The Sinai Free Synagogue is counting on story time to draw new members. As kids are tucked in to “Kippi and the Missing Matzah” in March or “Beautiful Yetta the Yiddish Chicken” in May — two PJ Library selections — the Westchester synagogue will run parallel programming and events to get those young readers in their doors.
Now that the Union for Reform Judaism has awarded 20 synagogues across the country a $5,000 incubator grant — five of them in New York — the planning and development is already under way. Two of the grant recipients in New York are using their funds to engage families with children, a key demographic for synagogues with declining membership. And they’re not doing it alone.
The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, L.I. is applying the funds towards a Maccabiah Sports Day, which will be the kick-off event for an ongoing sports league that the synagogue is developing with the Sid Jacobson JCC. And the Sinai Free Synagogue is bringing kids indoors as they partner with the PJ Library program to boost their membership.
Of the 168 applicants for the URJ grants, 35 of them (21 percent) targeted young or school age children. Five of the 20 grants that were awarded also addressed this population. Temple Israel in Creve Coeur, Mo., will be launching a “Parents as Teachers” program, to provide guidance and support for new parents. Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh will establish an edible container garden and develop programming on green Jewish education.
“I would say overall there were a lot of congregations concerned with early engagements of young families,” said Stephanie Fink, outreach specialist at URJ. As many congregations are struggling with membership, she said, they are worried about “their future viability.”
Thinking in practical and bottom-up terms about how to draw and keep the attention of current or potential members was a key for most grants. “Engagement was the theme,” said Rabbi Dan Freelander, senior vice president of URJ. “It wasn’t dreaming about the ‘Reform Jewish future,’” he said, “it was how do we engage individuals.”
Thinking practically about outreach was key for the Sinai Free Synagogue in Mount Vernon, which has faced declining enrollment in their religious school, and is struggling to attract young families. Just two years ago, there were 94 students registered for the synagogue’s Hebrew school; today there are 68.
“This was a great opportunity for us to increase our visibility in the community,” said Renata Miller, chair of the membership committee at the synagogue. Partnering with the five-year old PJ Library, which sends a free monthly Jewish book to young children, creates a mutually beneficial relationship. Member families will be enrolled in the program, while local families who sign up through PJ’s website will receive the books along with information and advertising about the synagogue’s youth programming, including their Hebrew school.
“We’ll offer PJ tot Shabbats where we do book readings,” interactive events and holiday-themed classes that build on the books sent each month, said Miller.
Reaching unaffiliated families in the area is important for the congregation, since “we don’t have an obvious Jewish community we draw from,” said Miller. The neighborhoods in southern Westchester, like Yonkers and Bronxville, have an increasing number of Jewish and interfaith families, but aren’t served by a Reform congregation. “We’d like to reach out to those families,” said Miller, and share “our really great offerings.”
And just across the Throgs Neck Bridge, The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, L.I., is hoping to bring in kids by offering them what they already participate in — sports leagues — but in a Jewish setting.
“We live in a town where sports programs are very active,” said Larry Helft, president of the synagogue, “but they are either non-sectarian or are run by the churches in town. The best youth basketball league is the Catholic Youth Organization that has a very large number of Jewish kids playing.”
So for many Jewish kids in the area, playing baseball or basketball could mean wearing a uniform with a cross on it, or participating in a group prayer before the first quarter. The funds from the URJ grant will finance a family sports day for pre-schoolers to teens in the beachfront Manorhaven Park. The day of games, matches and barbecue — on the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer — will mark the beginning, not the end of the synagogue’s initiative.
“It will not only be a fun day by itself,” said Helft, “but it will give us the opportunity to publicize the fact that in the fall and winter, sports leagues will be starting,” partnered with the Sid Jacobson JCC in Roslyn, L.I. More than a dozen families have already expressed interest in the league, which will begin with basketball in the beginning of the school year.
The programming this fall will accomplish two goals for the synagogue: “Keep youth engaged post bnei mitzvah,” said Helft, and “keep parents, especially fathers” who often coach their children’s teams, “engaged with the synagogue.” The 650-family synagogue, according to Helft, has more than 1,000 children, “so many of the things we do are children-centric.”
Ultimately, the congregation is hoping to “put a Jewish spin on sports programs,” said Helft, which will “keep Jewish kids together, and connected to the synagogue.”
That functional and grounded goal is just what the grant committee was looking for. “One of our key missions is to engage Jews in Jewish life,” said Rabbi Freelander of URJ. And as synagogues dreamt up new programming, both for themselves and to present to 900 congregations at the URJ conference in December, the question was simply, “How are you going to engage people in a way you have not yet done?” said Rabbi Freelander. “We’re asking them to dream in a small piece.”