News / USA

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.

Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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Comment Sorting
by: Young&Jewish from: Washingtondc
December 13, 2012 1:11 PM
As an avid attendee of this Young Professional Shabbat service at Adas Israel, I can tell you that we all go because it is a place where we can find people our own age participating in meaningful, traditional Yiddishkeit. I'm not there for the popcorn or the booze - That's just the oneg, there are supposed to be snacks when people are hungry. We follow the oneg up with full Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv services with impressive Kavanah (intention). There are 300 of us who come for a meaningful experience of Shabbat, not the happy hour - we can drink anywhere.

The reporters were only allowed to film the pre-Shabbat oneg, because once Shabbat came in, all the young people and the staff of Adas Israel demanded that the cameras to be turned off so that they could observe Shabbat traditionally, which is great. The reporters just failed to mention that in the story. We feel no need to dumb down or alcohol-ize Judaism to make it work for young people. I commend Adas Israel and Elie Greenberg for doing such wonderful work in bridging the gap between Young People and their vital Jewish experiences.

by: wishfullthinker from: washington, dc
December 13, 2012 8:07 AM
What I'm sorry this story is missing is that all of the 300 young professionals who come to Adas Israel for the chance to mingle DO stay for a meaningful, moving Friday night service. This is not religion-light. Many congregations' Friday night services offer a chance to celebrate with food and wine (and sometimes schnaps!) together after the service ... this celebration just happens to begin before. Yes, they could be at a nightclub, but they're NOT. The good news is that young people are seeking a meaningful Jewish experience, and, with this service, Adas Israel is providing one way to do this.

by: NVO from: USA
December 11, 2012 10:19 AM
Its plain and simply a hideous approach to try to get people to do something they dont want. You cannot and will not water down GOD with, popcorn, beer, and a bar like atmosphere. How about focusing and helping to rebuild the Third Temple in Jerusalem? The Sanhedrin and Levite priests would be disgusted at this watering down of God. Stay in your nightclubs with your Burger King, "have it your way" to God. It will NOT work, and is a mock at God. Popcorn and goodness!!!!!

by: NVO from: USA
December 11, 2012 12:03 AM
Rabbi, this country needs a good old fashioned spiritual revival, not a luring with free Wifi and coffee, you might as well sell booze. I can find free Wifi and coffee at McDonalds, NOT a synagogue. If you want God, one must seek him. Shameful approach. Another doped down religious tactic that will fail.

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