Space to Spare, Reform and Conservative Congregations Turn to Orthodox

Tale of Demographic Trend Told in Rented Romper Rooms

chabad gan yeladim/chabad.org

By Uri Heilman

Published October 31, 2013.
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(JTA) — Marla Topp of Temple Judea Mizpah in Skokie, Ill., doesn’t need survey data to tell her that Reform Judaism is in decline and Orthodox Judaism is growing.

She has to look no further than her own synagogue.

A couple of months ago, the temple began renting out unused classroom space to an Orthodox school that had outgrown its building. Now its classrooms serve as a satellite location for the Arie Crown Hebrew Day School’s early childhood program.

The Orthodox preschool isn’t the temple’s first tenant. Once a flourishing suburban Chicago shul of 500 families, Judea Mizpah has seen its membership fall to 180 families, and the temple began renting out vacant space more than a decade ago, according to Topp, the executive director. The average Friday night service — the synagogue’s best attended — usually draws 50 to 100 worshipers. In September, the religious school scaled back from two days a week to one.

“As the demographics of our area have changed, our membership has shrunk and we needed to find revenue to keep going,” Topp told JTA. “Young families affiliated with the Reform movement are fewer and farther between.”

Throughout the country, a growing number of Reform and Conservative synagogues find themselves in similar situations.

This year, the Reform Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y., began renting space to a new low-budget Orthodox day school, Westchester Torah Academy. Three years ago, Beth El Congregation in Phoenix, Ariz., began renting space to Torah Day School, a strictly Orthodox school that separates boys and girls beginning in kindergarten. Hollis Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Queens, N.Y., leases space to an Orthodox school called Yeshiva Primary.

While not new, the trend appears to be gaining steam as a growing number of Reform and Conservative synagogues find themselves with dwindling constituencies, declining membership income and excess space, and as Orthodox institutions seek more room to accommodate their growth.

Writ large, the phenomenon tells the story of contemporary American Jewry. Conservative and Reform Jews still significantly outnumber Orthodox Jews, but the Orthodox are gaining.

Thirty-five percent of American Jews identify as Reform and 18 percent as Conservative, but Reform and Conservative Jews have fewer than two children on average, 1.8 and 1.7 respectively, according to the recent Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jews. Only 10 percent of Jews identify as Orthodox, according to the study, but they average 4.1 children.

The median age of Conservative and Reform Jews is 55 and 54, respectively. Among the Orthodox, it’s 40. And only 17 percent of Reform and 39 percent of Conservative Jews say they attend synagogue at least once a month, compared to 74 percent of the Orthodox.


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