Have synagogues been doing membership backwards?
“Many of our synagogues start with membership. Someone calls and right away they’re diving into, ‘Do you want to join?’” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who was installed last June as the new president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the body that oversees Reform congregations across North America. “This idea that membership is our desperate need is the wrong frame. Doing meaningful Jewish teaching, observances, social justice, things that really define who we are, [people] should meet us and say, ‘I resonate with what this institution is doing. I would like to be associated with them.’”
Jacobs spent Jan. 10–12 meeting with Reform congregations and communal groups throughout the Seattle area. His visit came about in large part due to the efforts of a former colleague, Rabbi Beth Singer of Temple Beth Am, who served with Jacobs in the 1990s in New York.
“For me, Rabbi Jacobs’s visit to Beth Am was a double win,” Singer told JTNews. “He had the opportunity to see results of the intensive creative effort Beth Am has put into welcoming diverse Jewish individuals and families to a Jewish community that matters, and we had the opportunity to learn directly from the leader of our national movement about the direction Reform Judaism is headed.”
As Jacobs sees it, the direction Reform Judaism is headed is very much up to people who choose to engage. People may be eschewing denomination, he said, but they aren’t eschewing spirituality — they just aren’t fulfilling their needs inside the walls of a synagogue or church.
“People are hungry for meaning. They’re hungry for real community. Not fake community, not presumed community, but real community,” he said. “People are hungry to matter….Modern culture, in particular modern North American culture, is not nourishing us in the deep way that many of us hunger for.”
Part of the alienation “comes from people being disgusted by organized religion being so focused on money and power…values that they don’t resonate with,” Jacobs said.
He pointed to one group he feels is doing outreach right: “A lot of people talk about Chabad,” he said. “I have very warm feelings for what they try to do. They understand that relationships precede memberships.”
Or, in essence, putting the horse before the cart to engage people before asking them to become a part of a community, he said.
“Dramatic, transformative things can and must happen in synagogues if we’re going to matter in the next generation,” Jacobs said. “The majority of Jews right now live outside the walls of synagogues. So if we only bother and focus and nourish those inside the walls, you’re kind of leaving out most of the Jewish people.”
Reaching outside of those walls is an important initiative Jacobs and his cohort have laid out in the past year and a half. At the same time, strengthening struggling congregations within the movement is a priority, as is ensuring that strong congregations continue to stay that way.
“The ones that are doing really well, they won’t be doing well in a couple years if they don’t pay attention,” he said.
Two initiatives devoted to early childhood and another, what Jacobs referred to as “engaging the next generation” — Jews in their 20s and 30s — are also top priorities.
“Most 20s and 30s are not in synagogues, and they really are not in most of our Jewish institutions, they’re really kind of in-between,” Jacobs said. “How do we meet them where they are, and somehow engage them in Jewish life — not see them as potential members primarily, but young people with whom the tradition hopefully will grow?”
Jacobs may have found an exception to the rule. He celebrated Shabbat evening with nearly 200 young adults at a Jconnect dinner at Hillel at the University of Washington. His talk began by addressing “the common perception inside the establishment Jewish institutions that people in their 20s and 30s are just absent from Jewish life,” said Rabbi Oren Hayon, Hillel UW’s Greenstein executive director. “It was kind of half funny, half ironic to be saying that in a room that was absolutely packed to the walls with people who were there to celebrate Shabbat.”
An open and honest dialogue followed, which allowed people to express their opinions on Judaism and spirituality.
“I was really impressed that he made a point of putting this on his itinerary,” Hayon said. “Anyone who’s serious about the spirituality of Jewish young adults would do well to look at Jconnect.”