Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Membership in Reform Synagogues - Necessary -- or Not?

Reform Judaism, a publication of the Union for Reform Judaism, contains an interview the editors had with Allison Fine, president of Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, NY.  Reinventing the Synagogue deals, yet again, with the apparently never-ending problem of the "alarming rate" of attrition among memberships of Reform congregations in North America.

Here is what Ms. Fine feels synagogues should do to stem the tide:
1.  Rethink the top-down hierarchy of synagogues
2.  Stop treating members like a "cog."  Be sure members are aware that each of them "matter."
3.  Move to a networked model to create a more authentic and fulfilling engagement between leaders    
     and congregants.
4.  Increase transparency - do not strategize behind closed doors.  Use social media to bring 
     congregants into conversation.
5.  Leaders should talk more openly about money - synagogues always ask for money but are very
     reluctant to share "where it goes."  Create a financial narrative.
6.  Leaders should be better listeners, especially to the young.

Sound familiar?  Think any of this will really perform miracles in ending the "alarming rate" of attrition.  If so, I think I know of a bridge that you can buy very cheaply.

If a member of a synagogue feels that he is not properly regarded or treated, or that the service, clergy, or sermonizing is not to his liking, he will, in a fitting and proper manner, resign from that synagogue -- and join another!!  Surely there is one in this vast metropolitan area that he will find suitable.  A family departing one synagogue and joining another is not attrition - just a switch.  Not bad for Judaism - just bad for the losing synagogue.  Synagogues may lose when members depart, but if the unhappy members join other synagogues, total membership is unaffected. Synagogues worried about their own membership rather than synagogue membership as a whole, may well benefit from altering their modes of operation, as per Ms. Fine.

The "alarming rate of attrition," however, probably has nothing to do with synagogue behavior.  It may  likely be related to the absence of the notion for a need to be a member of a synagogue at all.  In a country such as ours, particularly in our metropolitan area - an area so comfortable for Jews - identifying or affiliating with "your people" may rank very low on the scale of personal and social satisfaction.  

By the way the "alarming rate of attrition" doesn't even approach the number of Jews who already have  elected not to affiliate with a synagogue - and who form the vast majority of American Jewry.  

I don't know why Jews don't care to join synagogues - and neither, I believe, does anyone else.  I can only guess.   I am not aware of any properly designed study to answer this question.  If the Reform movement wants to "market" Judaism, or "market" synagogue membership, it must not deal in solutions a priori.  Before deciding how to sell your product, see if a market actually exists!  And if, indeed, the market does exist, question the consumers (the non-affiliated, or never-affiliated) and determine what has to be done to create and sell the right product.

Want to sustain synagogue membership in this country?  Want to increase synagogue membership in this country?  Changes in style won't work -  understanding substance is the only true road to success.  Those of us who see the importance of the synagogue in American Jewish life must try to sell the general non-affiliated Jewish population on the need for this connection, using proper tools we have yet to discover.

If you can sell it, the rest will follow.  

If you can't, don't expect changes in synagogue management or programs to solve this huge issue.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Recollections of Holocaust Survivors

A recent article in a Jewish publication described the sensitive story of an elderly woman's recent return to the German village of her childhood.  The story, though compelling, raises some issues.  Ms. B, a 90-year-old woman, discusses life in her little village, including memories of laws restricting Jewish participation in certain professions and government positions. She described how it felt to be "forced from her home." Ms. B emigrated to the United States in 1934.  At the time she was only 10 years old.  I would have to question the recollections of a 90-year-old about the effects of laws on Jewish life in her village during her very early childhood, especially in those initial days of the Third Reich.

Though it is true that restrictive participation of Jews in various professions and activities, and some "unlawful" acts of vandalism did exist to some degree prior to Ms. B.'s emigration in 1934, the very repressive Nuremberg laws, actually banning Jews from certain aspects of public and professional life (1935), and the restriction of schools that Jewish children could attend, did not come into force until after her departure.  Anti-Jewish riots and physical brutality first became a major issue with the events of Kristallnacht in 1938.  I am not aware of any national policy in Germany to forcibly remove Jews from their homes in 1933-1934.

As the Holocaust recedes into history, eye-witness recollections understandably become more vague.  Present-day survivors, now in their late 80's and 90's were very young in 1933-1934.  Jews who emigrated out of Germany as early as 1934-1935 were, indeed, very fortunate.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Religion Is Part of Our History - by Ordinance!

We are all familiar with the Constitution's "Establishment Clause," as outlined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights - passed by Congress in 1787 and ratified by the states in 1791.  This amendment is cited as the basis for our present policy of total separation of church and state -  basically prohibiting religion from having any place at all in the public schools.  However, the Constitution's wording is clear  only in prohibiting the federal government from passing laws establishing some form of religion - nothing more, really.   The prohibition of inclusion of religion in a public school's curriculum or  public school's activities is the result of the Supreme Court's interpretation of that amendment.

I was surprised to discover that there is actually a federal ordinance that encourages religion as necessary for "good government." I thought my readers, like me, may not have been aware of this document.  The document cited is the Northwest Ordinance, passed by Congress in 1787, the same year as the Constitution, and intended to apply to the territories being settled in what was then considered "The Northwest."

As a supporter of the "wall of separation" between religious and civic activities, I must concede that it seems the "founding fathers" had considered religion an important as well as a necessary building block for "good government" and "happiness."

Here are the pertinent citings:

Amendment 1 of the Constitution
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance
Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.