Why do they leave?

Why do they leave?

Federation study examines Rockland’s non-Orthodox synagogues

Why do synagogue members stop paying their dues?

It’s an important question for all synagogues to ask.

But it is a particularly important question for the non-Orthodox synagogues of Rockland County, where changing community demographics have led to shrinking memberships and synagogue mergers.

That’s why the Rockland Jewish Initiative, a project of the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, commissioned a survey of attitudes of synagogue leaders, members, and former members.

The results of the survey were released in March, and published at http://jewishrockland.org/rockland-jewish-initiative. In coming weeks, Cantor Barry Kanarek, the initiative director, said he will meet with synagogue leaders to discuss the report and what actions to take based on it.

16-2-TOI-q10Cantor Kanarek said the most important finding is that Jewish involvement “is more episodic and more informal than in the past.”

That’s not unique to Rockland County, he said. “It’s a national trend. We see that happening in the Christian world as well.”

The challenge is this: “We need to make changes in our synagogues, and how we structure our synagogues, to accommodate that,” he said.

Dr. David Elcott
Dr. David Elcott

Dr. David Elcott was one of the consultants who conducted the survey. He is the Henry and Marilyn Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. He has specialized in advising Jewish communities about how to involve baby boomers in Jewish life.

“People are joining less,” he said. “The idea that you join some place and are connected to it from cradle to cemetery, that notion Catholic parishes had, has pretty much evaporated. People don’t speak that language.”

Or more precisely, fewer people speak that language.

“In some ways the Jewish community shows more robust affiliation than organizations like the PTA or the Kiwanis,” Dr. Elcott said.

The survey had three components. First came interviews and focus groups with 27 leaders of the county’s 12 non-Orthodox synagogues — rabbis, presidents, board members. Then came a survey of about 1,000 current members of those synagogues. Finally there was a survey of a harder-to-reach population, about 100 former synagogue members.

So: How are synagogue members different from former synagogue members?

Not significantly, it turns out, in terms of their Jewish identity.

16-3-TOI-q18Of current synagogue members, 91 percent say being Jewish is “very important,” with the remaining 9 percent describing it as “somewhat important.” That’s a higher percentage than is found among the former synagogue members, but nearly three-quarters of the ex-members also feel that being Jewish is “very important,” with a further 25 percent checking off the “somewhat important” box. Only 2 percent said being Jewish is “not very important.”

“Whereas 50 years ago intermarriage and disaffiliation meant you were doing everything you could to abandon your Jewish identity, that is not the case today,” Dr. Elcott said. “That’s a very important awareness, one the leadership of the synagogues have to take into account.”

Instead, the starkest difference between members and former members came when asked to agree or disagree with this statement: “I prefer not to commit to being involved with organizations on any long term basis; I just get involved when or if I am interested.”

Only 25 percent of synagogue members agreed with that statement, with 57 percent disagreeing strongly. By contrast, only 16 percent of former synagogue members disagreed strongly, and 67 percent — two thirds! — agreed.

“Synagogues need to examine bold approaches,” the report concluded. “We have seen that departure from the synagogue does not automatically signal a severing of ties to or interest in Jewish life. Patterns and connections change, and people shift how they use their time. The door, then, is not closed completely, and efforts at reconnecting are warranted and potentially promising.”

The report also looked at “at-risk” synagogue members — those most likely to leave in the future. Significantly, it found a major disconnect between, on the one hand, they way synagogue leaders perceived both their congregations and those members who dropped out, from, on the other hand, the way those members who left explained their decision and described their former synagogues.

Synagogue leaders explained that those who left did so because their children had become bar or bat mitzvah, and because they didn’t want to pay dues.

“Both of those are more complex,” Dr. Elcott said. “The financial question is seldom an issue of saying ‘we don’t have the money to pay dues.’ It is that they have many things they’re interested in doing, and synagogue is not a high enough priority to pay for.”

In fact, the top reason for leaving given by former synagogue members was a lack of connection with clergy. While three quarters of synagogue leaders strongly agree that “when needed I have felt cared for by clergy,” and 64 percent of current members also agree strongly, only 16 percent of former members agree strongly. Nearly half — 46 percent — of former members disagree, compared to only 8 percent of current members who don’t feel cared for by clergy.

There was a similar, though less intense, disagreement between members and former members about whether clergy make an effort to get to know people in the congregation.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, twice as many current members report having many friends in the synagogue (38 percent) as do former members (16 percent).

There was disagreement even on the seemingly objective question of whether synagogues get in touch with people who chose not to renew their memberships.

Two thirds of former members report that no one got in touch with them when they left their synagogues. One quarter said they got a telephone call, 4 percent were visited in person, and 13 percent got a letter or email.

In contrast, synagogue leaders all said that they have a program to connect with former members, and that 95 percent of them get in touch by phone, 25 percent in person and 55 percent by letter or email.

What emerged is two different views of the synagogue: One by the leadership and the core members, and one by the former members.

“The wide gap separating the views of leaders from those who are peripheral or outside the orbit of the synagogue may be surprising to leaders,” the report said. “It is clear that the ‘insiders’ who feel at home with the language, programs, experiences and relationships that the synagogue offers feel close to the center, and their identity is firmly based in the synagogue whatever their personal practice. Yet synagogues tend to speak only to that ever-shrinking core. It is crucial that communications, programs and mission statements be based on a broader reading of people’s goals, interests, priorities and willingness to be connected. Without this, there is a chance that the target audience of participation-building efforts will not be attracted or interested. This requires creativity and some possible risk taking as financially challenged synagogues try to expand their communities.”

Dr. Elcott said that he encouraged synagogue leaders to pay more attention.

“One way is to ask,” he said. “Engage congregants. Board members should spend their time calling 16 families on a semi-regular basis, and ask them what they’re like and what they’re doing as synagogue members. Ask them what would they like to have happen in the synagogue, as opposed to thinking that if only the rabbi gave a slightly better sermon, or had a better program, all the problems would be solved.”

Dr. Elcott’s report offered some suggestions for new directions the synagogues could explore to retain present members and perhaps win back former ones.

One approach is to help people make friends. “Programs that build social connections will benefit the synagogue and strengthen personal ties of members. This goes beyond the important task of welcoming people at services or other programs and could include more in-depth connections like placing or inviting different congregants to Shabbat dinners at other members’ homes. The various home-meal groups could reconvene at the synagogue for a larger group activity or celebration,” the report suggested.

Another is for the synagogues to become centers of activism “both Jewish and non-Jewish. Respondents expressed significant interest in different kinds of volunteer engagement. These projects offer an ideal way to encourage former members to reconnect with synagogues and other Jewish institutions — with no strings attached. The federation can lead the way and serve as a clearing-house/convener for volunteer initiatives, reaching out to organizations elsewhere in Rockland County, both interfaith and secular.”

Will the survey and the subsequent report change Rockland’s synagogues?

While it’s too soon to tell, Dr. Elcott said synagogue leadership was “very receptive.

“You didn’t get people resisting,” he said. “People were very attentive and moved immediately to think about the implications, what can they learn from the results. There wasn’t any resistance.”