At least since the end of World War II, people have joined synagogues for a number of reasons. Prominent among those reasons was the need to have a place for a child to celebrate becoming bar or bat mitzvah. And an even more compelling reason often has been the understanding that it’s just what you do. What Jews do.
That understanding has broken down, as last year’s Pew study has shown (and as we have written about exhaustively), so now synagogues are trying to find their new centers of gravity as the world changes around them.
The Montebello Jewish Center in Montebello, N.Y. — that’s in the town of Ramapo, across the state line from Mahwah, N.J. — is facing the challenge by offering Kehillah Kedishah — a sacred community. That community is made up of about a dozen affinity groups, small clutches of people — not necessarily shul members — brought together by common interests, connected to the shul through the structure of the program.
Kehillah Kedishah grew out of the spiritual yearnings of two of the Conservative synagogue’s members, Nancy Recant and Laura Schneider, and its rabbi, Adam Baldachin.
Ms. Recant, who moved to Tuxedo about five years ago from Ridgewood and has been a member of the Montebello Jewish Center since then, had been feeling some dissatisfaction with it. “It wasn’t working for me. It was not spiritual. It just didn’t feel right,” she said; Ms. Schneider shared that malaise, she said. It also was a bit off socially, she added. “I was tired of going into shul and not knowing people. I would go on Shabbat and not really feel connected to anyone. I wasn’t a regular shul-goer, though, because it wasn’t appealing to me. Something needed to change.
“It was like an old machine that wasn’t working.”
And as is true of many synagogues across the liberal Jewish world, the demographics were not in the Jewish center’s favor. “My husband and I are in our late 50s, early 60s, and we were among the younger members,” she said. “Where are the young people? Why weren’t they coming? Will we have a new generation of Conservative Jews?”
The problems she saw, in other words, were both specific to her synagogue, specific to her movement, and to a large extent true for the larger Jewish community.
Someone else might have given up on the shul, perhaps on Conservative Judaism, perhaps on Judaism itself, but Ms. Recant is a lifer, with the critical eye granted to people who know things from the inside.
Her parents, Mina Morgenstern Jacobs and Rabbi Israel Jacobs, were Holocaust survivors. Rabbi Jacobs was the cantor and ritual director at Ramat El, a Conservative synagogue in suburban Philadelphia, and Ms. Jacobs “grew up in the home of one of the most extreme chasidic rebbes, the last of the dynasty of the Kotzker rebbe, Joseph Aaron Morgensztern.” So Ms. Recant knew a great deal about religious life to her right and to her left. She liked much of it, she felt alienated by much of it, but “I never left it,” she said.
So there she was, unhappy but committed. Ms. Schneider’s father died at the beginning of January this year, and Mina Jacobs, Ms. Recant’s mother, died the next week. The energy of grief fueled both women; they met with Rabbi Baldachin, and the idea of Kehillah Kedishah began to take form. Soon, they had a committee — they were joined by Linda Eisen and Elinor Silver.
Kehillah Kedishah is based on the work of Dr. Ron Wolfson, an educator and Conservative Jew whose books delve into the ways that Jews can make community. The groups that make up Kehillah Kedishah will coalesce around such shared interests as hiking, mah jongg, arts and culture (defined in the way that the group’s members care to define it), spiritual memoir writing (which Ms. Recant will lead), morning meditation, socializing for seniors (“I was shocked that there was a need for it, but so many people signed up for it,” Ms. Recant said), scrapbooking, and morning meditation.
“Let’s get people by their interests,” Ms. Recant said. “Those groups will be a doorway; we want to create as many doorways as possible.
“We want to nurture leaders. Each group will have a leader or co-leader. Our leadership at the Kehillah Kedishah will visit each group at least twice a year.
It will be a network with a clearly defined center.
“This is a unique program,” Rabbi Baldachin said. “People today are looking for community in ways that are not traditional. We are looking to help people relate to other people in the synagogue in deeper ways.
“The program is a low barrier to entry for anyone who is considering coming in.
“Ron Wolfson offered a really great model for me personally about how I can offer connections through relationships,” he continued. “His local banker remembered that it was his child’s birthday, and that he was going on vacation. When he got back, the banker sent him a handwritten note, saying happy birthday to his daughter, and that she hoped he had a good vacation, and that he would stop by and tell her about it.
“He was so touched! His own rabbi didn’t remember about the birthday or the vacation.
“It is so important to create more points of connection, so that even if the rabbi doesn’t get to ask them how their last vacation was, at least people in the group will. They’ll know exactly what’s going on with them.”
Kehillah Kedishah is open to everyone; its leaders hope to draw participants from both Rockland and Bergen counties. A survey up on the shul’s website is offering Kehillah Kedishah’s organizers more information about what people want. Registration will be open through the middle of August. For more information, go to the shul’s website, www.montebellojc.org, and click on the Kehillah Kedishah tab at the top left.