While many synagogues generate creative ideas for growing their membership, they often lack the resources to implement them.
To address this issue, the Union for Reform Judaism has created the “communities of practice” program, bringing together 37 congregations around the country to share ideas and experiment with new strategies. Two of them are local – Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter and Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia.
“We believe that the relationships built among the … participants will support creation and innovation through a new paradigm,” said Vicky Farhi, co-director of the URJ’s Expanding Our Reach initiative. “No longer will congregations need to experiment on their own to create change.”
Farhi said the idea is for congregations to work together for 18 months – through personal meetings of congregational staff and lay leadership as well as online gatherings – to “push the boundaries of existing congregational efforts, experiment in their own communities, receive peer support and guidance along the way, create congregational changes, and garner skills that will benefit all areas of congregational life.”
The first three communities of practice – Emerging Young Adult Initiatives, Successfully Engaging Young Families, and Pursuing Excellence Through Your Early Childhood Center – will launch later in January, focusing on ways to invite the participation of specific demographic groups.
An additional group, Reimagining Financial Support for Your 21st-Century Congregation, will launch in March. Two URJ professionals will moderate each group, with URJ faculty and outside experts providing knowledge as needed.
Farhi said congregations had to submit applications to participate, with each required to meet a set of criteria laid out in an introductory webinar. In addition, congregational boards had to pass resolutions supporting participation.
The first face-to-face meeting will take place later in January at a URJ-sponsored conference in Chicago. Additional meetings will take place on-line, with subsequent in-person gatherings at the organization’s biennial in San Diego as well as at the conclusion of the program.
Rabbi David Widzer, religious leader of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter, said he thinks it is a “fabulous opportunity” for his congregation to participate in the early childhood center initiative.
“Even though no one solution is going to fit every congregation, we can certainly learn from one another,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to share experiences, learn together, experiment together, and have a network of both faculty and experts to rely on, as well as other congregations.”
Widzer said his congregation already has a “first-rate early childhood center, recognized throughout the area. It’s not a question of not doing well but rather an opportunity to take something we’re rightfully proud of and make it even better.”
The rabbi said the congregation, with approximately 325 member units, always has been innovative in its approach to early childhood education, “seeing what our families need and how we can best respond.”
He cited, for example, a recent move to include the school’s before-care and after-care programs in the cost of synagogue membership.
“We recognized that many who would otherwise choose a Jewish nursery school education for their children would have to go elsewhere because their needs couldn’t be met,” he said, noting that regular nursery hours might not be enough for single working parents. “So we made it free as an advantage of membership in the congregation. We want families to be able to have that access to early Jewish childhood education.”
Widzer said that when URJ was organizing the communities of practice project, “we leapt at the opportunity,” choosing nursery school director Amy Nelson and board member Michael Weitzner to represent the synagogue in the project.
“Those two will head up our involvement, but I foresee a good number of congregants being part of the brainstorming, learning, and experimenting,” Widzer said.
“We’re honored to have been selected” for the program, he added. “We’re proud of our program and we take this as an accolade. But more than that, we’re excited at the opportunity to continue to enhance our offerings to help families in the area make Jewish choices and feel connected with our congregation and the Jewish community.”
Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia has been selected for the young families initiatives. Its rabbi, Barry Schwartz, is excited about his congregation’s participation in the project.
“I think the URJ has come to realize that they need to put congregations that share the same needs and same challenges together,” he said. “That’s what this is about. Small congregations like ours have one set of challenges; large congregations have another.”
While Adas Emuno, founded in 1871, is what Schwartz calls “a wonderful little congregation,” with some 100 member units, it nevertheless embraces members of all ages, including 70 children.
But with no preschool – and with what the rabbi described as “demographic challenges” – it is not easy to attract young families with children.
“We have a declining number of young families because the Jewish population in this part of the county is diminishing,” he said. Still, membership has been steady, “and we want to keep that base. We’ve been around 140 years. We want to make sure there’s a generation to take our place.”
Noting that his synagogue serves people beyond the immediate neighborhood, Schwartz said the congregation is eager to attract families that are not yet affiliated with the community, including interfaith families.
School director Annice Benamy and congregational leader Rebecca Kind Slater will represent the synagogue in URJ meetings, traveling to Chicago later this winter to participate in the inaugural conference. Both, he said, are professional teachers.
“They’ll be talking to congregational staff and leaders with expertise in this area,” he said. “Why not learn some of the best practices?”
The rabbi said discussion of the issue has already begun, and the congregation has initiated a series of tot programs, including offerings on Shabbat and holidays as well as field trips. He said that young families particularly enjoyed the shul’s recent Chanukah party, at which he played guitar, “did a Chanukah rap, and showed them my dreidel collection.
“We’re trying to develop family-friendly programs,” he said, pointing out that the shul is employing different communications strategies, including social media, town listserves, local newspapers, and parenting publications.
“We have to grow more sophisticated,” he said. “We have to go out to where the people are.”
This year, the congregation’s Hebrew school launched a series of family enrichment activities. Once a month, the rabbi chooses a different grade and leads a discussion.
“Last Sunday I met with third-grade parents to do a Jewish family inventory,” he said. “I listed 20 material objects and 10 observances and each family did an inventory exercise. They scored themselves and compared scores. It led to a provocative discussion of what distinguishes a Jewish home.”
Schwartz said the URJ initiative will “help us come up with a comprehensive strategy [to be] an inviting institution for young families. But whether it will lead to the establishment of a preschool or day care or ‘mommy and me’ program remains to be seen. I’m supportive of the URJ’s efforts.”