The holidays are nearly behind us, but their purpose is to look forward. For leaders in synagogues as this very busy (membership) time concludes, ask yourself two questions: is our congregation growing or declining…and are we getting older or younger? Savvy synagogue leaders know that the future of their congregation crucially depends on recruiting and retaining a cohort of young members. Would offering free membership do the trick? The answer is surprising.
By most measures, Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Canada, is a thriving synagogue, one of the largest in the Conservative Movement. And yet, of the 1,740 households at the beginning of 2022, only 26% of members (404) were under the age of 40. The leadership of the synagogue understood something had to be done to avoid “ageing” out.
The congregation decided to embrace the principles and strategies of Relational Judaism. Senior Rabbi Steven Wernick invited me to share with the congregation my research on synagogues and other organizations that had “put people first” as the core of engagement efforts, the board and staff adopted Relational Judaism and The Relational Judaism Handbook as a “community read,” and, after a full year of study and debate, a bold plan emerged to focus on targeting young professionals and families with young children. The new initiative called “Generations Membership,” combined the offer of complimentary dues with a significant investment in building relationships both among the young adult cohort and with the synagogue itself.
The first year (2022-23) results were nothing short of phenomenal. The congregation welcomed 550 new households with adults under the age of 40. You read that correctly. The ”0” after the “55” is real. The intended result was achieved: with fully 42% of the 2,290-member congregation was now under the age of 40.
There is an ongoing debate about the efficacy of offering “free” anything to what some have called “the entitled generation:” free Birthright Israel trips, free PJ Library books, and such. The theory of “free” is that eliminating or lowering the financial barriers to affiliation, there is a better chance of recruiting people. Chabad is perhaps the best example of this approach and there is no denying their success. The critics argue that those who join “for free” will not stick around very long. That, of course, will be true if the second, more important part of the strategy – the labor-intensive relational engagement work – is not well implemented.
Beth Tzedec was prepared for the relational engagement effort. A fulltime engagement director was hired and the existing family education position was increased. All of the new members were invited for a “coffee conversation,” not to “sell” the congregation, but rather to hear the person’s story, to uncover their passions and talents, and to invite them to consider joining a small group of friends with similar interests. Despite the extraordinary numbers, 40% of the new members participated in these one-on-one conversations in the first year. Attendance at monthly gatherings designed for the cohort increased dramatically. When surveyed, attendees said the number one reason for joining was their desire for “community.”
Critics also wonder if these “newbies” will stick around after the first year. An astounding 84% of the total eligible households under the age of 40 renewed their membership for 2023-24. Plus,183 new Generation Members have joined so far this year, leading to the expectation that the total number in the young people cohort will exceed 954.
What happened this year when 94 new Gen-member households aged out? As of Yom Kippur, 50% have renewed their membership and began paying regular dues. The congregation expected 30%.
The success of the Generations Membership initiative has brought new energy and new commitment from the synagogue leadership and its members. In addition to the current staff, the congregation this year hired an additional engagement director specifically dedicated to working with this cohort in anticipation of broadening and deepening the relational effort.
The elders looked around and were thrilled to see so many young people. The message: we have a future. The result? The best annual fundraising appeal in the history of the congregation.
The financial impact of the Generations Membership initiative has also been significant. The congregation calculates that offering complimentary membership and adding the FTE salaries for the engagement staff resulted in a total expense of $300,000. This amounts to an investment of $325 per household. Yet, the enthusiasm generated by the program is indisputable. The elders looked around and were thrilled to see so many young people. The message: we have a future. The result? The best annual fundraising appeal in the history of the congregation – $500,000. The previous high mark was $127,000.
In short, the congregation has radically transformed its demographics, increased engagement, and positioned the synagogue for a bright future. As Rabbi Wernick reported to the congregation, “Our approach to Relational Judaism has infused everything we do here. If biblical Judaism was about tamay and tahor – spiritual purity, and rabbinic Judaism was about mutar and assur – permitted and forbidden, then the emerging Jewish future is about relationships and shelaymut – wholeness. That’s our Beth Tzedec mission.”
Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education, American Jewish University, author of Relational Judaism.
Rabbi Steve Wernick is Senior Rabbi, Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto, Canada