Interior of Neolog synagogue, Brasov, Transylvania
(DeAgostini/Getty Images via JTA)

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Prior to the COVID pandemic, Dr. Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University, said that many synagogues and temples were challenged by flat or declining membership. He is co-founder of Synagogue 3000, a nonprofit organization providing leadership training to enhance synagogues, and author of Relational Judaism — Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community, which he describes as a handbook for Jewish congregations.

Dr. Ron Wolfson
Dr. Ron Wolfson

Dr. Wolfson cites multiple reasons for congregational “retention and recruitment issues.” Typically, families join temples or synagogues when their children are ready for school, but today’s young Jews are marrying at a later age, delaying their potential interest in membership. Also, the millennial generation (for Christians and Jews) is somewhat resistant to affiliations — for religious participation and other aspects of life.

Dr. Wolfson believes that congregations must shift from a “transactional/programmatic focus to a relational model” in order to maintain and increase membership. He cites a failure to “engage adults with clergy, educators, staff and other friends.” 

Wolfson tells of a temple member who said, “I came to everything and met nobody.” A temple program has to connect people to each other or it’s not a sacred community, he said.

These connections can be achieved through religious commitment, social justice activities or friendships. Other tactics include the creation of multiple small groups within a congregation, which is common to mega-churches. Such groups can have a distinct brand and identity. “They provide opportunities to engage a younger generation with no expectation that they become members,” Wolfson said.

He also views preschools as supportive of “relational Judaism.” “Preschools are a natural feeder into the life of the congregations. A relationship is being built with adults, including grandparents, and they create a group of kids,” he said.

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