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The Challenge Before Us – Shabbat HaHodesh 5778

I hope that, by now, you have heard about the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s 2017 Community Study. (Beth Shalom members Evan Indianer and Bruce and Jane Rollman served on the committee that brought it to fruition, and most likely some of you were contacted in the survey.)

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There are some very important numbers in this study. Some of them might make some of us anxious. But I am actually inclined to read this study optimistically. There is a lot here to try to absorb. First, the challenges:

  1. There is a “hole” in our community.

The percentage of Jews in the 35-49 range, to some extent what would be the most active core of synagogue membership, is smaller than other age brackets. Only 17% of all Jews in the area fall into that category, which is less than the national average for age distribution. This may have something to do with people who moved away when the economy was weak, and never returned. (By comparison, 24% are in the 18-34 bracket, 31% are 50-64, and 28% are 65+.)

  1. A smaller percentage of Jews are living in Squirrel Hill.

Only 30% of Jewish individuals in the area live in Squirrel Hill and Shadyside combined. Almost as many live within the city limits of Pittsburgh (26%) but outside of these two neighborhoods. The challenge here is that most of the Jewish institutions and services are here. The overall population has grown, and Squirrel Hill’s Jewish population has grown as well. But while a plurality of Jews surely live in or near Squirrel Hill, fewer of the newcomers are moving into the traditionally Jewish neighborhoods.

  1. Only 19% of respondents pay dues to a “brick-and-mortar” institution like this one.

In 2002, about half (53%) of respondents said they belonged to a synagogue. In 2017, 35% said they did, although only 19% said they paid dues to synagogues like Beth Shalom. The others are affiliated with Chabad or other independent congregations, or claim membership in a synagogue but do not pay dues. In 2002 they did not subdivide that 53% number, so it’s impossible to know how many were dues-paying members of brick-and-mortar synagogues 15 years ago. But regardless, the number has to be significantly lower. This is certainly a challenge to our membership model.

So here is the good news:

  1. When asked about movement affiliation, more 18-34-year-olds (27%) identify as Conservative than any other group. That’s higher than Reform (24%), higher than Orthodox (12%). Higher even (and this is important) than “Just Jewish” or “Secular.” Based on the numbers, the Conservative movement seems to be doing better than everybody else among younger Jews.

    Pop study data

  2. In terms of involvement in Jewish life (participation in Jewish life: rituals, services, cultural activities, belonging to, donating to or volunteering for Jewish organizations), those who identify as Conservative have a fairly high rate of participation and commitment. About one-third of those in the “Immersed” category (that is, they are immersed in Jewish life on a daily/weekly basis) identify as Conservative (cf. 46% Orthodox, 15%  Reform). That is, I think, a relatively healthy statement regarding what we stand for.
  3. And here’s my favorite number, because it sings with opportunity. While 80% of “Immersed” Jews are studying Jewish text on a regular basis, very few outside of that category are learning anything from the Jewish bookshelf. (OK, so you might not consider that “good news.” It is, however, an indicator that the vast majority of Jews are alienated from the benefits that come from studying Jewish text. So all we have to do is somehow get their attention. This is an opportunity.)
  4. On a related note, only 44% of Conservative Jews have attended a Shabbat meal over the last year. For those of us who know and savor the Shabbat dining experience, this number too speaks of opportunity.

Now that I have assaulted you with data, the question that emerges is, “How does this information help us move forward?”

Well, I have some very good news.

First, this study comes at precisely the right time for Beth Shalom, because we are about to begin the process of strategic planning to come up with a vision for the next 3-5 years. The last time that we pursued such a process was ten years ago, and so now that we are on a healthy trajectory and with the centennial celebration behind us, it is time to consider how we move forward from this point. The process will be guided by the United Synagogue’s Sulam for Strategic Planners program, which is a systematic approach that includes data gathering, analysis, communicating various things to the community and producing a report, followed by an implementation phase. We will receive regular guidance from a United Synagogue Transformation Specialist, Aimee Close.

These data points will be extraordinarily helpful in the initial phase of the process, and will help us with getting a sense of the situation on the ground in preparation for making strategic decisions.

The other way that these numbers help us is that it looks like (א) the Conservative movement’s star may be on the rise, particularly among younger people, and (ב) there is plenty of room for growth in the Jewish learning department. Yes, regular tefillot / prayer services will continue to be an essential part of what we do. But we have to continue to expand our range of offerings beyond tefillah, to continue to re-envision what it means to be a synagogue. Aimee Close was positively impressed with the work we have already done with Derekh. Now we need to continue that work by trying to penetrate more deeply into those who think that synagogues are ONLY for services and benei mitzvah. These numbers are in some sense a validation of the direction in which we are moving, that is, to re-frame the Jewish conversation such that we focus on meaning, on connecting what we learn with how we live today, on fostering spiritual growth.

One final observation about the data.

A recent New York Times article on nutrition cited a study that seems to reveal that weight loss is dependent not on the quantity of calories consumed, but rather on the quality of those calories. The study found that

“…people who cut back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods while concentrating on eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods — without worrying about counting calories or limiting portion sizes — lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year.”

That is, what you eat matters more than how much.

While this study is in itself quite interesting, it also has, I think, an interesting parallel in Jewish life. We all know that our tradition has 613 mitzvot. It’s a big number, and hard for many of us to wrap our brains around, let alone our lives.

We all know that there is a continuum among people in our community about what we practice – some of us are hitting a lot of those mitzvot, some fewer. Nonetheless, I hope that we should all be able to understand and appreciate that it is the quality of engagement with Jewish life that matters, not the quantity. Today, personal meaning matters more than merely doing for the sake of doing.

Less than a quarter (22%) of Conservative Jews feel that their “spiritual needs are met.” (That’s lower than Reform, BTW, and dramatically lower than Orthodox.) Getting more members of the community to a Friday night dinner or to a good, relevant study session may not lead more people to keep kosher or not use their smartphones on Shabbat. But it may help meet the spiritual needs of more of us by reinforcing:

  • The value of community
  • The value of a framework rooted in Jewish traditional practice and learning
  • The meaning that one can glean from that framework

If we can bring more of us to the Shabbat table, and more of us to the beit midrash, and do a better job of connecting those experiences to real Jewish learning, then I think we may have a better shot at meeting the spiritual needs of everybody. Quality over quantity.

In reading these data, I am not frustrated, but hopeful. Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/17/2018.)

* The Jewish obsession with counting ourselves dates back to the late 19th century. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations published a study of American Jews in 1880 (thanks to historian and Beth Shalom member Tammy Hepps for bringing this to my attention). A group of Russian-Jewish scholars created the Jewish Society for History and Ethnography, under the leadership of historian Simon Dubnow in 1908. This group pioneered the documentation of the Jews of Russia, their history and cultural contributions, and even sent the writer S. Ansky on an expedition throughout the Ukraine to collect information on the Jews of all the little towns therein. Since Dubnow and Ansky, and in particularly after the Shoah, we have been captivated by information about ourselves: how many of us there are, of course, but also what we are doing: our Jewish practices, our salaries, our ages, our membership in Jewish institutions, how many kids we’re having, etc.*

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