Startup congregations are attracting growing numbers of unaffiliated and those disillusioned by established temples.
When her oldest son was about to enter third grade in 2011, Janet Schwartzman of Woodbury, L.I., then a single mother of two, began looking around for a synagogue in which to enroll him in Hebrew school.
“I needed a synagogue I could afford,” she said.
When she found out that Rabbi Alan Stein, whom she already knew, was starting a synagogue right down the road from her, “it seemed like a no-brainer to go there. And I was thrilled that his dad would be joining him, because I had enjoyed his beautiful voice when he was the cantor in Melville.”
Rabbi Alan Stein is a lawyer and part-time spiritual leader of Temple Shalom, and his father, Stephen Stein, is the former cantor at Temple Beth Torah. Dues at Temple Shalom are $360 compared with about $2,000 at many established synagogues, and there is no building fund, something that can run several thousand dollars.
A few weeks after joining the new synagogue, she met her future husband, Adam Scheiner, at a Friday night service; Rabbi Stein officiated at their wedding last December.
“We’ve made some really great friends there from the local neighborhood,” she said. “My son likes Hebrew school; they make the learning fun. … It has given us a real sense of community, and Rabbi Alan’s uplifting and spiritual weekly sermons leave my family feeling very connected to Judaism.”
Rabbi Stein’s synagogue, which he said is expected to attract 200 families for the High Holy Days, is one of several low-cost synagogues that have opened in recent years on Long Island. They attract unaffiliated Jews as well as congregants from established synagogues who are unhappy with their synagogue’s politics, upset with a teacher or feel disconnected from the life of the congregation. Most are young couples with children of Hebrew school age. And their numbers appear to be growing.
The startups’ presence has angered leaders of many established synagogues, particularly those who have lost members to them. While two established synagogues fought back this month by eliminating Hebrew school tuition and their building fund, the competition was too much for another, the 200-member Temple Beth Elohim in Old Bethpage. In July, the Reform temple closed its doors and merged with the North Shore Synagogue in Syosset.
“They clearly undercut other synagogues in the area,” said a Beth Elohim leader, referring to the startups. “We had been having other issues before, but their opening was the nail in the coffin.”
Nevertheless, members of Temple Shalom whom Rabbi Stein put in contact with The Jewish Week voiced nothing but satisfaction with their decision to join.
Erika Hecker, 40, of Plainview and the mother of a 5-year-old and 10-year-old, said she and her husband joined Temple Shalom when it opened because it was time for their daughter to enter Hebrew school. It was the first time they had joined a synagogue as a couple.
“Although there are a lot of choices of synagogues in Plainview, I did not feel there was a lot of diversity,” she said. “Cost wise they are similar and are either Reform or Conservative. Those that are Reform have a lot of English, and the Conservative Hebrew schools are three days a week. This one is one day a week, and although it is Reform, there is a more traditional flair to the service.”
In addition, Hecker said she joined with 10 friends in the belief they could “make the new temple into what we want it to be.”
Asked about its low cost, she said, “money is a factor” because “it would not bother” her husband, Russ, if her children never went to Hebrew school, while for her it is a must.
“There is only so much extra money and sadly these days, given a choice between a family vacation and temple, most people take a vacation,” Hecker said. “This is an option that allows people to do both.”
Until now Rabbi Stein has held Hebrew school in his law office. This month, however, the school is moving to rented classrooms at the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County in Plainview.
“It’s nice we have outgrown our space in two years,” Hecker said. “It shows [Rabbi Stein] has hit a nerve in terms of need in the community. There needs to be a low-cost synagogue with a one-day-a-week Hebrew school. And we are still small and the rabbi knows your name. What you hear in the neighborhood is that in other synagogues you are a number, that they feel they are like factories and a business — and that it’s not personal.”
Asked about the outrage from established synagogues towards the low-cost synagogues, Hecker replied: “I think [the new synagogues] are pulling in people who were planning on doing nothing or were going to just do bar and bat mitzvah tutoring [for their children]. … It’s grabbing some people who would not have had a synagogue membership altogether.”
The new congregations are also attracting disgruntled members of established synagogues, including Beth and Craig Shapiro of Plainview, who were members of a Reform synagogue for seven years. They left after the congregation did not renew the rabbi’s contract and they had a personality conflict with their child’s teacher.
“There are temples all over the place, so we had a lot of options” in selecting a new synagogue, she said.
At Temple Shalom, Beth Shapiro said they couldn’t be happier.
“There is a huge sense of community and companionship, which is something very different from what we had experienced before,” she said. “This is the first time we were ever a part of a temple and [involved in] making decisions. We’re glad we did it.”
Shapiro said she found that some people joined the synagogue because of its low cost in order to have a bar/bat mitzvah and that others joined “to have a new sense of community. I wanted my son to have a better sense of his Jewish roots and a Jewish education and Jewish identity. Having the Hebrew school in HANC will make the temple have a more professional feel and create different expectations in the classroom.”
Another low-cost synagogue, West Hills Torah Center in Huntington, grew from 17 students in its Hebrew school when it opened in 2009 to 106, according to its spiritual leader, Rabbi Yitschak Hassine, who is a member of the Chabad movement. Hebrew school tuition is $900 — everything else is free.
Stefanie Simon and her husband, Russell, joined West Hills the year it opened. They had been members of a Conservative congregation for about eight years but left “because they were too demanding about Hebrew school — they wanted at least two or three days a week and all of my kids’ friends were at a [Reform] synagogue with only one-day-a-week Hebrew school. So we went there.”
Simon said they also left “because of some practices we did not agree with — like [the Conservative synagogue] wanting my daughters to wear a yarmulke in the temple. I would want my son to wear a yarmulke, but my daughters were not comfortable doing it. And after having some other issues, I said we have to be done here.”
Simon said her oldest daughter, Heather, had a Sunday afternoon bat mitzvah at a country club after two and a half years of Hebrew school at West Hills.
“All of my friends hired tutors, but she didn’t need any additional tutoring [in Hebrew] and didn’t make one mistake,” Simon said. “I will start my son in the Hebrew school next year. My friend started her son a year before his bar mitzvah.”
Among the rabbis upset with the low-cost synagogues is Deborah Bravo, North Shore’s senior rabbi, who said it is “unfortunate that in a community already saturated with synagogues that more places are opening on the corner.”
“I came from New Jersey, where it is not as prevalent but it’s starting there,” she said. “I’m on the executive committee of the [Reform movement’s] Central Conference of American Rabbis, and we are seeing it all over. But just because someone puts up a shul sign does not mean members will have the same opportunities or that the staff is trained the same way. Our staff graduated from respected institutions.”
Rabbi Stein received his rabbinical degree in 1995 after three years of study in an Orthodox yeshiva, the now-defunct Tifereth Yisrael Rabbinical Yeshiva in Sayville, L.I. He graduated from law school a year earlier, and because of his busy schedule he has not sought admission to any major national or local rabbinic organizations.
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said he is aware of the problems created by low-cost synagogues that “simply insert themselves into the community and offer free services.”
“There is such as thing as communal integrity, and before going in there should be a dialogue with the leaders of the community,” he said. “Offering free services and a quick fix does not address the problem of attracting the unaffiliated. People may walk in, but they will walk out rather quickly. You need to be creative and not offer an instant approach that is superficial and not substantive.”
Rabbi Stein has adopted a “pay-as-you-go” dues model, that, according to the Temple Shalom website, is designed to attract Jews “who are not affiliated with a synagogue due to exorbitant dues, building funds and other fees. … Rather than paying $2,500 per family for just dues plus a building fund (where all the services you don’t need are included) … each person or family pays for the services they need...”
Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, director of Chabad of Long Island, criticized that approach, saying: “A synagogue is not like a McDonald’s where you have a checklist and pay as you go. It sounds like a menu of rabbinical services, which to me are not what we as rabbis are here for. A synagogue builds community and relationships.”
He noted that 32 Chabad Houses have opened on Long Island in the last 35 years serving thousands of Jews and that they are largely supported by donations. Asked about an ad for the Chabad of Huntington that offered bar/bat mitzvah training and promised “no Hebrew school required, no synagogue membership required, choose your day for classes, choose your location for your celebration,” Rabbi Teldon said it was placed to attract the unaffiliated.
Citing figures from the UJA-Federation of New York’s Jewish population survey of 2011, he that about 60 percent of Jews in the Commack-Dix Hills-Melville area are not affiliated with a synagogue.
“There is a crisis going on here and someone has to be there to reach out and create avenues of engagement with the least amount of obstacles possible,” Rabbi Teldon explained. “Chabad is dedicated to offering the unaffiliated a comfortable gateway into the Jewish community. Hopefully this will create an avenue through which they make connections to the overall Jewish community, either by joining Chabad or another synagogue in the community.”
Asked about another Chabad rabbi, Yitschak Hassine, who in 2009 opened West Hills Synagogue, just a short distance from the Chabad of Huntington, Rabbi Teldon said Rabbi Hassine is not affiliated with Chabad of Long Island.
“I think it’s counterproductive,” he said.
Rabbi Hassine’s synagogue operates out of his home, and Hebrew school classes are conducted in his garage and in a room in his home.
“You might want a nice building, but parents feel their children are getting a Jewish education and don’t seem to mind,” he said, adding that had he the space he would offer two- and three-day Hebrew school.
“The Hebrew school is giving us an opportunity to create a community,” he said. “A lot of temples are very big. I don’t think a rabbi can handle more than 100 or 150 families. I think there is a personal connection that is lacking in synagogues with 600 people.”
But Susie Heneson Moskowitz, associate rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Melville and immediate past president of the Long Island Board of Rabbis, said her congregation numbers more than 600 families and “I know everybody.”
Asked about dues, Rabbi Moskowitz said the congregation reduces them for families unable to pay the entire amount.
“We no longer require them to show their tax forms — it is more of an honor system,” she said, adding that she is now serving on a UJA-Federation of New York committee, through its SYNERGY program, examining alternative dues models.
“The old model of people belonging to a synagogue for life is changing,” she said. “Even other organizations are not doing lifetime memberships anymore. We have to make some gutsy moves and implement radical changes to create a sustainable model for the future.”
Rabbi Hassine scoffed at the idea of eliminating Hebrew school tuition to compete with the low-cost synagogues.
“It’s not a smart thing to do,” he said. “It’s like doing plastic surgery on a dead body. What they need to do is to put life back into Judaism.”
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