Revolving doors

When the Union for Reform Judaism gathered two years ago for its last convention, the focus was on Torah and tradition, worship and wisdom.

This year, Reform leaders are taken a bit more with magic. The chief trick they are hoping to master: How to make the “Vanishing American Jew” appear again.

At this week’s national convention in Houston, they’re talking about keeping their members inside the temple doors long enough to enjoy their heritage.

Judaism may be a bit like a revolving door, but leaders of the movement can live with that, as long as Jews keep revolving back in. That means convincing Reform Jews not to drop out of synagogue life after their kids’ bar mitzvahs. It means reaching out to elderly members who have paid their dues for years and might feel marginalized by youth-centered synagogues.

“The most serious challenge facing North American Jewry today is the low rate of synagogue affiliation,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, URJ president, writes on a Web site devoted to the topic.

The numbers are so serious, he says, that he planned to launch an initiative at the Nov. 17-20 biennial to promote lifelong synagogue membership. It’s the first time he has announced a major initiative in advance of a biennial.

With 900 synagogues and 1.5 million members, the Reform movement is the largest Jewish stream in North America, claiming 39 percent of all affiliated Jews, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.

But the movement also has the highest dropout rate, with 38 percent of members eventually leaving the fold, according to San Francisco’s Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

Then there are those who don’t belong to any congregation — 54 percent of American Jews, according to the National Jewish Population Study.

Locally, the numbers are worse. According to a 2004 study commissioned by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, synagogue membership in the Bay Area has declined to 22 percent, with 57 percent reporting no affiliation to any Jewish institutions.

(The South Bay bucks the trend with a rosier 36 percent affiliation rate, according to the study.)

“None of these problems are new,” says Rabbi Roberto Graetz of Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah. “As long as affiliation exists, non-affiliation is a concomitant problem. Today we know a lot more about it, and we know how serious it is.”

Adds Rabbi Lawrence Raphael of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel, “For us in the city, we have a great challenge. I ask myself how can I reach out to [unaffiliated Jews] and interest them in a congregation that responds to their needs.”

Reaching out to those Jews “remains high on our agenda,” Yoffie says, but adds, “we have a particular responsibility toward those who enter our gates and then ultimately walk away.”

“You’re not going to get everyone,” says Rabbi Stephen Chester of Oakland’s Temple Sinai. “That’s a reality. There will be many people who do not affiliate with anything to do with Jewish life. Our challenge is to create the services and programs that appeal to as many people as possible across the board.”

Another overarching objective is making sure the synagogue is a warm and meaningful place for singles, interfaith couples, gays and lesbians, childless couples and everyone else who isn’t among the 32 percent of American Jews who join a synagogue for their children’s education.

“Only 23 percent of our members are two-person families raising children, yet look how much of congregations’ budgets are devoted to them,” says Kathy Kahn, the URJ’s outreach director. “There needs to be significant recruitment and retention of singles, empty-nesters, gays and lesbians, people who are out there waiting to see whether they have a place in our congregational family.”

Reaching out to interfaith couples has also been a central component of Reform Judaism’s strategy to increase the membership roles.

Says Rabbi Raphael Asher of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek: “We follow the strategy [late Reform leader] Rabbi Alexander Schindler laid out. We welcome interfaith families, and I don’t think the current numbers have shown a failure of that strategy. A third of suburban Reform congregations are now composed of interfaith families. For congregations taking a positive attitude, there isn’t a feeling that interfaith marriage is such a terrible failure in the Jewish community.”

Still, while many congregations focus on getting new members on the rosters, they don’t necessarily follow up to make sure those members’ needs are being met later down the road.

“The failure most congregations make is once they have them in the door, that’s it,” says Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El. “There’s very little left for membership retention. We talk to [members] and see what areas of congregational life they would like to be involved in. We try to assess where we can draw them in.”

Holding onto the empty-nesters — couples whose children are out of the home — can be a crucial focus for congregations.

Says Rabbi Stacy Friedman of San Raphael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom, “Some would think Marin County is full of stereotypical families, but we have a lot of single-parent families and an aging population. Forty percent of our membership is over 50. While we focus on the children, we also need to focus on the adults and create intergenerational connections.”

Temple Chaverim in Plainview, N.Y., placed an ad in the local paper showing two birds sitting on an empty nest, and invited parents who originally had joined the synagogue for their children’s sake to “belong for yourself” now that the kids are older.

The temple organized a wine-tasting trip for empty-nesters, and the adult education committee is forming a book club and planning a trip to Washington.

Rabbi Melanie Aron of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos says the way to keep older congregants from walking through the revolving door is to make sure they are “really part of the congregational community, that they’re participants in a chavurah or choir, where everyone knows them.”

To that end, some Reform congregations have created special programs for each age group. For example, Rodef Sholom has developed programming designed to keep older congregants part of the action.

“We have a bubbe brigade,” says Friedman. “The aim is to reconnect them to the synagogue through the grandchildren. So we have grandparents bring the kids to Tot Shabbat.”

Aron had not had to deal with a large senior population for most of her 15-year tenure, but times are changing and she’s been rethinking her approach to reaching out to elderly congregants.

“We are beginning to see people getting fragile,” she notes. “Rabbis are really good at acute illness. We get to the hospital. But the frail elderly may recuperate for six weeks. What kind of mechanism do we have so they’re not forgotten?”

Two years ago, Community Synagogue in Rye, N.Y., created specific programs for members at every stage of life. With funding from a concerned congregant, the synagogue was able to hire a professional to run its senior program.

The result, says Rabbi Daniel Groper, is that the synagogue building is busy throughout the week, with “adults coming into the building during the daytime, learning and socializing.”

Groper says many of his colleagues see the same need for intergenerational programming, but not all of them act on it. Affording membership dues is often the main obstacle.

“When people call, that’s the first thing they ask,” says Pearce of the relatively high cost of temple membership. “Over the years I’ve gotten many angry comments that it’s too prohibitive for young families.”

To combat that initial reluctance to pay expensive dues, Congregation Emanu-El devised a plan several years ago that, while seemingly risky, has paid off for the San Francisco synagogue.

“We wanted to be able to say, ‘Join for a year at any dues level, including zero,'” says Pearce. “‘Then we’ll be very happy to talk to you about dues.’ We thought we would lose an entire year’s revenue from new members. What happened was, dues doubled and new members quadrupled. Some said they would never have joined if we hadn’t made it so easy.”

As a result, Emanu-El has added 500 households in two years and 900 in the past decade. Pearce will be making a presentation to his colleagues at the biennial on the congregation’s program.

But it’s not just about programming, some rabbis say.

“Programs are just one component,” says Graetz. “We have a challenge between preschool and confirmation to convince the families that this is a place they belong, that this is their Jewish neighborhood. You do that by contact, by building a sense of community, to make an impact in people’s lives when they need it.”

Rabbi Harry Danziger, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement’s rabbinic arm, says most of the 1,700 families in his Memphis congregation “stay cradle to grave.”

While that membership longevity “may be partly cultural, being in the South,” he believes it’s also due to a warm, familial atmosphere that is consciously cultivated by synagogue leadership.

Members’ important life moments are acknowledged and celebrated, Danziger says, “to make certain that we are a congregational family. We leave organizations, but we don’t leave family.”

How things will stand for Reform Judaism at the next biennial is anyone’s guess. But the rabbis that care deeply about the movement seem upbeat about the future, despite the challenges of attrition.

“The synagogue is a unique institution,” says Sherith Israel’s Raphael. “It’s the only place that you grow Jews. And growth is something that continues on.”

Says Asher, “The borders of the synagogue are always going to be porous, but that’s a good thing. In general, the people you lose have the most attenuated Jewish identity, and the people you bring in have a stronger Jewish identity.”

Then he adds, “There has been hand-wringing about the Vanishing American Jew ever since the 1964 article of the same title. The ever-dying people: Who wants to live like that?”

Dan Pine is a j. staff writer; Sue Fishkoff is a JTA correspondent.