Standing with our Empty Nesters

emoty-nestBy Cantor Adina Frydman and Andi Rosenthal

As we prepare to reflect on the waning year and to celebrate the annual cycle of renewal, our synagogue leaders can – and should – take note that empty nesters remain in our midst, standing alongside us as we seek meaning and revitalization, and sacred connection in these most sanctified moments of Jewish time. Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – You stand this day, all of you. This important biblical phrase, uttered in the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah, reminds us that it is all of us standing together: the families with young children, the teenagers, the elders, and the stalwarts of our congregations, the empty nesters. Perhaps you haven’t seen them for a while, but they have returned on this holy day. Does your synagogue give them the connections they seek? What is meaningful to them at this particular stage of life?

These, and many other questions, regarding the attenuated connection of empty nesters led SYNERGY: UJA Federation NY to commission our newest report: Should We Stay or Should We Go? Synagogue Empty Nesters on the Edge. Based on research by David Elcott and Stuart Himmelfarb of B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform at New York University, this report provides key insights about this important demographic that will inform future planning and action for your synagogues.

Our study began as an inquiry into the relationship between synagogue engagement and the departure of children from the household (empty nesting), and found that a wide cross section of congregation members are “on the fence” about their membership. It also revealed that some of the most commonly presumed reasons and perceptions for resigning one’s synagogue membership are actually quite low on congregants’ lists for leaving.

Highlights of what we learned:

  • The decision to leave one’s synagogue is complicated and multifaceted.
  • Nearly half of the synagogue members in this study said they have considered leaving their congregation.
  • Among the top reasons for considering leaving are: lack of personal connection, loss of meaning, inflexibility of the dues model, and the perception that synagogues are configured solely with young families in mind.
  • The most cited reason for leaving, mentioned by former members, was a perceived lack of connection with clergy.

From all this, a picture emerges that suggests that if synagogue leaders can better address congregants’ needs for meaning, personal connection, and cost flexibility, more on-the-fence members may consider staying in their synagogues, even after they become empty nesters.

In this upcoming High Holidays, as many return to our sacred communities, may our hearts and minds be open to the renewal of these relationships, and in this new year to come, may we find the words and ways to not only connect to those who are not yet there, but also with those who have been standing with us all along.

Cantor Adina Frydman is Executive Director, SYNERGY. Andi Rosenthal is Regional Manager, SYNERGY Westchester/Riverdale.