Smaller congregations share ideas in quest to stay vibrant

Congregation B’nai Emunah in San Francisco is doing a good job of maintaining its presence in the community, but with a membership of fewer than 200 households and a small staff, the Conservative synagogue — like others its size — faces challenges.

Rabbi Mark Melamut already has come up with one way to strengthen his congregation. He decided to partner with other relatively small congregations in the area — including Or Shalom, Ner Tamid and Beth Israel Judea — and plan events together for the community. For the past two years, for example, the synagogues organized celebrations for Shavuot that attracted close to 100 people each time.

Melamut will continue to build on these relationships, and now has a few more good ideas — thanks to a conference he attended earlier this summer. In early June, the rabbi joined representatives of other relatively small synagogues from across the country to discuss strategies of how to increase engagement and communication between clergy and members.

Lay leaders and rabbis of small congregations attend United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Size Matters conference June 4 in Wilmette, Ill. jta/uscj sulam’s facebook page

Sponsored by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the meeting outside Chicago attracted nearly 50 rabbis and lay leaders from congregations with fewer than 250 members. Some came from synagogues located in small, more rural communities, while others — like Melamut and Rabbi Josh Berkenwald of Congregation Sinai in San Jose — represented synagogues in large metropolitan areas.

After the three days of workshops, Melamut came away with a few possible courses of action. “Many of the synagogues — including B’nai Emunah — have good participation on Friday or Saturday night services, but not both,” he said. “I think it might be cool to have a kosher wine-tasting paired with Kaballat Shabbat to get more people to come on Friday night.”

Furthermore, “On the professional level, what I came away with is that our communities are often good at maintenance — we keep the status quo, pay the bills — and the challenge of the conference was to take a step back and to imagine what visioning for our committees might look like, to see what they can do in the future, which is harder for smaller communities because of staffing.”

His situation is hardly unique. Smaller synagogues of all streams face similar constraints.

The Union for Reform Judaism, realizing that nearly 400 of its 900 congregations have 250 families or fewer, has started the Small Congregations Network, aimed at increasing support to these communities and encouraging them to communicate among themselves about what strategies have been helpful. The network has started to look outside the URJ for effective strategies, taking good ideas wherever they can find them.

“It’s not just information that the Union for Reform Judaism creates and produces,” said Merry Lugasyi, the network’s director. “We’re now looking to other resources and whatever information is accessible.”

Rabbi Mark Melamut

Likewise, the Orthodox Union has been running periodic Emerging Jewish Communities Fairs since 2006 highlighting various small communities. The fair encourages people to move to the communities by discussing the advantages of being part of a small congregation.

Ensuring engagement is of paramount importance, but it’s not the only issue. Smaller congregations mean smaller membership fees, and in some cases, distance from the Jewish communal centers means limited resources are available. Innovative programs that could breathe new life into dwindling communities may need significant funds to operate, which small congregations rarely have. The solution is to rely on volunteers.

Congregation Kol Ami in Tampa, Fla., for example, has been using volunteers to draw people to its classes. Torah University, as the Conservative synagogue calls its innovative program, provides education for adults and children utilizing the rabbi, cantor and members of the community.

By offering credits toward a pretend graduation, the

program employs the academic method in a way that attracts more students than a simple lecture series and has earned national awards for Kol Ami from the Conservative movement.

Rabbi Charles Savenor, director of kehilla enrichment at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says the key to success for programs at smaller congregations is “healthy communication and relationships” between the laypeople and clergy. “Communica-tion and role expectations are especially critical,” the rabbi said.

Another issue is providing high-quality Jewish education beyond what programs such as Torah University are able to offer. Volunteers may be well intentioned and enthusiastic, but often they are not trained educators and smaller communities may not be able to fund full-time staff.

For Orthodox families, the lack of Jewish day schools can be a reason people leave for larger communities, according to Rabbi Steven Burg, managing director of the Orthodox Union.

“In an Orthodox community, there aren’t any options except for Jewish day schools,” he explained. “People move away because they don’t have a school for their children.”

The difficulty in finding a Jewish school has an impact on hiring clergy in general, as rabbis or cantors seeking a strong formal Jewish education for their children may opt to move away from an area by the time their kids enter grade school.

“Rabbis may stay for five to six years, then move on,” Burg said. “But while they’re there, they tend to be very dedicated and committed to the community.”

Smaller congregations do have their advantages. With limited resources, the rabbi may be more involved in the details of the community, allowing congregants to form a personal relationship that may not be possible in larger congregations. Also, with housing, young couples might be attracted by the lower prices in smaller cities, Burg said.

Teaching congregations how to address their challenges while keeping the unique flavor of a small community is vital.

“A Shabbat education model might help in a large community, too,” said Rabbi Michael Friedland of Sinai Synagogue in South Bend, Ind. “But in a small community it’s like the lifeblood. It gets everyone together and you build synergy.”

— j. intern naomi kosman-wiener

contributed to this report.