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Leaders of Conservative or Reform communities see these trends when they look into their pews, which for the most part are emptier and their occupants older than they used to be. In the past 20 years, both the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism have reported declines in the number of affiliated synagogues and synagogue members.
“Fewer people are affiliating with congregations,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
“Pretty much everything has to be reexamined in terms of Jewish life and how we practice and how we lead,” he said. “The fundamental of Reform Judaism is to adapt to new circumstances and new situations.”
For some Reform and Conservative synagogues, that means reinventing themselves as homes for Orthodox Jews.
Temple Emeth, a Reform synagogue in Teaneck, N.J., has kept its early childhood program thriving by retooling it for Orthodox kids, who outnumber Reform students three to one. The school now offers morning prayers and has shifted winter break from Christmas week to late January, when area Orthodox yeshivas go on vacation.
“Our demographics are similar to other Reform synagogues,” said the temple’s rabbi, Steven Sirbu. “We have a challenge.”
But Sirbu says he still views the preschool as a net gain — not so much for the revenue it generates as for the bridges it builds between Reform and Orthodox Jews.
“In other communities, Reform Judaism is a total mystery to Orthodox Jews, but in our community we’ve provided this bridge,” Sirbu told JTA. “We have hundreds of young people who call me, a reform rabbi, ‘Rabbi,’ and we have hundreds of Orthodox families who have been in our sanctuary and have fond memories of our Reform congregation.”
In Phoenix, declining membership at the Conservative Beth El has been driven in part by the migration of liberal Jews to the Scottsdale suburbs. The synagogue used to be home to a Solomon Schechter day school, but the school moved, later became a nondenominational Jewish day school and eventually closed.
Meanwhile, Torah Day School, the Orthodox school that rents space in Beth El, has ballooned to 180 students from about 40 three years ago and is so starved for space that it’s erecting six mobile trailers to add 12 classrooms. The synagogue also leases space to a tiny Orthodox minyan and, on Saturday afternoons, rents out its sanctuary to a Sabbath-observant church.
Beth El’s Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky says it’s clear the synagogue was built for another era.
“Many of the synagogues that were built in the mid-last century — and this is certainly one of them — were built with certain membership sizes in mind,” he said. “With migration to the suburbs, these buildings in many instances are way too big for the current needs, both in terms of upkeep and usage. It’s really a mitzvah to provide space to other religious groups.
“We’re one people. To the extent that we can help each other, that is a very good thing.”
And with declining income from membership dues, Lavinsky added, “It helps our bottom line, too.”