.
Or Tzion just welcomed its new spiritual leader, Rabbi Andy Green, in July.
One of the things the board was looking for when searching for a new rabbi was somebody who shared the philosophy of “relationship Judaism,” Jacobson said.
“What Rabbi Green brings us is exactly what we feel we have had, and what we need even more of,” Jacobson said.
Aberson said it is difficult to allow synagogues to become more flexible entities, because many have large facilities that have mortgages, upkeep costs or both. “But, at the same time, I don’t think you can make synagogues grow by orienting as a business like Netflix, trying to get more people to subscribe,” he said.
Aberson added that religious communities don’t function in the long term by getting people to sign on for things they’re not actually interested in.
TBSEV has an annual dues model, but anyone who cannot afford the sticker price can pay only what they can afford.
Aberson is personally not a fan of the dues model because it creates an “in group-out group relationship.” Changing the dues model is an ongoing conversation, he said.
“People have legitimate concerns, and that’s something that has to be worked through.”
Kozlow said she is grateful for the board at Temple B’rith Shalom, where there's a "shared vision" for a spiritually enriched future, but not all boards and rabbis are in sync.
“In many synagogue environments, the person with the Judaic education, skill and experience is often seen simply as an employee."
Despite the challenges, local leaders say synagogues still have an important place in Jewish life.
Synagogues provide an “immediate and close relationship to a rabbi, to a Jewish community, and to the rites and rituals that matter to us as a Jewish people,” Schanerman said.
Stiel said only a synagogue membership can provide the means to live a “full Jewish life,” with “worship, acts of kindness/justice, sacred study and spending time as a Jewish community.”
Still, the road ahead will be bumpy.
“Clergy and congregations and their leadership need to change the way they do business in order to fulfill their vision and mission for the Jewish people,” Epstein said. JN