Congregation Beth Or, a Reform synagogue in Maple Glen, has a 65,000 square-foot building that in 2006 cost some $19 million to construct. But nowadays, its rabbis, cantor and educators are making house calls in order to teach a little Torah.
Beth Or’s “Take Out Judaism” program is about making Jewish learning more convenient and accessible. It’s also meant to appeal to those who aren’t eager to step into a synagogue buildings.
Congregants can go to the synagogue’s website, choose from a number of different courses, and —presto — they are studying Torah and other topics without leaving home.
Last month, Kim Marks, the mother of two young children, selected a class in Jewish ethics and had 10 of her girlfriends over to learn with the synagogue’s rabbi, Gregory Marx.
“By bringing it into the home, it’s a cozier atmosphere,” said Marks, who noted that about half the people she invited didn’t even belong to the congregation.
Having a rabbi teach in a congregant’s home may not be particularly revolutionary. But, as the Reform movement’s biennial gets underway in San Diego, many are saying it’s the kind of thing rabbis need to do if congregations are to thrive — or even survive.
As many as 6,000 people are expected to attend the California conference, including 115 from the Philadelphia area. It’s running from Dec. 11-15.
Much of the discussion heading into the biennial is revolving around finding new ways to reach people where they are and serving the whole Jewish community and not just synagogue members. Conference organizers have attempted to broaden the tent and the discussion by inviting participants and speakers unaffiliated with the movement.
Congregations across the religious spectrum are seeking to adapt to a new reality — brought about in part by advances in digital technology and part by the fact that people are living and identifying differently.
One might think this would be the time for Reform Judaism to be celebrating a victory lap of sorts.
The October release of a Pew Research Center Survey on American Jewish life illustrated that the Reform movement, far and away, is the dominant stream. Many attribute this to the fact that Reform temples have been viewed as more welcoming to intermarried families than their Conservative counterparts.
According to the survey, 35 percent of American Jews identify as Reform, compared with 18 percent who identify as Conservative. Until the 1970s, the Conservative movement had
enjoyed the largest following among American Jews.
And while Philadelphia has long been known as a Conservative town and Conservative synagogues have historically had some of the largest memberships, now it is mostly Reform congregations, like Beth Or and Congregation Rodeph Shalom and others, that boast the biggest memberships.
Yet the Reform movement is facing many challenges that have Reform religious and lay leaders concerned.
The Pew Survey showed that 28 percent of Jews who grew up Reform no longer consider themselves Jewish by religion, compared to 17 percent of Conservative and 11 percent of Orthodox Jews. Half of married Reform Jews have a non-Jewish spouse.
And many Reform synagogues have seen their numbers go down. For example, Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington has, over the past few years, declined from about 1,000 families to about 850, with only about 750 actually paying dues, according to Rabbi Robert Leib.
Leib said that he worries that the movement is stagnating.
“We need to think out of the box. It is an uphill battle,” added the rabbi, who is attending the biennial. “Either you are a serious Jew or you are not a serious Jew. We need to try and enlarge that inner core of serious Reform Jews.”
Reform Judaism grew out of a 19th century effort to modernize the faith to bring it in line with contemporary life, largely by emphasizing ethics over rituals. Unlike Conservative thinkers, who upheld Jewish law, the early Reformers reframed Jewish tradition as a guide for modern behavior rather than as a set of laws to be followed.
Many traditional practices were deemed anachronistic, such as wearing kipot and tallit during services. Today, most congregations embrace such traditional elements that were absent in previous generations.
Still, several rabbis acknowledged that a perception exists that a Reform Jew is not observant or serious about practicing Judaism.
Rather, they said, Reform Judaism should be seen as offering a framework to deeply engage tradition through the prism of meaningful personal choice.
For Rabbi Gregory Marx, the lesson he took from the Pew survey is that synagogues and rabbis need to double their efforts to get people to think of Judaism in religious, rather than cultural, terms.
“We need to be true to our core values, but we need to be more flexible,” said Marx.
The challenge, he continued, is to make Jewish content more accessible without diluting the message or making it all about the individual instead of the community.
For instance, he said the rise of “entrepreneurial” rabbis who offer private B’nai Mitzvah tutoring and ceremonies to unaffiliated families is one of the more disturbing trends that has arisen, making Judaism a private experience rather than a communal one.
Offering the “Take Out
Judaism” program, he said, seemed like one way to spark interest and cater to people’s schedules while maintaining something of a communal experience.
Hoping Jews will come to the synagogue to find community “is not something we can rely on.”
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, a Philadelphian who serves as rabbinic director for the URJ’s East Geographic Congregational Network, said that few in the movement were surprised by the Pew results. The URJ,
Elwell said, is doubling down on its efforts to invest in young people through a variety of initiatives.
One example, she said, is the plan to open the first Reform day camp. It’s slated to open this summer in Bryn Mawr.
And more than a year ago, the URJ launched the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution project, a national effort to make the rite-of-passage experience more meaningful. Several local congregations are participating in the project.
“I’m optimistic about where we are right now,” said Elwell. “We can always do better. We are not resting on any laurels.”
Audrey Fein, an 11th-grader at the Julia R. Masterman High School in Fairmount, is immersed in the movement through her involvement with the youth group affiliated with her congregation, Rodeph Shalom, and through the Pennsylvania chapter of the movement’s national youth group, NFTY. She serves as religious and cultural vice president for the Pennsylvania region. She’s made her best friends, not through school, but through NFTY, she said.
“What I love about the Reform movement is all the options. I really like the concept of Judaism through choice,” she said.
Part of the reason she signed up for the biennial in San Diego is to get ideas about how to convince more teens to get involved in NFTY — no easy sell in today’s world of overscheduled young people. In recent years, Fein said, the local NFTY chapter has formed a membership task force and looked for ways to reach more teens.
“There definitely is a lack of interest for some kids,” she said, echoing what many of her adult counterparts are saying about the grown-ups. “How can we make Reform Judaism accessible enough for everyone?”