Congregation Beth Elohim’s newest project isn’t going to attract any new members. It isn’t even going to get more people into its building. Instead, the Park Slope, Brooklyn synagogue is using a newly awarded grant from the Union of Reform Judaism to reach people who never step foot into its sanctuary — with online videos, live streaming and virtual classes to engage the homebound and far-flung populations.
“It just expands our ability to create a relationship between a person’s Judaism and a synagogue and meet them where they’re at,” said Debbie Nelson, director of development at CBE. “It is our goal always to offer programs that help individuals — no matter who they are and what their age — to become more comfortable with their Jewish identities.”
CBE is just one of 20 Reform synagogues across the country — five in the Metropolitan New York area — that were awarded $5,000 incubator grants from the URJ with the goals of engaging current members and interacting with the unaffiliated.
“We wanted to challenge congregations to dream about how might they engage members of their communities,” said Rabbi Dan Freelander, senior vice president and chief operating officer of URJ. And 168 congregations accepted that challenge, submitting creative, unorthodox and bold ideas targeting everyone from empty nesters to returning college students to the intermarried to the LGBT community. From growing a wheat field in South Portland, Me., to developing an iPhone app in Durham, N.C., to entering a float in the gay pride parade in Chicago, the 20 winning grant applications pushed the boundaries of the traditional synagogue model.
Although the grants are relatively small, “We’re asking synagogues to morph themselves,” said Rabbi Freelander, who was also a member of the grant review committee. “We’re not going to fund you doing the same stuff you’re doing now.”
So when the time came to narrow the field down to the most worthy 20, the six-member selection committee placed great emphasis on “projects that were innovative or creative, that showed great potential to engage a demographic,” said Stephanie Fink, outreach specialist at URJ. Importance was also placed on their ability to “be replicable” so that other synagogues “could learn from and adapt from each of these projects.” Each grantee will be presenting its experiences and practices at the URJ Biennial in December.
The grant applications reflected the synagogues’ concerns about retaining and growing membership during a time of economic uncertainty. (When the movement underwent a re-organization in 2009, it eliminated some 60 staff positions and cut its budget by 20 percent.)
The “unaffiliated” were the target of 36 applications (and nine grants), while early engagement and young families (which will be addressed in the second part of this series next week) was the focus of 27 applications and five grants.
The URJ convened an 18-month-long “Think Tank” in November to re-evaluate and reassess the Reform movement; it is focusing on new top-down and bottom-up approaches across all three arms of the movement: synagogue, seminary and rabbinical association.
“This [initiative] is very bottom up,” said Rabbi Freelander, who said he hopes that congregations are planning “things they dream about doing. We just want to give them the courage to try something new, and maybe blow five thousand bucks.”
Here in New York, three congregations are using their funds to focus on reaching an unaffiliated or underserved population — whether it’s inside or outside the synagogue walls.
The East End Temple in Manhattan had a unique way of drawing people to its services last summer — wait for them to wander by and stop to listen for a moment. On three Friday evenings last summer, the small East Side congregation set up shop in Stuyvesant Park — it called the program “Shabbat BaGan” — as members led services, sang songs and encouraged anyone who encountered them to join.
“People are often afraid to set foot in temple unknown,” said Sara Blumstein, director of education at EET. “But if we’re out in the park, and you can walk by, stand on the periphery, and then maybe join in,” the experience is much less intimidating.
And join in they did. Nearly 75 people attended each service, including members, young families and park goers, filling up the chairs they brought, park benches and blankets on the grass. The synagogue’s indoor summer services usually attract about 30 people. The funds from the grant will help supply sound equipment, a sign for passersby and additional seating for what the congregation hopes will be a monthly summer event.
Congregation Rodeph Sholom is also using its grant to turn a pilot program in to a regular occurrence. The Upper West Side synagogue ran two successful worship services for people with special needs last year on Rosh HaShanah and Chanukah.
With its newly awarded grant, it is planning a full year of services for this previously underserved population, including an upcoming Purim service, a Passover seder and a second round of Rosh HaShanah and Chanukah programs.
There is “a void in the greater New York area for families and particularly children and young adults [with special needs] to plug in to and explore faith and feel presence of god and joy of prayer,” said Gina Levine, co-chair of the Special Needs Worship Services Initiative and wife of Senior Rabbi Robert Levine. “They felt excluded from things; we kept hearing this over and over.”
So after convening the special-needs initiative with other clergy and members, instead of embarking on a study of the population, “we just decided to first go with ‘if we build it they will come,’” said Gina Levine.
After consulting with Robert Accordino, who co-founded Music for Autism, they launched a service on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, led by assistant rabbi Benjamin Spratt.
“The service was about thinking on every single level how to make it accessible to as many people as possible,” said Rabbi Spratt. To that end the synagogue provided wheelchair accessibility, sign language interpreters and a quiet room for participants.
With the only rule being “no people, instruments or Torahs get harmed,” said Rabbi Spratt, almost 100 participants from young children to adults joined in the service. Short prayers, stories, dancing with the Torah and free musical expression made up the bulk of the service, with efforts towards interactivity and keeping each segment short and lively.
“Everybody who came felt so gratified and so pleased and just so grateful for this opportunity,” said Levine. She noted that feedback from the participants — including a request for more socialization, shorter stories and more direct interaction — have greatly shaped the plans for coming events.
“We failed to open eyes to see their needs before,” said Rabbi Spratt. “We want these families to really feel connected and close to Torah.”
Enabling Jews to feel connected is a major driving force behind CBE’s online video and webcasting initiative. The Park Slope synagogue hopes to live stream its High Holy Days services this year and to start sharing online videos of services, seminars and classes in the coming months.
Debbie Nelson, director of development, said CBE has many programs that target a small population — from Jewish education and learning to parenting classes and family support. “Without being able to create a system to bring it to the greater world,” said Nelson, “We’ve been sort of silent with some of the remarkable programming that’s been happening.”
And while videos and webcasting will bring its content to the outside world, the synagogue is looking to bring the sense of community as well, with live interactive chats on its site. And CBE understands that many who utilize the website’s offerings, “may never even enter CBE,” said Nelson. “But they might find themselves enjoying the opportunity to participate in a community center online. No one can deny that the web itself is a community.”
For the 1,000-member synagogue, finances have to be on its leaders’ minds, as they seek to raise almost $2 million to repair the sanctuary that was damaged in 2009.
But for Rabbi Freelander of URJ, the small, focused grant is still crucial for the congregation’s future. “When there are financial challenges, one of the first things to go is creative thinking and programming,” he said, “even spending small amounts of money on new things. Therefore we wanted to give people the courage to try some of these low-cost, new ideas.”
Next week: A look at how local synagogues are using their grants to attract families with young children. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org