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Synagogue membership? There are reasons to 
be hopeful

New research shows shul membership in decline, with central Orthodoxy down 37 per cent. But a former leader of the United Synagogue suggests the fall is far smaller

    Rear Shot of a Man Sitting in a Synagogue
    Rear Shot of a Man Sitting in a Synagogue

    Following last week’s JPR report, it is important to spell out what this data means for the United Synagogue. Although the study did not supply specific data for the US, we recognise that as by far the largest synagogue movement of any denomination, we form a large proportion of centrist Orthodoxy within the UK. The statistics don’t lie but nor do they reveal the whole story.

    As Dr Jonathan Boyd, one of the report’s authors pointed out, it is not surprising that the number of Orthodox Jewish households has fallen given that there are fewer Jewish households in the country.

    In 1990, the census showed 340,000 Jews compared to 270,000 in 2011 — a reduction of 20 per cent. So the key point is how the proportion of centrist Orthodox families has changed over that time.

    The answer is that there has indeed been a reduction but it is a small one, 1.9 per cent over the last fiveyears and 2.1 per cent for the previous five years. This represents a decline that most certainly needs to be addressed, but it is not the haemorrhaging that some have suggested.

    Another factor we need to consider is that engagement in the community as a whole has changed. There are more Jewish schools than ever before, more teachers and more rabbis. Following our Strategic Review we have looked to address communal needs differently and in new geographic locations. That has meant we have welcomed synagogues like Sheffield, Birmingham and Boundary Road, in Waltham Forest, and are investing in new shuls like Ahavas Yisrael, Magen Avot, Mill Hill East and Hatfield. Each base brings centrist Orthodoxy to a different audience.

    Interestingly, over the last six years the number of US members has actually increased by over 500. This doesn’t happen by accident and it is important we continue to partner with the wider centrist community to attract as many members as possible.

    This increasing partnership helps us to welcome members from new areas as our community moves and changes and allows us to offer more opportunities to existing members who may want to move or be closer to family.

    In areas where the community is declining, we are able to share best practice and manage those changes so that the communities affected remain vibrant for as long as possible.

    That being said, sadly we deal with many burials a year and we also lose members through aliyah and those joining other shuls — particularly to the right.

    While some progress has been made, centrist Orthodoxy needs to understand its membership and constantly adapt to the challenges of our day.

    We have seen the success of youth-oriented initiatives like Minyan on the Move, Cholent Fest and the growth of Tribe. The US is now about so much more than attending services on a Shabbat morning or a venue for life-cycle events. We are proud that we have been able to expand and incorporate more events than ever before.

    There is still a long way to go on issues ranging from the role of women to how our communities interact with the ever growing strictly Orthodox community. But that should not overshadow the progress that has been made or the fact that more Jews in the UK buy into our ethos than any other.

    Looking to the future, I believe that if the US stays true to its values and continues to build dynamic congregations then its membership will remain engaged. Complacency is our enemy and I am confident that under our new team of Trustees we will rise to the challenge and membership will continue to flourish.

     

    Stephen Pack is former president of the United Synagogue

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