MATTERS OF FAITH
In search of a new generation
Conservative temples struggle with changing demographics
By Erica Noonan, Globe Staff | March 28, 2010
CHESTNUT HILL — During Passover and the High Holy Days as many as 2,000 people crowd into the cavernous sanctuary at Congregation Mishkan Tefila. But on a normal Shabbat the smaller, more intimate downstairs worship space is used for the synagogue's 200 or so regulars.
Just 2 miles away at another Conservative congregation, Temple Emeth, Rabbi Allan Turetz has 800 to 1,000 worshippers for formal holidays, and closer to 150 for Saturday morning services. It can be a stretch to assemble the temple's twice-daily "minyans,'' or prayer groups, that require 10 members to be present, especially on a Saturday night.
Greater Boston boasts one of most thriving centers of Conservative Judaism in the country, but it has not escaped a national trend of diminishing membership. From its founding in the United States in 1913, the movement grew to encompass more families than any other branch of Judaism. But membership in Conservative synagogues fell from 43 percent of Jewish households in the late 1980s to 33 percent in 2000, according to the National Jewish Population Survey.
Local religious leaders play down the trend, and point to the thriving Jewish nursery and day schools that abound in the area. But they also acknowledged that new ways to recruit, retain, and engage members of Conservative synagogues are vital to their future.
"The tradition is not a museum piece, it is a living, thriving, evolving tradition that speaks to the issues people face today,'' said Turetz, in his 33d year at Temple Emeth. He said the congregation's membership has held steady during the past few years at about 400 families, although he acknowledged that number was higher a decade ago.
"We are doing very well, but there isn't a synagogue in the area that doesn't want to be larger than they are. Like any responsible organization we are reaching out to different populations, and opening our doors to new people,'' Turetz said.
Myrna Cohen, 73, of Newton, joined Mishkan Tefila in 1968, around the same time as several dozen other young families who, like her, were recent arrivals in the area. Many are still active members today, she said.
"So came loads of us, and the congregation became the focal point of our lives. We are a family, there is no other way to describe it, and we care for each other in good times and bad,'' said the retired Newton schoolteacher. "I have always considered Mishkan Tefila the standard,'' she said. "It's a grand and wonderful place.''
With sadness, Cohen said, she has watched Conservative synagogues struggle to attract younger members, especially those willing to take on time-consuming leadership posts.
"The demographics of Judaism have changed, no doubt about it, with two people working and kids programmed in so many activities,'' said Cohen. "I do want to tell parents who think they don't have time that they want to make sure they spend enough time demonstrating their own values to their children. Judaism is about culture, history, and tradition, and we have to remember to pass along all three to our children and grandchildren, or something will be lost.''
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism estimates there are 1.4 million worshippers in about 760 congregations across the country.
The organization said it could not confirm the results of a survey, conducted by the Jewish Federations of North America, that found membership in Conservative congregations had fallen from 43 percent of Jewish households in the late 1980s to 33 percent in 2000.
However, United Synagogue officials are concerned enough to launch the organization's first large-scale census of congregations, and make recruitment, retention, and new programming a centerpiece of its agenda this year, said Aaron Kischel, its Northeast director. His own synagogue, Temple Israel in Sharon, is booming with 700 families, but has also seen some decrease in recent years, Kischel said.
He suggested the population shifts may be a pendulum swing from the demographics that made the Conservative movement so popular during the post-World War II baby boom, when many Jews rejected the Orthodox traditions and embraced the Conservative form as a way to meld modern suburban life with traditional, European-style aspects of their faith.
Subsequent generations, especially those who have intermarried with other faiths, have increasingly been choosing Reform Judaism, which emerged in the 1950s with more liberal attitudes toward Jewish law and the roles of women. Conservative officials did not ordain women as rabbis until 1985, or accept women as cantors until 1990.
"We are attentive to this, but not worried,'' said Kischel. "I see it as a normal societal and structural readjustment. In the 1950s, people were ready to write off Orthodox Judaism, and as we see they have done particularly well and are growing.''
He said increasing time pressures on families, and a real estate market that has made it prohibitively expensive to buy homes in popular Jewish hubs like Brookline, Newton, and Sharon, are probably more to blame for the local membership dips than a widespread departure from the faith. There are 27 Conservative synagogues in Massachusetts, with the total reduced by about four in the past decade due to mergers and closures, he said.
"I am concerned that we do need to encourage our congregations to broaden their programming base,'' Kischel said.
It can be difficult to assemble members with full-time jobs and demanding family lives into twice-daily minyans at inconvenient times, he said.
"But if you pick up the phone and call them, and ask for their support, they always come over, rarely does anyone turn you down,'' Kischel said. Lack of attendance "does not equal a lack of concern or care.''
At Mishkan Tefila, 39-year-old Melissa Donovan is considered a young member. The Newton resident sent her daughters to the synagogue's nursery school and was so impressed by it, and the temple's Hebrew school for children, that she decided to become a member four years ago. Growing up, she attended a Conservative synagogue in Swampscott, and felt drawn to the same tradition for her own children.
Her husband is not Jewish, and her parents — who live in Gloucester — are her closest Jewish relatives. "I wanted to raise my children in Judaism, and I knew I needed help to do it, and Mishkan Tefila could teach my daughters everything they needed to know,'' said Donovan.
Chuck Diamond, the congregation's president, said he hopes its members become the leaders of a local effort to rejuvenate Conservative synagogues. Mishkan Tefila is large and strong with about 540 families, but far smaller than in the early 1970s when it counted upwards of 900 families, he said.
The recession has not helped. The cost of a synagogue membership — $2,000 at the least, and more if a child is enrolled in religious education — is a hard-won item in the family budget in a region with some of the highest housing and education costs in the nation.
This means, Diamond said, he and other members need to do a better job reminding people of the benefits of being involved.
"Why come here? You can still have the tradition that your parents and grandparents had, but it has become so much more flexible,'' he said. "You can get a lot more out of a synagogue than you did years ago. Everyone is looking for more reasons to come and feel the spirit.''
Family life has always been front and center at Mishkan Tefila, but one priority this year is to reach out to more single people — straight and gay, Diamond said. The synagogue's 85,000-square-foot facility houses a 6,000-book library and a museum, and hosts scores of meetings and educational programs every week, he said.
"This is a community with so much going on that is caring, giving, and accepting. As scary as the future is, we are very excited by it. We want these doors to remain open 150 more years,'' said Diamond.
One local Conservative synagogue that has avoided a membership decline is Temple Emanuel in Newton, which has 1,123 families according to its senior rabbi, Wesley Gardenswartz.
The relatively high figure "is not a coincidence or an accident. We have thought long and hard and strategically about how to maintain and grow our shul's membership in a difficult environment,'' Gardenswartz wrote in an e-mail.
Offering variety and choices to multiple generations, has been especially effective, he said.
On Friday nights, the temple offers the same liturgy prayed in two totally different ways: a traditional service is led by one cantor, attracting about 20 members, while another featuring musical instruments, melodies from Jewish composers around the world, and several prayer leaders attracts up to 300 people.
"They say that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,'' Gardenswartz said. "The same is true of maintaining shul membership. It takes eternal vigilance.''
Matters of Faith is a series of occasional articles on religious life in area communities. Erica Noonan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.