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The Writing's on the Wall

August 27, 2009 By:
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Rachel and Brian Saks with their daughter, Samantha. The family is taking advantage of a membership offer at Ohev Shalom in Bucks County.

Like many young couples, Brian and Rachel Saks put off synagogue membership for years, despite their attachment to Judaism.

They just had too many bills, including graduate-school loans and the mortgage on their Bucks County home, to start thinking about how to finagle membership dues.

But two years ago, when they enrolled their daughter Samantha in preschool at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, they were surprised to learn that the synagogue had begun offering free membership to parents who paid preschool tuition.

Now, the synagogue is offering an even better deal -- several years of free membership and religious-school tuition.

For the Saks family, that made the decision to be there much easier.

"This is a real incentive to get people to stay committed -- to have the community continue to grow," said Rachel Saks, a 35-year-old social worker.

A Period of Transition

And Ohev Shalom is far from alone. In an atmosphere of anxiety fueled by the recession -- and with the Jewish organizational world seeming to be undergoing a period of transition, even upheaval -- congregations are offering more financial incentives than they have in the past.

While a number of synagogues said that they're keeping an eye on the membership lists, some also noted that their primary motivation is not necessarily to grow in terms of raw numbers -- although they wouldn't complain if that happened -- but to recruit young families, and get more students enrolled in preschool and religious school.

"We needed to do something. You have to be willing to try things," said Arlene Rosenbaum, president of Ohev Shalom, a 650-family Conservative temple in Richboro.

Like several congregation presidents, Rosenbaum acknowledged that the membership roster has remained relatively flat, and that Hebrew-school enrollment has actually declined over the past few years. Synagogue officials did not disclose more precise figures.

Rosenbaum has a few theories as to why, including the fact that new-home construction in the Richboro area has slowed to a fraction of the pace of the 1990s, and with that, fewer families have moved into the area. And in many parts of the region, more Jewish options exist than ever before. For instance, many families now send children to Lubavitch-run Hebrew schools, which require only a nominal payment for tuition and no membership fees at all.

So what, exactly, is Ohev Shalom offering? Officials have put forth several options. Here are a few of them:

· Unaffiliated families, as well as nonmembers who already have a child enrolled in preschool, are entitled to free religious-school tuition from kindergarten through the second grade, as well as free membership, which is $2,200 for a family of four, for the same period.

· Those families are asked to pay a reduced building fund, something members pay on top of annual dues until their portion is paid off.

· New members with children ages 5 and older won't be able to take advantage of the same program, but are entitled to one year of free religious-school tuition per child up to the age of 8.

Fred Poritsky, the shul's executive director, noted that 20 families -- both new and existing members -- had taken advantage of the benefits so far, though most already had children in the preschool and weren't totally new.

According to Poritsky, it's not a move out of desperation, but a nod to the current economy, as well as to the desire to take outreach to the next level, and thereby lay the groundwork for the future.

Won't the facility feel the pinch of the lost dues?

"We're looking at the long-term effect of this," he noted. "You are going to get students that will hopefully go through confirmation and Hebrew high school. There is potentially a short-term loss of revenue, but that's revenue we probably wouldn't have gotten anyway."

Rabbi Daniel Aronson, who runs the religious school, added that many parents withdraw from synagogue life once their children are beyond preschool and might not get involved again until the start of Bar or Bat Mitzvah training; these incentives are an effort to reverse that trend.

While other congregations in the region may not be going as far as offering multiple years of free membership, a number are taking steps to lower the financial barrier to joining. For example:

· Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, one of the region's largest synagogues, announced a two-year plan for new families to pay dues at 50 percent less, starting at $1,200 the first year and increasing by 25 percent the second year.

· Congregation Or Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Berwyn, is offering new families a year of free Hebrew-school tuition, which can amount to as much as $1,800 per year.

· Congregation B'nai Jacob in Phoenixville, also a Chester County Conservative synagogue, has a similar offer for new parents that's good until students reach the third grade.

President of Or Shalom David Keet said that the primary goal is to get more children into the Hebrew school. The shul expects 55 students in the fall, down from a peak of 120 about 10 years ago.

Keet acknowledged that some families are choosing options that didn't exist back then, such as Chabad Lubavitch of Chester County in Devon, which has only just begun to put down roots, and Beth Chaim Reform Congregation, which built a modern facility in Malvern two years ago.

"There is no cost to the synagogue to offer this for free," said Keet. "For some families, we are not religious enough; for some families, we are too religious. The big problem is that we have not been able to entice young families. People feel less of a need to be affiliated."

He added that, so far, no one has taken advantage of the offer, but that Or Shalom is just starting to get the word out.

For B'nai Jacob, it's the second year the synagogue is doing this. Last year, the free Hebrew-school tuition enticed 15 new families to join the synagogue.

Carol Actor, the congregation's membership chair, said that they had tossed around the idea of introducing other incentives, but it's just not possible at the moment: "Our budget is pretty stretched as well," she said.

Once Inside the Door ...

Representatives of several national movements said they have long encouraged synagogues to find creative ways to get people in the door. But what's far more important is what happens next; the real test is whether they can engage and retain those families.

In New York and New Jersey, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation rolled out an initiative in which synagogues offered free High Holiday tickets. While some congregations in the region have tried this approach, the Reconstructionist movement in the Philadelphia area hasn't tried anything formal yet.

The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism recently organized a conference call for nearly 100 synagogue membership chairs to discuss the current climate.

"Certainly, there is a little more nervousness," said Rabbi Moshe Edelman, USCJ's director of congregational programming, adding that synagogues have tried membership incentives for years. "You have to sell the notion of being a member, of being a season ticket holder, not just somebody who drops in."

Kathy Kahn, membership specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism, said that congregations have about a year to ensure that new families make meaningful connections; if they fail, they stand to lose whatever new members they had gained.

"If all of your attention is given to recruitment, then all you will do is have an impressive list for one year," said Kahn. "If members see your congregation as a fee for service -- you pay the dues, we educate your kids -- they will never feel a covenant. We must show them what community can be."

Mark Zohar, president of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood, said that it's a mistake to think that Orthodox synagogues aren't facing some of the same issues. (Though, like most Orthodox congregations, Beth Hamedrosh doesn't have a Hebrew school, since most of its students go to day school.)

Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, gave a $50,000 grant to Beth Hamedrosh to employ a rabbi for two years for the sole purpose of reaching out to young families.

Five synagogues in the area -- Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia, Adath Israel in Merion Station, Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, Congregation Beth El in Yardley and Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington -- each got a $5,000 grant, administered by the Jewish Outreach Partnership, to improve how they engage and retain young families. The synagogues have each taken on a distinct project, such as organizing a youth retreat or scheduling Tot Shabbat experiences.

Rabbi Philip Warmflash, director of JOP -- which is expected to soon merge with the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education -- applauded the fact that synagogues are working to lower the cost barrier, but he echoed the notion that such efforts are just the beginning.

"You may get them to come in for the one year, but what happens after that?" he said. "The challenge here is not just looking at a recession, at economic troubles, it's looking at that in the context of engagement and the serious, difficult work of bringing lay leaders and Jewish professionals together, and do the work that is going to engage people long-term."

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