Reform and Conservative synagogues in central Suffolk are looking for a little, well, magic.
Faced with flagging membership rolls, plummeting affiliation rates and congregations that, unlike the densely populated Jewish precincts of the Upper West Side and Brownstone Brooklyn, are spread across 34 miles of central Suffolk, the 11 area non-Orthodox synagogues are trying something new: a partnership born of necessity.
They invited the author and illusionist Arthur Kurzweil to Temple Beth El in Patchogue last weekend for a daylong scholar-in-residence program. It was the first non-holiday joint program of the fledgling Central Suffolk Jewish Alliance, and the title of Kurzweil’s program was telling: “Searching for God in the Magic Shop.”
He couldn’t have brought his sorcery to a needier place, and the congregations were surely hoping Kurzweil would pull some Jews, and a sense of Jewish community, out of his hat. But for now, they’ll settle for joint programming that they hope will retain current members, attract new ones and offer a hedge against troubling trends.
Given today’s economic and demographic realities, synagogue partnerships are becoming more prevalent around the country. Two major Reform and Conservative synagogues merged into a single entity last year in Miami, and there have been mergers of non-Orthodox synagogues in the last two years in Nassau and Queens.
In addition, synagogues in Westchester are joining forces, beginning Sunday, through UJA-Federation of New York’s Synagogues in Sync program; it will explore ways they can pool their resources and ideas to develop innovative ways to collaboratively address the challenges ahead.
The problems in central Suffolk, however, appear even more daunting than those in other places.
As much as synagogues want to reach out to the unaffiliated, there is the realization that “Jews aren’t moving out here,” said Beth Berman, chairperson of the Central Suffolk Jewish Alliance. “So we have to sustain the existing congregations.”
To help do that, they turned to Kurzweil, who drew 150 people to the Patchogue temple.
“If 150 people thought it was worthwhile spending a nice Sunday indoors doing this, we’re filling a need,” Berman said. “Kurzweil was wonderful and engaging, and people stayed the whole day.”
Norman Korowitz, a member of the North Shore Jewish Center, said he was most impressed with how well the program was planned. The avid New York Giants football fan said he chose the event over watching the Giants-Lions game on television.
“It made a statement that the Jewish community in central Suffolk is alive and well,” Korowitz said. “This was a program that had meaning and value and was relevant.”
The event was funded in part by a $3,500 grant from UJA-Federation of New York. Temple Beth El is one of the 11 synagogues that make up the alliance, stretching from the Kings Park Jewish Center in the west to the Mastic Beach Hebrew Center in the east.
“We believe the event will encourage a sense of Jewish community and identity in an area of Long Island that has little to offer the unaffiliated,” Berman said.
“From my perspective, synagogues are of the utmost importance; I don’t think Reform and Conservative Judaism could exist without them,” she added. “And we are so spread out in Suffolk County that it’s difficult to find a sense of Jewish community. If you don’t belong to a congregation, there are few avenues to participate in Jewish life.”
Rabbi Joel Levinson, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El, pointed out that there are “a fair number of unaffiliated Jews here. Our purpose is to show them that Judaism is important and relevant to their lives.”
Rabbi Steven Moss of B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, another alliance member, said there “is no question that the Jewish community [in central Suffolk] is suffering greatly, and synagogues in our county are now basically holding their own — if that — both in terms of membership and financially.”
The alliance reported that membership in seven central Suffolk synagogues dropped by about 15 percent on average during the last two years. And some faltering synagogues, such as Temple Beth Sholom in Smithtown, are said to have taken an even greater hit.
But with a new rabbi, Jonathan Waxman, Temple Beth Sholom congregants are hoping for a resurgence.
Some of the alliance synagogues have only a handful of members. Mastic Beach Hebrew Center, for instance, has only about 40 members and programming of the caliber Kurzweil provided is something it could not have afforded on it own, Berman noted.
“The last UJA-Federation study in 2002 said we had the lowest affiliation rate in all of the metropolitan area,” she pointed out. “And 30 to 40 percent of the members of any temple are looking for reduced dues.”
The alliance was formed in December 2007 at a time when Berman was president of the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson.
“I was discouraged about how neighboring congregations thought we were competing with each other for members and programs,” she said.
Particularly troubling was the fact that neighboring synagogues would hold “open houses” for potential new members on the same day shortly before the High Holy Days.
“It was not fair to the public to have to choose whom to visit,” Berman said. “So our main goal at the beginning was to coordinate dates and events. We wanted to create a feeling of one Jewish community instead of pockets.”
“We also needed someone to represent the voice of Suffolk Jewry,” she added. “With the Suffolk Council of Jewish Organizations gone [UJA-Federation stopped funding it a number of years ago], we don’t have anyone to represent what our needs are and to help communications among the various groups.”
Dru Greenwood, director of SYNERGY: UJA-Federation of New York and Synagogues Together, said UJA-Federation is aware of the difficulties facing Suffolk synagogues and that it “applauds the alliance as a positive response. We are walking alongside them through things like the grant.”
Greenwood pointed out that Michele Stack is the newly appointed SYNERGY representative on Long Island and that she will be working with David Newman, the newly appointed executive director of the Long Island office of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Both have offices in Syosset and have begun outreach to Jewish community leaders on Long Island, Greenwood noted.
Meanwhile, the Suffolk Board of Rabbis has been exploring many of the same issues and has formed the Suffolk Jewish Strategic Planning Task Force.
“We have been dealing with membership and the quality of Jewish life in Suffolk County,” Rabbi Moss said. “We had informal meetings last year in light of the dissolution of Suffolk COJO and the difficulties the Long Island JCRC was having. We are now doing an assessment of what is happening in the county.”
“The community realizes we must harness our energies to enable the Jewish community in Suffolk and on Long Island to survive these challenging times,” he added.
Berman said the alliance leadership will meet in two weeks to discuss future programming, is forming a buying group in order to purchase oil and electricity at reduced rates, and is formalizing its structure. She said she would also like the alliance to respond to a request for proposals issued by UJA-Federation’s Long Island program services cabinet.
“They are looking for a program model to fortify the Jewish character of future generations of Long Islanders,” she said. “They want innovative programs that will foster positive Jewish identity.”
The maximum grant will be $25,000, and Berman said UJA-Federation is looking for collaborative efforts that can be replicated elsewhere.
“They are very interested in seeing that it can be sustained on your own without outside funding,” she said.
Although last Sunday’s event attracted some young families, most of those in attendance were older. Therefore, Berman said, she would like to see the alliance develop future programs aimed at young families. Asked how she hoped to attract young people when Hebrew schools in Suffolk have shrunk or merged, Berman attributed much of these schools’ enrollment decline to the high intermarriage rate in the county.
“Intermarried families often don’t push their kids to go to a synagogue-based religious school,” she said. “They may raise their children as Jews, but they are not being educated. We want to create programs they call experiential learning in which youngsters experience something that will leave a lasting impact. It would be non-threatening and something the entire family could enjoy.”
Rabbi Howard Hoffman, spiritual leader of the North Shore Jewish Center, said the decision of synagogue lay leaders to work together as an alliance was crucial for the future of the Jewish community.
“The rabbis have felt for a long time the lack of lay leadership,” he said. “People had been playing stupid turf battles and not putting together cooperative efforts. One has to work in a cooperative way to create community and for a long time that was not the feeling.”
He said cooperation between the rabbis and lay leaders has begun to “percolate … so that we can lobby for the services [Suffolk] should be getting outside of the Commack and Huntington area. … People are not finding the wealth of Jewish programming that ought to be here. We don’t have the kind of [Jewish] institutions that would allow more committed Jews to feel comfortable here, like kosher bakeries and restaurants and kosher bagels.”
Rabbi Levinson said he could not stress enough the importance of lay leaders working together to strengthen Jewish life in central Suffolk.
“It’s one thing for a rabbi to say to [an unaffiliated Jew], ‘Come to my synagogue.’ It’s another for a congregant to say, ‘Come, you’re my friend and you will enjoy it.’”