At Temple Beth El, we face the same challenges as other synagogues across North America. Jewish continuity, the continuation of Judaism and Jewish culture from one generation to the next, has for decades been a serious concern in America, and it is a concern in our synagogue. The other side of continuity is attrition. Sadly, we have lost nearly an entire generation of synagogue members and leaders. They were the members who originally established, maintained, and endowed Temple Beth El. Like the rest of America, our synagogue enjoyed a boom from the 1950s onward. We expanded our building in 2000-2001, a time when many suburban synagogues were beginning to constrict and even close. And as recently as the early 2000s, our religious school served over 30 students (we currently have 16 students). Attrition comes in several forms, and they all pose challenges to Temple Beth El. From our beloved members who have passed away to members who have moved away to the more threatening malady of diminished interest in Jewish life rampant among Jews of all ages, American synagogues face the same challenges.
Membership is the key to our strength and survival. As I have reported in this column before, our efforts to attract new members have not succeeded. However and importantly, when a Jewish person walks through our door by choice we almost always gain that visitor as a member. The reasons visitors become members are pretty simple. We are nice. We welcome new faces. We keep things simple and drama-free. We respect tradition. We enjoy one another’s company. We value a Jewish space in a community that has few Jews. And we want to be Jewish together.
At this time, we are at a critical moment in Temple Beth El’s history. First, our membership is small but stable, around the 60 member-unit mark (a “member-unit” can be an individual, a couple, or a family), smaller than it has been in decades (our highest was just over 100). Second, we are facing a financial crisis created by an unfortunate convergence of events – an unexpected decrease in income (fewer members paying their dues in part or full, and fewer donations) and costly repairs and bills (heating system repairs, higher insurance rates and utility bills, and cantor’s fees for the Holy Days). Third, we need to hire a rabbi.
As of this writing, we have recently convened two committees to address these concerns. The GPS, Group for Planning and Strategy, is a strategic planning committee dedicated to reviewing and improving the following areas of our synagogue: Ritual, Leadership, Finance, Education (adult & children), Members & Inclusion, and Visibility. You can help the GPS by watching for and responding to their upcoming survey. The Rabbi Search Committee is dedicated to meeting the synagogue’s rabbinic needs, identifying ideal candidates, and bringing the strongest applicants to Temple Beth El. You can help the search committee by attending the March 3 meeting to discuss our synagogue’s vision for the next rabbi.
Temple Beth El is succeeding. Against the odds, we are still here. Conservative synagogues across the country have merged or closed, but we continue. My childhood synagogue on Long Island, once filled to capacity with over 1000 people, is now not only merged and fading away, but smaller than Temple Beth El and without a religious school. Our strength is our people. We are here because we want a synagogue in Oneonta. We want a Jewish presence in town. And we want a Jewish home where we can gather to pray, to eat, to remember, to laugh, to console, and to celebrate. All we need is you. Please be generous with your time (come to temple!), spirit (participate!) and donations (please give!). And, of course, bring a Jewish friend to temple. We look forward to seeing you at Temple Beth El.