When Fran Martin moved from Rydal to Center City six years ago — in her mid-50s, newly widowed, her three children out of the house — she was looking for a place to say Kaddish, maybe to attend a High Holiday service or two. Nothing more.
“I came to the city to find a more vibrant life,” the psychologist says now.
What she found at Congregation Rodeph Shalom — specifically, at the Reform synagogue’s BoomRS in Transition group — was “a profound connection. This synagogue, this group, is a community in a way I never imagined.”
Throughout Philadelphia and its suburbs, synagogues are seeking ways to address the needs of the Fran Martins of the Jewish world: the empty nesters whose children have left home to attend college, to start careers or to get married, and who are hungry to connect with others at the same stage of life.
“Boomers are a spectacular sandwich generation — we have children at home or leaving home and aging parents. We’re a generation stretched in multiple directions,” says Martin, who facilitates discussions within BoomRS in Transition about topics such as work, relationships and aging.
For many years, says sociologist Rela M. Geffen, congregations placed a premium on attracting the parents of young children to plump up their membership rolls, a model she says has had limited success.
“What happened was that people who didn’t have children under age 16 started to feel they weren’t very important to the synagogue,” says Geffen, a professor of sociology who studies Jewish communities and currently teaches at Gratz College. “They felt they had to borrow a child to come to a Megillah reading.”
For clergy, synagogue officials and membership chairs, the challenge was daunting: not only how to define this cohort, but also how to attract and retain a niche population that ranges from the early 40s to the late 60s — some mid-career, some in career wind-down mode or retired; some child-free, others delighting in the joy of new grandparenthood.
Cantor David Green of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen notes that the Reform synagogue’s APEX group — Adult Programming Experiences — is “not just a separate auxiliary, but also an integral part of our congregation.
“Our congregation, as most suburban congregations, was struggling to address the needs of post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah families,” says Green, who counts his own among those families. “Synagogue affiliation is being drastically reduced in general, and it’s no secret that a large number of American Jews see synagogues in a very consumer-like way: Your kids are done with Bar and Bat Mitzvah, you’re done with the synagogue.”
Speakers, field trips, museum visits, Broadway shows — these are among the events APEX has sponsored to combat that state of mind.
The strategy has proven successful beyond its organizers’ dreams.
“Last year, for our opening event — a brunch with a speaker on Jewish genealogy — 35 people responded and 70 showed up,” recalls Renee Cohen, a member of the synagogue for four years and co-chair of the group with her husband, Herb.
Although Beth Or doesn’t have a large elderly population, she says, three to four dozen people regularly attend APEX offerings, which have included an artist-in-residence program with local luminary Mordechai Rosenstein, a talk by a doctor about issues surrounding aging and trips to New York and Washington, D.C.
Beth Am Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Penn Valley, is finding similar success. “Years ago, we decided we needed a way to bring people back into the community who had no particular reason to spend a lot of time at the synagogue anymore,” says Linda Heller of Merion, a founder of the synagogue’s Kehillat 54-plus group. “We needed to put together something to pull in that cohort.”
The result, at Beth Am Israel as well as at numerous local synagogues, is a rich mix of social, educational and religious programs, from dinners in the sukkah to field trips to the Philadelphia Museum of Art; from a mural tour of the city to a Purim costume party.
“We feel that we’re young and we want to do fun things and meet new people. It’s really about connections,” says Janet Shoemaker of Wynnewood, who is active in the Boomers group at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in her hometown.
A retired middle school math teacher, Shoemaker will be eating sliders catered by Burger.org on Sept. 21 at a sukkah party on the grounds of the Conservative synagogue.
Between 40 and 50 group members show up at any given event during the year, she says; Shabbat dinners in private homes are among the biggest draws.
With her three children scattered in cities up and down the East Coast, Shoemaker says she and her husband, Jay, have created a social life based largely on the friendships they’ve made through Boomers.
It’s a refrain heard repeatedly from members of similar programs throughout the region. Count among them Susan and Stuart Rosenthal of Montgomery Township, who, as relatively new members of Or Hadash, created a chavurah for empty nesters at the Reconstructionist synagogue in Fort Washington.
“We wanted to get to know people in similar circumstances to us — to get to know people on a more personal basis,” says Susan Rosenthal, whose three children range from 26 to 34. “I love children, but I’m not going to hang around with people who are 35 years old with 5-year-olds at home.”
So last winter, the couple hosted the first event in their home, a social night that attracted 20 people. Subsequent programs have included a barbeque, a potluck dinner and a game night that ended with a Havdalah service marking the end of Shabbat.
Steven Greene, a membership vice president at Or Hadash, estimates that the Rosenthals’ chavurah — one of a dozen geared to different ages and interests — boasts between 15 and 25 couples, a fairly large percentage of the congregation’s 150 families.
Mary Bernstein’s daughters were 21 and 22, finished with college and living on their own, when the Bala Cynwyd resident helped found the Empty Nest group at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood about three years ago.
“We don’t measure success in terms of numbers. Rather, I feel as though I’m helping people create little micro-communities,” Bernstein says of the dinners the group has sponsored.
Compiling a mailing list that eventually grew to 300 names, Bernstein kicked off the programming with a free cocktail party at the suburban synagogue. Sixty-five people chowed down on hors d’oeuvres while chatting about current events and synagogue politics.
Subsequent outings have included a trip to the Mann Music Center in the summer of 2012 for a Philadelphia Orchestra performance of Beatles music and dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Upcoming possibilities include a movie at the Ritz at the Bourse and a night of jazz at a member’s Center City apartment.
“So far it’s been social events only, but we do realize, moving forward, that there should be a spiritual component, maybe a Shabbat event,” Bernstein says.
At Congregation Beth El in Voorhees, N.J., a group dedicated to empty nesters calls itself Habonim — the builders. The name aptly describes Judy Simkins, whose involvement with the Conservative congregation spans 28 years. The mother of an adult son and daughter, who are also members, touts this philosophy: “You can’t always expect people to come knocking on your door. You have to take the first step.”
For Simkins, one of those steps was serving on the steering committee that launched Habonim about a dozen years ago, with no funds at the time but plenty of ideas and enthusiasm.
“We wanted it to be geared to anyone in the synagogue — people with children away at college, people whose children are grown and married. We set no age limit, no minimum or maximum,” says Simkins, a retired school administrator who now works at Widener University supervising student teachers.
Over the years, programs have included a Shabbat retreat at Camp Kislak in the Poconos, a bus trip to Jewish Heritage Night with the Phillies and book reviews by the synagogue librarian, Amy Kaplan.
Upcoming on Sept. 22 is “Supper in the Sukkah,” with up to 80 people expected to break bread under the stars while hearing a talk about the March of the Living by recent participant Zachary Mindel, Simkins’ grandson.
“We try to come up with new and different things, always remaining cognizant of cost,” the educator says.
More than merely a social outlet — although that’s a vital function — these empty-nest programs also serve as a tool for addressing dwindling membership rolls and emptying coffers.
In the end, says Rodeph Shalom’s Fran Martin, it all comes down to creating bonds.
“I found something I didn’t even know I was looking for,” says the mental health professional, referring to her BoomRS in Transition group. “We talk, and in talking, we share. This is very meaningful to me in the 21st century, when real relationships are getting harder and harder to come by.”