The other day there was a web article in the New Jersey Jewish News about a “thirtysomething” couple who opened up a Chabad House in our town, Montclair, NJ.
Montclair is located 12 miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel. It attracts people from the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Park Slope in Brooklyn who are thinking about more of a suburban experience. It is usually at a time when it concerns young children. There is economic and racial diversity in Montclair, it is a reasonable commute to New York City, and has a pretty good school system.
There are two synagogues – Conservative and Reconstructionist, with two Reform synagogues in neighboring towns. There is even the Montclair Jewish Workshop for people who want their children to have a more secular Jewish education (I learned about this years ago from meeting someone on the train).
The information in the article that really caught my eye was that Ita and Yaacov Leaf, the founders of Chabad in Montclair, believe that 70% of the Jews living in Montclair are unaffiliated. I am not sure anyone really knows how many Jews there are in town. Not to be too wonky about it, according to the 2012 American Jewish Yearbook, the Jewish population of New Jersey is 5.8%. So of the 37,000+ residents of Montclair, it would be fair to say that approximately 2150 consider themselves to be Jewish.
The most recent Jewish community demographic study – in 2012 – found that 56% of the Jewish families in Montclair and the surrounding communities affiliate with synagogues. The flipside is that 44% of the population is unaffiliated. My gut says the number of unaffiliated is a bit higher in Montclair.
So maybe Chabad is on to something.
Reaching people who are not synagogue members is certainly one major challenge for all synagogues. Engaging people who already are members beyond their youngest child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah is another.
Years ago -before the Internet – ideas about how to reach adults after their college years included organizing activities at bars, nightclubs, and even Laundromats. Meeting people where they are at remains a timeless strategy.
Walking into a synagogue is a big step. Everyone, no matter what their age, wants to know that there are people involved who look like them – at a similar point in their life’s journey. There is a good chance that inviting young adults to a social event or even Shabbat worship where there are few of their peers to talk to and bond with might be their only visit for a while. Young couples with children will feel comfortable at Family Shabbat worship at 5:30 PM or 6:00 PM with other young families. Attending Shabbat worship at a later time is just not going to happen.
At the same time, Baby Boomers like me want to know that we have peers to talk to and hang out with as well.
Perhaps the voluntary contribution model will be one less barrier for people. I also think there is too much discussion about methods of transactions. People need to feel engaged, that they have friends, and that they are cared for. Focus on that, and the financial issues will be less of a challenge.