Rampant assimilation. Financial pressures. Generational changes.
The varied causes of dwindling membership have served as a call to action for some Maryland synagogues — especially when appealing to young professionals.
In an effort to combat the decrease in synagogue affiliation, organizations focused on engaging 20- and 30-year-olds have emerged at shuls across the state. These groups differ in affiliation and size but share an overarching goal: staying relevant.
Mount Washington resident Abigail Malischostak, 28, said that although well-structured programming exists for young people within the traditional synagogue model, it often doesn’t cater to community members who hold a degree but haven’t settled down.
“[The programming] just stops,” said Malischostak, who co-chairs BAYITT, a young adult organization at the Conservative-affiliated synagogue Beth Am. “What are they supposed to do next?”
The result: Millennials are left wondering how they should go about finding their niche in the Jewish world.
For those Maryland synagogues focused on bridging the gap, they’ve gone the extra mile to create ruach-filled Shabbatot, to gather baseball- crazed fans at Orioles games and to entice adventurous spirits in local escape rooms.
“We don’t always do activities that directly associate with Judaism, but we do them with other Jews,” said Rachel Millstein, 25, who is heavily involved with ConnecTIon at Temple Isaiah, a Reform shul in Howard County. “And that’s what makes them Jewish experiences.”
David Toller of Columbia Jewish Congregation said the balance of religious and secular events is core to the success of these ventures. Home of the 20-Somethings Group, which 27-year-old Toller coordinates, the Reconstructionist synagogue has made an effort to “get young adults out there” with Israeli comedy nights, laser tag, Rosh Hashanah parties and more.
Members can spend time with people their own age without the burden of annual membership dues, Toller said.
The hope is that such outings will foster a sense of community among Jews who may not yet be members of a shul. If and when these 20- and 30-somethings decide to join, they may be more inclined to turn to the synagogue that gave them a sense of belonging when they were just starting their professional careers.
Numbers Speak for Themselves
It’s no secret that young professionals are shying away from the traditional synagogue model. American Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 only comprise 24 percent of synagogue members, according to “A Portrait of American Jews” by the Pew Research Center. The 2013 survey also reported that only 29 percent of synagogue members are between the ages of 30 and 49.
When 23-year-old Arielle Adler was offered a job in Owings Mills, becoming a member of a synagogue didn’t even cross her mind. The Connecticut native, who maintained a high level of Jewish involvement from childhood to college, is confident that she can explore and strengthen her Jewish identity through other means.
“The young community isn’t in a shul,” said Adler, a Towson University alumna. “I’m still able to find that community but not necessarily in a synagogue setting.”
Although the findings of the 2010 Baltimore Jewish Community Study, spearheaded by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, highlighted the area as a stable Jewish hub, it also shed light on an issue plaguing synagogues nationwide: “declining rates of participation in Jewish life, especially among young adults.”
The study reported that only 14 percent of the non-Orthodox community under the age of 35 felt it was extremely important to be part of a Jewish community, and 18 percent felt very connected to a Jewish community in the Greater Baltimore area. In contrast, 40 percent of the older generation of Baltimore Jews, ranging from 35 to 64 years of age, felt it was extremely important to be part of a Jewish community, and 35 percent of them felt very connected.
While the number of Orthodox Jews residing in Baltimore has increased by more than 50 percent, the Conservative movement’s numbers have essentially remained the same and the Reform movement’s numbers have significantly decreased, according to Associated findings.
“If you’re not already driven toward spiritual life through a synagogue, you’re not going to come to one until you need something,” said Gabrielle Burger, 38, who assists with young adult programming at Ner Tamid – Greenspring Valley Synagogue, a modern Orthodox shul in Baltimore.
In addition to delayed marriage and parenthood — two reasons young adults reportedly postpone membership — some view the structure of synagogue life as outdated and have difficulty finding people their age, said Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, who has served as associate dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies since 2001.
“Synagogues have to diversify if they want to be successful,” she said. “We have to think about the interests and concerns of people in their 20s and 30s as well as how to bring them into Jewish experiences.”
These obstacles have become all too familiar to American Jewish communities, with the exception of the Orthodox movement, which is gaining traction. The intrinsic value of living a Jewish lifestyle prompts Orthodox Jews to marry younger and within their religion, join synagogues and have larger families, according to the Pew Research Center.
Rabbi Jessy Gross, founder and director of the young adult organization Charm City Tribe, said that although the synagogue is still important to the Jewish ecosystem, the way in which individuals “connect, affiliate, join and participate” has changed, meaning the community has to nurture meaningful connections to Judaism through different opportunities.
“It’s not meant to take place of the value that a synagogue community can offer, but it is meant to connect with people where they’re at and to tap into Jewish experiences in a way that will lead to a deeper connection and commitment down the road,” said Gross, who also serves as the director of Jewish life for the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore.
Engaging Millenials from the Start
These trends might seem to forecast a bleak outlook for the creation of a new generation of Jewish leaders. But just because young Baltimoreans aren’t joining congregations the way that they used to doesn’t mean they have abandoned Judaism, said Nicki Barrett, coordinator of engagement and programming for Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
The 23-year-old oversees Chai Life, which provides year-round gatherings for locals in their 20s and 30s. From happy hours to Chanukah shindigs, the program has catered to a wide range of interests in its seven years, all in the hopes of connecting young adults to Judaism.
And being involved with Chai Life comes with a perk — free membership to the Reform shul for a year.
Although the Ohio native accepted her new position less than three months ago, Barrett has seen firsthand how the group can strengthen one-on-one relationships and establish a link to the greater Jewish community.
“It’s important to put on programming that doesn’t require them to belong to a synagogue,” Barrett said. “Maybe one day when they get married or have children and feel that they need a congregation for life-cycle events, they’ll think of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.”
Although that’s the long-term goal, these types of groups don’t pressure event-goers into joining their respective shuls, said BAYITT co-chairs Malischostak and husband Alex, 30, who stepped up as leaders a year prior to becoming members of the congregation in January 2017. They’ve spearheaded a multitude of events, including Torah learning sessions, snow tubing and holiday celebrations.
Like many of these groups, the synagogue provides a budget for event costs. Some activities are free, while others are heavily subsidized.
Those who attend BAYITT’s main and monthly event, Shabbat services and dinner, are asked to chip in roughly $10.
On a warm August night last Friday, BAYITT members trickled into Rabbi Daniel Burg’s four-story home just across the street from Beth Am in Reservoir Hill. The family dog roamed the back porch as Burg grilled vegetables, burgers and hot dogs for the Shabbat barbecue dinner and chatted with guests.
It may be commonplace nowadays to hear that “millennials hate organizations,” as Malischostak put it, but that’s a faulty narrative.
“It’s not that they’re against or skeptical of the concept of a synagogue, but the synagogue needs to show that there is something for them there,” she said. “They’re not going to join for the sake of joining. They’re going to join because they see the value in it.”
The Future of Synagogues
Empty pews and aging congregants have led some to believe that established synagogues will soon be distant memories of the past. Others feel that recognizing internal issues and adapting to the times will remind young adults that synagogues are still relevant to their lives.
“The synagogue was the center of Jewish life in the old days, meaning that if you weren’t a member, then you weren’t necessarily connected to the Jewish community,” Alex said. “But now there are so many different ways to be a part of it — less expensive ways that are more meaningful to certain people — that you don’t necessarily need that synagogue membership.”
Some of the shuls lacking a structured organization for young adults, such as Chizuk Amuno Congregation, are hoping to fill that void within the coming months.
Melissa Halpern, 32, director of communications, marketing and social media for the Conservative congregation, will most likely be the one to spearhead the initial get-together. The Maryland native said she is looking to coordinate events for alumni, singles and newlyweds.
“It’s important to get them in our doors at a young age and show them that the brotherhood and sisterhood aren’t just the bubbies and zaydes of the congregation,” Halpern said.
BIYA, run by the Modern Orthodox shul B’nai Israel, is beginning talks with the University of Maryland Hillel, hoping to encourage alumni and even students to join the young adult group. But given the vast number of college- goers in Baltimore, as put by member Erika Rief, the community tends to be transient.
“We’re hoping to build certain foundations, such as an eruv, that will help build a more stable community, that way people won’t feel the need to leave as soon as they graduate,” Rief said.
For 31-year-old David Castine, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation is a second home. It’s where he celebrated monumental accomplishments in his Jewish journey — from finishing Hebrew school to becoming bar mitzvahed.
In addition to co-chairing Chai Life, the Pikesville native serves on the budget committee at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, giving him a behind-the-scenes look at membership.
“I’ve seen the numbers dwindle a bit,” Castine said. “I think Chai Life is an integral part of continuing to grow the synagogue as a whole and a way to connect that age bracket — those 20s and 30s — who may not be affiliated with a synagogue or different religious group.”
For the Bentley University alumnus, organizations such as Chai Life are about the big picture.
“I don’t think my generation values religion as much as my parents’ generation,” he said. “There needs to be a younger generation of leaders who will step up, and I see myself as one of those young leaders.”