Seeking a strategy for survival in a changing demographic landscape, members of the Rego Park Jewish Center may soon look to a mechitza as the answer to their prayers.
The 65-year-old Conservative congregation, which has lost more than half its members in the past five years, is considering a shift to Orthodoxy to remain viable.
“There is no question that Orthodoxy is catching on among the new generation,” said Romiel Daniel, the Jewish Center’s new president. “If we lean toward Orthodoxy, we would be thriving very quickly. Whether we can succeed in convincing people is another story.”
Daniel said there are members of the Jewish Center who “wouldn’t mind a bit” if a mechitza, or barrier, were constructed in the sanctuary to separate men and women according to Orthodox custom.
“Then again, there are [others] who would say we don’t want it,” he said.
One of them is Lee Lobell Zwang, a synagogue trustee who said the congregation is searching for a Conservative rabbi through the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. The synagogue has no full-time spiritual leader.
“We are very happy in the Conservative movement,” said Zwang, a 45-year member of the congregation.
The debate comes on the heels of a controversy at Rego Park in which members ultimately rejected a proposed sale of the synagogue property to a developer. The deal would have allowed prayer services to continue there while raising capital for the future.
But the priority, said Daniel, is not money but members.
“We are not rich and not poor,” he said. “We have no debts to anybody. Our main goal is to conduct a membership drive.”
Conservative presence in the Rego Park-Forest Hills area has dropped from 38 percent to 28 percent in the past 10 years, according to the 2002 Jewish Community Study of New York conducted by UJA-Federation. Orthodox households have held steady — 16 percent now compared to 18 in 1990.
Orthodox Jews have grown from 12 to 20 percent of a Jewish population in Queens that dropped 3 percent over 10 years.
The study also found that the numbers of both nondenominational and Russian-speaking Jews in Rego Park-Forest Hills are higher than the average in the eight counties included in the survey.
“The only reason the drop in Queens [Jewish population] is so small is because of the Bukharan Jews, who represent the best hope for the future,” said Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College, referring to immigrants from the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan. “Otherwise Jews who have been there a while longer are leaving the borough. The Orthodox, as is always the case, are the last to leave.”
Conservative Jewry in Queens, Heilman said, has suffered as part of a “shrinking center” as the overall Jewish community becomes “bipolar,” moving to the extreme margins of observance.
“As a result, they have to reinvent themselves,” he said, noting that a Jackson Heights Conservative congregation explored a change to become a center of Hispanic Jewry.
The idea of shifting to Orthodoxy has not been fully discussed by the Rego Park Jewish Center membership, and Daniel said it would not be a simple matter. Daniel was elected last month following the resignation of his predecessor, a proponent of the property sale.
“There is a nucleus of people who very strongly favor continuing what we have today,” said Daniel, who grew up attending Orthodox synagogues in his native India, serving as president of Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad in the late 1980s before immigrating here in 1994.
One aspect on which the change would have little impact is liturgy. Women at the Jewish Center do not lead prayers or participate in Torah readings.
“We are already Conservadox,” Daniel said, noting the term for a hybrid of the two movements that implies stricter interpretation of halacha than a typical Conservative shul. “I myself don’t mind if we stay Conservadox, but if you look at the future, this is the direction you have to take.”
It is not the first time the Jewish Center has flirted with Orthodoxy. Several years ago its board began a dialogue with the National Council of Young Israel, according to Jay Parker, the former president. The organization conducted a study of whether a branch at the synagogue would serve as a magnet for Orthodox Jews to move to the neighborhood.
“After several years of negotiating their answer was no, it wouldn’t work,” said Parker. “My guess would be to do a marketing survey of the neighborhood to see if it would make sense.”
Parker, who is still a trustee of the shul, said he would oppose the change.
“I enjoy my wife’s company when I’m in shul,” he said.
But another board member, Ruth Unger, said she did not object.
“I don’t mind going Orthodox, as opposed to going Reform,” she said.
Membership at the Jewish Center has dropped from 550 five years ago to 225. But as the new year commenced, there was optimism. The synagogue sold 700 seats for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, about the same as last year.
“We were told when all the conflict [over the sale proposal] was on that people would stop coming for the High Holy Days,” said Daniel. “Nothing of the sort happened.”
There is talk about resuming catering services and the Hebrew school, which was discontinued last year, and adding Russian language prayerbooks to appeal to emigres.
As president, Daniel — a Yeshiva University-trained cantor — puts an immigrant face on the congregation that could appeal to newcomers in the neighborhood.
“It is the wish of every Jewish person to have people of all sectors of the diaspora working with them,” said Marc Beznicki, a vice president who backs the idea of adding a mechitza.
“If it’s a question of adding a mechitza or losing our dear shul, we should definitely move forward,” he said. “We have to do outreach to the community. My main concern is to bring back the Hebrew school. No shul can survive without children.”
Daniel noted that when the shul recently hosted a concert by a traveling troupe of Israeli scouts, some 325 people showed up, most of them elderly. About 200 were expected.
“That’s very good,” he said, “but you want to see some young people for these kind of things.”