Richard Greif and his wife, Vicki, are the kind of congregants any synagogue would love to have. They chant Haftorah, participate in activities and contribute their time and talents in a variety of ways.
Turns out they do it in two different synagogues.
Bucking a trend of flagging synagogue membership, the Greifs actually split time between two religious communities — Bet Am Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in White Plains, and Rosh Pinah Chavurah in Hastings, close to their Dobbs Ferry home. They were initially attracted to the Reconstructionist synagogue because of the charismatic, outgoing rabbi and cantor, friendly congregation and “a theology that wasn’t contradictory” to the family’s progressive beliefs. Richard also appreciated the strong musical programming at Bet Am Shalom. But at Rosh Pinah, “there are people who know us longer,” he said. “We raised our kids together.”
At a time when a larger concern in the Jewish community is the lack of affiliation by the non-Orthodox, such multiple memberships are rare, but they do happen. Synagogues don’t track this, mostly because it’s anecdotal rather than statistically significant. “This doesn’t float across the radar,” said Cantor Robin Joseph of Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings. “It’s rare in our neck of the woods.” Similarly, said Rabbi Jaymee M. Alpert of Congregation Kneses Tifereth Israel (KTI) in Port Chester, “it’s not particularly prevalent at my congregation.”
Yet for those who do have two congregational homes (not counting Westchester snowbirds who keep shul memberships here as well as in their Sunbelt residences), some common themes emerge. One is a desire for friendships, which often leads them to maintain a connection to synagogues where they have long-standing ties and shared experiences with other members. Another is the desire for spiritual and communal opportunities that can’t be met by one synagogue.
Susan Needleman, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Harrison, noted that besides the snowbirds, those who have dual synagogue memberships are often congregants who have held leadership roles in another community, and don’t want to sever that connection even after they move away.
Other factors often come into play.
“Sometimes there’s a longstanding family affiliation for one spouse in another congregation,” said Alan Halpern, executive director of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale. Or it’s physically more convenient to attend this synagogue, or it’s better for the children to participate.” An older couple may have deep roots to its own congregation, yet yearn to belong to the synagogue where its children and grandchildren are members.
Halpern has observed that when one spouse was raised Conservative, and another Reform, one synagogue may not meet the needs for both of them. “It’s the idea of ‘whose matzah ball recipe’ are you going to use,’ applied to synagogues,” he quipped. Often, “People who walk through the doors of a synagogue often enough want to contribute for the programs they participate in,” he added. “They feel a stake in the community, and want to feel ‘I belong here’ in some way, shape, or form.”
For Paul Kerson, of Ardsley, the decision was driven by two distinct needs.
“The chavurah is where all our friends are,” said Kerson, who belongs both to Bet Am Shalom as well as the Rosh Pinah Chavurah in Hastings. Since the chavurah, where Kerson attends services about twice a month, “doesn’t have a rabbi,” belonging to Bet Am Shalom satisfies his family’s need “to have a rabbi for life-cycle events.”
The member-led chavurah functions without official clergy, and regularly draws about 40-50 people for weekly Shabbat services. As Kerson said, “The good part about the chavurah is that they’re always looking for people to lead the service. You get a chance to be a leader.”
Then again, he acknowledged, Bet Am satisfies an equally compelling desire “to be part of the larger Jewish community.”
As Richard Greif said, “We get different things from each. At Bet Am, it’s a full service synagogue with a rabbi, cantor and other things to participate in. I sing in the choir. I like some of the services, especially Simchat Torah, and people I enjoy.”
Then again, sometimes multiple memberships become too much to handle.
Nancy Abraham, who had been at Westchester Reform Temple since 2000, officially joined Bet Am Shalom in 2009 after a year of attending Shabbat services there regularly. She was attracted to the Hebrew-rich experience at Bet Am Shalom, as well as a deeper connection to the liturgy. “I wanted to hone my Hebrew skills,” said Abraham.
While WRT is more clergy led, Abraham was delighted that at Bet Am Shalom, “I was able to chat Torah and haftorah anytime I wanted to,” she said. “I needed to chant Torah.” Bet Am Shalom also offered “more places where I felt I could contribute as a congregant.” In fact, Abraham was asked to join Bet Am Shalom’s board of trustees in 2010, and recently finished her three-year-term.
She was a dues-paying member at both synagogues for three years, until Abraham realized that “I found myself less and less at WRT.” Her involvement with Bet Am was so intense and compelling (she’s a shiva minyan leader, as one example of her leadership) that she felt it wasn’t fair to be, essentially, a member-in-name only at WRT.
For those with multiple memberships, the High Holy Days presented the same sorts of negotiations. The solution, not surprisingly, is to divide their time between synagogues.
Said Kerson: “We do Kol Nidre at Bet Am, and Yom Kippur at Rosh Pinah.”