Reports of the Death of Congregations has been Greatly Exaggerated

by Rabbi Scott Aaron

Among the various terminal maladies of what the historian Simon Rawidowicz termed our ever-dying people is the demise of the American synagogue. It is common knowledge that there has been a decline in congregational membership over the last several decades that has been accelerated by the recession of the last several years. Clergy positions have been reduced from full-time to part-time or eliminated, congregational schools have been unable to pay teachers adequately and buildings that were once sources of pride to congregations have become albatrosses around the financial necks.

Additionally, many congregations that have a long history of membership in a denominational movement organization have chosen to disaffiliate and go it alone as part of painful budget decision-making. On top of it all, there is a generational divide among those who do pay dues to their congregations about what the identity of the congregation should be in the 21st century. This plays itself out in arguments over ritual changes, religious school policy, finances, mission and even the kind of food that should be served at the oneg Shabbat. Among the results of all this tumult is the reality that it becomes harder and harder to find qualified people willing to take on lay leadership roles of congregations. What was once aspired to as an honor is now a thankless burden to be endured at best. As Joseph Jonas said way back in 1852, “the more I do for my congregation, the more I am insulted!” Truly, if these realities were all we focused on, we would indeed be writing the obituary of the American synagogue.

Thankfully, like the half-full glass, the problems are only half the story. Judaism has survived all of these millennia because of our ability to adapt in the face of adversity and American congregations are doing the same. Regular readers of eJewishPhilanthropy and other media outlets know that there are bold experiments underway across the country to rethink mission, membership, dues structures, religious schools and even oneg Shabbats in order to maximize limited resources and creatively grow shrinking congregations. (For an excellent snapshot of innovation around membership and finances, I recommend the report entitled “Connected Congregations: From Dues and Membership to Sustaining Communities of Purpose” by Dr. Beth Cousens and the Synergy initiative of the UJA-Federation of New York.) However, different communities have different challenges, resources and needs. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to congregational sustainability. Here in Pittsburgh, we have undertaken a process of scale for our community that reflects our unique civic realities as well as our communal identity in order to support our congregations in their challenging times.

Pittsburgh currently has an estimated Jewish population of 42,000 and around 36 congregations and chavurot. Of these congregations, roughly 1/3 are self-identified as Orthodox, 1/4 Conservative, 1/5 Reform and the remainder see themselves as another theological concept. Of these 36 congregations, the minority pay some form of formal affiliation dues to a national movement. As a result, the bulk of our local congregations do not receive outside support or assistance in their work; they are proverbially making Shabbos for themselves. Moreover, Pittsburgh is one of the few non-coastal cities where a large amount of our population, roughly half, still lives in a centralized geographic neighborhood of the city. The remainder is literally clustered on all four points of the compass and is separated by rivers and mountains that crisscross the city and form cultural as well as literal boundaries.

My agency, the Agency for Jewish Learning (AJL), has been serving many of these far-flung congregations for decades in support of their Jewish education efforts but undertook a systemic change initiative with a number of them several years ago called CSI2 , The Congregational School Improvement Initiative. This initiative was modeled on the NESS program developed at the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education, now The Jewish Learning Venture in Philadelphia and supported by PELIE, the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education and our local Federation. In a nutshell, we found that to improve congregational schools there often had to be a systemic realignment of the congregational culture at multiple levels in order for the improvements to take root. We have been successful in facilitating the systemic change process with participating congregations, but the question was raised several years ago about how the congregations that do not run their own congregational schools could be helped with systemic improvement as well. The majority of Pittsburgh’s congregations do not have their own religious schools and most of those same congregations are also not dues paying members of denominational movements. That led our agency to again adapt a program called Reshet from our friends at the Jewish Learning Venture and with support from The Covenant Foundation and our local Federation that focuses on congregational leadership development and training.

The AJL has been running the Synagogue Presidents Council for three years with roughly half of the congregations actively participating directly in the meetings and more participating in our network. Our agency convenes the presidents monthly to discuss issues and challenges being commonly faced by all lay leadership such as membership, dues, board development, federation-congregational relations, employment policies and many other issues. The agency periodically asks the presidents what topic areas they would like to have more knowledge about and then arranges speakers or discussions around those topics. The participating presidents report real appreciation for the opportunity to talk openly with peers and to ask questions in a safe, collegial space. That camaraderie has led to openings for cooperation as well among congregations that have seen themselves as competitors for members in the current environment, and AJL has been able to successfully facilitate several program partnerships among congregations that would not have been feasible in the recent past had the presidents not become better acquainted through the council.

Now AJL is taking its knowledge of congregational sustainability and leadership development in to the local congregations to work individually with boards when it is requested. We are also partnering with our local federation to have an introductory seminar for lay and professional congregational leadership in June on exploring change for congregational improvement. This will be followed by an experimental cohort called Kehillot Kayama: Sustainable Congregations. Participating congregations will conduct a year-long, deep-dive into their own specific cultures and missions to explore new ideas and options for sustainable change.

Pittsburgh is a community that is known for its resilience. When the steel mills closed in the ‘80s, the city was written off as dying. It came back and reinvented itself as one of the leading technology, medicine and education hubs in the Midwest. Pittsburgh’s synagogues are equally resilient and for many of them the question is not are they dying, but how gracefully are they aging. We think that, with a little help, many of them still have long and healthy institutional lives ahead of them serving another generation’s evolving needs.

Rabbi Scott Aaron, Ph.D. works with congregational leaders at Pittsburgh’s Agency for Jewish Learning.