Professors Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer shared their assessment of the “Shrinking Jewish Middle And How To Expand It” (Opinion, Nov. 14), and not surprisingly, they focused on what Conservative and Reform synagogues should do to reverse the trend. Their conclusion was that the effort should be made as well in attracting those in their 20s and 30s. What was new was the emphasis on expanding Jewish social networks that link Jews to one another by offering meaningful Jewish content, and ensuring that peers are at the same stage of life to address common challenges.
Many wonder if people in their 20s/30s are “just” looking to network and don’t need the Jewish component. I believe the answer is no. People want not only connections but also meaning. I am proud of the work being done at Sutton Place Synagogue and I believe this can be a model throughout the Jewish world.
Over the past year alone, Sutton Place, on the East Side of Manhattan, has served as a host for students of Camp Ramah in New England, the USY METNY region, the alumni of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD, the Kellman Brown Academy in Cherry Hill, NJ, Syracuse University Hillel, and most recently the young adult groups of Temple Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco and Merrick Jewish Center, Long Island.
We don’t do this as a fundraiser, as it often costs the synagogue money. Also, not because the parents of these young people are members of the synagogue; in fact, a number of the young adults from these communities aren’t even in the geographic orbit of NYC. Rather, the leadership of Sutton Place Synagogue recognizes that in a world where there are so many choices, the more that organizations can work together to promote shared values of Jewish engagement and connection, the stronger the Jewish world will be. We recognize that as everyone is on a journey they must be made aware of what doors are open to them that reflect the values of how they were raised.
Another example: On the High Holidays this year, we offered the traditional service, the family service, youth programming, and a teen service. New this year was a young professionals service. Thanks to the investment by the synagogue leadership and the generosity of the UJA Federation of NY (of which Sutton Place Synagogue is a grant recipient), the congregation was able to offer this young professional service as part of our “Come Home to Sutton Place” initiative. We recognize that the ability to offer a low cost service (a $36 charge), in an environment with peers who were seeking an egalitarian option in Midtown Manhattan, afforded many people the opportunity to come to worship in a new and meaningful way. We had 90 participants on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and as Yom Kippur got closer we had over 175 registrants. Due to our space constraints (and the terrible weather) we had to switch locations (no longer holding it in a temporary tent on the rooftop) but in a restaurant (Pop @ the Pod) across the street, gifted to us for the morning of Yom Kippur.
A result of these initiatives is that we are seeing more young people take on leadership positions. For example, a young couple that was at the High Holiday service has offered to spearhead a Shabbat dinner initiative bringing people together. I am even more convinced that while synagogues can and should open their doors to a variety of programs to engage people where they are, synagogues need to know what they do well and what their “value added” is to the life of a participant. Most often, that is Judaism and community. In NYC, there are so many places people can go. The challenge is to make synagogues, once again, a spiritual address for young people; often, a way to do that, is in partnership with others.
There is clearly no silver bullet to the demographic challenges facing the non-Orthodox Jewish community. But if we can continue to find partnerships, and provide meaningful Jewish content in a socially organized network, I believe that these target audiences will be there, not just now but in the future.
Rabbi Rachel Ain is spiritual leader of the Sutton Place Synagogue.