It’s no longer a Field of Dreams when it comes to getting young Jewish families involved with synagogues.
Just because they’ve built them — synagogues dotting Old York Road in Elkins Park and throughout the area — it doesn’t mean people will come.
The Jewish Learning Venture’s Harold and Renee Berger Synagogue Network for Young Families wants to change that.
Created in 2008 as a way to stem the tide of declining enrollment in synagogues and religious schools by bringing together young Jewish families with similar interests, there are now 24 synagogues participating.
The hope is, even if it doesn’t lead to those families joining a particular shul, regardless of denomination, the network’s programs will at least keep them connected with their Judaism.
“It used to be when we were young there was more of an expectation that you joined a synagogue,” said Rabbi Phil Warmflash, the CEO of Jewish Learning Venture, which partners with Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and jkidphilly, “[But] it’s not a given anymore.”
Seeing that, Harold Berger decided the approach somehow had to change.
“I wanted to attract young Jewish families with children to synagogues because we thought there was a problem with attendance and membership,” said Berger, senior partner at Berger & Montague and an executive board member of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law at Penn’s law school. “The rabbi [Warmflash] and I developed these programs and committees that would institute programs for various synagogues.”
While it’s hardly happened overnight, there’s been a gradual but steady increase in participating young families.
“Over the years, a number of congregations have come up with a number of different ways to approach this,” Warmflash said. “Now we can link congregations so one can learn from the other.
“For example, if you’re looking to do something with music and art, I can take you to Germantown Jewish Centre and have them show you what they’re doing. Or you can go to Beth Sholom for ideas on Shabbat dinner.”
This week, obviously the connection is Passover, for which jkidphilly has put together a “Passover in a Bag” kit, which will be sent to all Berger cohorts.
Inside are instructions on how to search for chametz (complete with a candle and spoon); Passover recipes for charoset, squash soufflé, chocolate chip cookies and flourless chocolate cake; a JLV coloring book depicting scenes with Moses and the Pharaoh; a toy frog to reenact the plague; and decals representing the items on a seder plate.
It’s just one aspect of a bigger purpose, what they call “Planting Jewish Seeds, Growing a Bright Future.” At the heart of it is giving children the opportunity to interact with their peers from outside the local community.
The program offers training to synagogue teams, which may include clergy members, early childhood or religious school directors and lay leaders, JLV Chief Programming Officer Lori Rubin said.
“You don’t just put up a sign and figure people will come,” she said. “There needs to be a multilevel approach to marketing. And it can’t just be a one-shot deal.”
The concept seems to be working.
“One of the significant impacts that the network has had on our congregation has been in helping us make the connection between the community and our synagogue family members,” said Sherrie Turetsky, Old York Road Temple-Beth Am’s director of the School of Early Learning.
“Additionally, it has helped us demonstrate the importance of our schools to our congregation and community and shown that the younger generation is looking for a connection to the synagogue. With the network’s help, we can build relationships and engage families in a new and different way.”
Not only is the idea novel for the synagogues and the Jewish community, it’s not what Warmflash and his colleagues were taught in rabbinical school.
“I’ve done work with the Rabbinical Assembly and many younger rabbis say, ‘This is not what I thought I was signing up for.’ But the role of the rabbi is changing. That’s not good or bad. It just happens.”
But for the Berger Networks to succeed, it will continue to require out-of-the box thinking.
“We have lot of bricks-and-mortar up and down [Old] York Road. It was built for another generation. We have to figure out what we do now.”
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