Hudson Jewish Community Forum

Leaders Reaching Out to Younger Crowds Print E-mail
Written by Father Alex Santora   

First published in the Jersey Journal (http://www.nj.com/jjournal/)

Jersey Journal ,Thursday, May 31, 2007

Michelle Levine never realized the welcome she would get when she moved to Bayonne three years ago. She joined the Congregation Ohav Zedek synagogue, and soon became a member. Then she got involved with the Jewish Community Center in Bayonne and is now a member of their board and works on youth and family services.
And a cadre of mostly young Jews - of all denominations and communities - like Levine, have come together for the first time last month in Bayonne to address the problem of why synagogues are not attracting newer members.  By their account, not a moment too soon.

Jane Canter, 74, one of the founding members of B'Nai Jacob on West Side Avenue in Jersey and co-president, said "I am tired. I am worn out."  Their community has tried all kinds of outreach to Society Hill and Port Liberte and have gotten a few members.  They are hoping to rent out part of their building for income but what they really need are young Jews.  Well, any Jew would do.

For Jersey City's Adam Weiss - who worships at both United Synagogue of Hoboken and Congregation Mt. Sinai in Jersey City - the inspiration and organizer of the study group, it's easy.

"There's an enormous influx of younger, mostly professional Jews, settling in Hudson County," said Weiss, 41, a graduate of Harvard Law School, who works in real estate and redevelopment.  Back in the golden days of the 1950's, Weiss said there were more than 30,000 in the county and the synagogues were full.  Today, he estimates there are about 10 to 18,000 younger Jews who have never affiliated.  And that's the challenge: how to get them to synagogue.
Ken Schept, 60, thinks he has some answers.  In his second year as president of United Synagogue of Hoboken, Schept moved back to Hudson County and has lived in Hoboken since the 1970's. USH, which is probably the most thriving synagogue, has had a string of good, young, talented rabbis, said Schept, who could relate to the newer members who were attending.  It's also a very mixed community so there is something for everyone.  But the key is the urban revitalization. USH benefited from the Hoboken and Jersey City waterfront resurgence; the rest of the synagogues are too far from those areas.

Yet even when B'Nai Jacob held services periodically at Our Lady of Czestochowa's church hall in Paulus Hook a few years ago and made a concerted effort to reach out to Jews in those neighborhoods, Canter said, the Jews wanted more social programs and were not interested in the religious affiliation.  And that's the biggest issue to crack.  By all accounts, many if not most of the newer Jews don't want to affiliate.  But Weiss and others don't see a lost cause but rather a challenge.

All were hopeful when 38 representatives - including the very strict Klausenburg community from Union City - gathered for the first meeting and are anxious for a follow-up at the Jewish Community Center on June 14 at 7:15 p.m.  Already the group has planned to advertise widely all of the next high holy days services at all synagogues.

And Levine also believes that people have to roll up their sleeves and get to work the old-fashioned way.  Seek out names, call them up, invite them and give them good experiences.  She said the JCC's last Hanukkah party attracted over 100 mostly new people and among them 20 children - who are the future.  And Levine, adding to this future, is expecting her second child any day.

"I'm populating the synagogue," she said.  The old-fashioned way, I might add.
 
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