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Seeking Younger Members, Synagogues Aim to Remake Themselves

America has an abundance of churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, but they are all financed by members, and polls suggest that young Americans nowadays feel little obligation to join.

So one Washington-based synagogue decided to do something about it.

For thousands of years, Jews have welcomed the Sabbath with solemn prayers. But Elie Greenberg, Director of Informal Programming for Adas Israel Jewish synagogue, felt that tradition needed some updating.

"The traditional approach to Judaism does not speak to them anymore," he says of his own generation while arranging chips and beer for a Friday evening happy hour. "We're constantly looking for new innovative ways of reaching them where they are spiritually."

And it works.

At a time when young Americans of all backgrounds increasingly shun organized religion, a large crowd of young adults shows up.

A recent poll found that only eight percent of synagogue members in the Reform and Conservative movements, the largest group of American Jews, are between 18 and 34. This means that many of those in attendance might otherwise have spent Friday evening in a bar, or anywhere but a synagogue.

Julia Crantz and Casey Girard say they do not feel the same obligation to join that previous generations did.

"For me, belonging to a synagogue, isn't so important to me as having Jewish experiences and Jewish friendships and experiencing my Judaism in other ways," Crantz says.

"I think part of the problem is it is so expensive to join and it is something only our parents do," says Girard.

Faith in flux

Around for more than a century, in 1876, Ulysses S. Grant became the first U.S. president to attend a Hebrew devotional service at Adas Israel's former location in downtown Washington.

Like so many American synagogues — and even more so, many American churches — Adas Israel has long been the focal point of spiritual and religious life for its members. But American religion is in flux, and the future of its houses of worship is up in the air.

In order to appeal to a new generation of members, Adas Israel is conducting a renovation project to convert one of the main chapels into a lounge with coffee and free Wi-Fi.

The financing for the multi-million-dollar project comes mainly from established older members.

According to Rabbi Larry Hoffman of Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary in New York, the question isn't whether synagogues need to be reinvented, but how.

"Young people do not join the way their elders did," says Hoffman, who leads Synagogue3000, a project designed to send rabbis into the community. "They don't join anything, [but] that does not mean they are not interested in what synagogues have to offer. But synagogues have to offer something other than what they have been offering."

That's exactly what Greenberg of Adas Israel has been attempting to do, and so far his strategy seems to be working.

"This is so critical — this is the future of Judaism," says Greenberg as the monthly happy hour, which has continued to grow, begins to wind down.

Several young women mark the start of the Sabbath by lighting two candles on a table off to the side.

The hope is that they and others will stay and pray, like their parents have done for generations.

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