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Synagogue Looks 'In' and 'Out' to Revitalize Itself and Its Mission
It's hardly a secret that one of the major problems facing institutional Judaism today is how to increase participation in communal life, especially how to entice those who normally would not join a synagogue, while at the same time, getting those who are dues-paying members only more engaged in the life of their shul.
At least one local synagogue is trying to find the means to remove such hurdles.
Old York Road Temple-Beth Am is turning to "inreach" and outreach to show that its congregation is an inviting and friendly place, and especially to make sure that its newest members receive a warm reception upon entering their surroundings.
According to Lawrence R. Sernovitz, assistant rabbi at the Abington congregation, one reason people may not come to synagogue is because of the intimidation felt in an unfamiliar environment.
Reform Jews want their temples to be places where they feel like members of a community -- where their friends are -- according to the results of a two-year study on congregational membership released by the Union for Reform Judaism at its biennial conference, held mid-December in San Diego. One of the themes addressed in the study was what synagogues can do to make themselves more welcoming to potential members.
In response to such issues, several Beth Am congregants will attempt what's called an "inreach" technique: They will be hosting Shabbat meals in their homes next week geared specifically for interfaith families who have recently joined the synagogue, with the intent of introducing them to longtime affiliates.
"When you walk in and see friendly faces, it makes it easier to take part," said Karen Kantor, executive director at Beth Am. She added that a social connection can lead to active membership in a congregation -- as the Reform study confirmed.
Another such program already planned for later this month is an orientation for new congregants, said Sernovitz, that explains the basic navigation of a synagogue for those unfamiliar with the process, and so, perhaps, allowing for "a smooth entry into Jewish life."
The four-part series, called "Intro to Beth Am," is an opportunity for new members to meet the clergy and temple leaders, and ask questions.
Future "inreach" programs are in the works, including a session on how to hold a Passover seder.
Sernovitz is also using his prior experience as a rabbinic intern at the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York to work with Beth Am's outreach committee. As such, he's been planning certain events and programs designed to reach out to interfaith families and unaffiliated Jews on more secular turf.
This concept, known as "public-space Judaism," explained the rabbi, is a way to bridge the gap between those involved in an organized community -- such as a synagogue -- and those who aren't. It is sometimes easier to bring the community to outside events rather than into the synagogue, which can be a frightening place, he explained.
The outreach committee has experienced several stops and starts over the past several years, attested the committee's chair Neal Welsh. But new life has been given to the committee since the July arrival of Sernovitz.
The week before Thanksgiving, the rabbi read stories to 50 or so children at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Jenkintown, down the block from the shul.
At such public events in neutral venues, "we don't ask them to join or anything," said Welsh. "We just want them to know we're there.
"It pulls them in," he added. "It's a start."
This breakdown of barriers doesn't have to occur solely on secular American holidays, said Sernovitz; it can take place on Jewish ones as well.
On Dec. 6, the third night of Chanukah, State Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-District 153), with assistance from the Roslyn Fire Company, joined Beth Am Senior Rabbi Robert Leib and Sernovitz in lighting a 9-foot-tall chanukiah. More than 150 people -- including a Methodist minister and her daughter, Welsh reported -- attended the lighting on the front lawn of the synagogue. That was followed by a spread of latkes and jelly doughnuts.
For Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, Jan. 21, Beth Am will share the message of the late reverend by holding a day of service. Since many have the day off, the synagogue has planned several events, including volunteer projects. In addition, Sernovitz will again be reading stories at the bookstore. The day's events also include an erev Tu B'Shevat seder at the synagogue.