Synagogues look for ways to stem the empty nest exodus.
Few in the non-Orthodox Jewish community deny the problem: an exodus of many empty nesters once their children have attained a significant Jewish milestone, whether it’s the bar or bat mitzvah, confirmation or Hebrew high school graduation.
And the departure of empty nesters, many of them baby boomers, presents a compelling challenge to synagogue leaders.
“Why do families whose children have had their Jewish life-cycle milestones choose to leave synagogue life?” asked Andi Rosenthal, planning executive with Synergy, the synagogue services department of UJA-Federation of New York. “What are the qualities needed to help them discover, and rediscover, synagogue life?”
Rosenthal was discussing the issue with clergy, executive directors and volunteers at the JCC of Mid-Westchester during a recent presentation of the initial findings of Synergy’s ongoing research project, “The Empty Nester Study.”
The first phase of the research, conducted by B3/ The Jewish Boomer Platform, revealed that synagogues can’t count on empty nesters to remain affiliated or engaged the way their parents did.
“Continuity is not simply a forward moving vehicle,” Rosenthal said in a follow-up interview. “We had the assumption that people would always be there for us. We need to address that cohort. The research shows that 54 percent of active outreach is not geared to the empty nesters, but to targeting young families.”
Adina Frydman, Synergy’s executive director, said that more research is needed. “The strongest drop-off point is in the post bar/bat mitzvah stage. This raises a whole host of questions. What is the perception out there? What’s in it for adults, beyond their children?”
For many empty nesters, a search for more spirituality and meaning in their personal practice of Judaism has led them to classes and courses beyond their home synagogues. Similarly, a non-spiritual search for meaning in their volunteer lives often takes them outside Jewish institutions, volunteering instead for alumni associations, cultural groups political organizations or other non-profits.
In the non-synagogue world, it’s often easier for volunteers to work on projects that interest them or are suited to their talents; boomers may feel that synagogues are not responsive to their desire to pursue meaningful work. In addition, these other organizations may be quicker to extend expressions of appreciation.
As David Elcott of B3 noted, “If they’re seeking meaning, or gratitude and appreciation, the Jewish community is not the best place to go.”
According to Elcott, 86 percent of baby boomers would prefer to volunteer through the Jewish community. But, he said, “Nearly two-thirds are prepared to go elsewhere for meaningful public service engagement.”
He noted another shift. Many baby boomers, instead of going to organizations looking to answer the question, “What can I do to serve?” now ask, “What can the Jewish community do to serve me?”
It doesn’t help that some synagogues respond by offering undifferentiated programming for the empty-nest set, without recognizing that baby boomers span an age range of 50 to 68, with different needs, desires and expectations.
Frydman noted that synagogues also face increasing competition with other “leisure activities” for empty nesters’ attention — and discretionary dollars — pointing out that if social networks aren’t in the synagogue, keeping empty nesters as members is often problematic.
She identified Temple Beth El, a Conservative congregation in New Rochelle, as a positive role model. For many years, the synagogue has had a program that connects families, whose children are classmates, with frequent Shabbat dinners in people’s homes, which has helped establish strong social bonds that keep those families engaged with the congregation even after the bar/bat mitzvah milestone has occurred.
Although currently there are more questions than answers, Synergy officials hope to release a set of strategies for congregations to try by next winter.
But for several of the synagogue professionals in attendance, simply focusing on these issues and launching a process to address them is a good start.
“The research reflects our concerns,” said Barbara Merson, executive director of Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners. “We would like to spend more time thinking about this question.”
“The key thing tonight is that we want you to leave with clarity of the questions to ask,” said Stuart Himmelfarb of B3. He urged synagogue leaders to rethink their approach to membership and involvement. Some possibilities could include ways to help empty nesters and baby boomers view synagogues more as a “tapas,” or small plate model, than a set menu of offerings, according to Himmelfarb, who is president of The Jewish Week’s board of directors.
Perhaps the dues structure could be changed, or volunteer opportunities could be tailored to a desire for shorter time commitments, and incorporate more meaningful activities.
Baby boomers are less willing than their parents to spend a decade or more moving up the typical synagogue organizational food chain, from serving on a committee or chairing a particular program, to ultimately becoming a trustee or board officer.
“Synagogues can learn from Hillel,” said Elcott. “They understand episodic engagement. They don’t expect people to show up all the time.” Similarly, when people leave synagogues, he said, it’s not helpful to perceive that as “treason.”
“Fidelity,” he said, “may not mean the same thing to them.”
As attrition rates continue to rise, the process to understand, and engage, Jewish empty nesters and baby boomers, continues.
As Frydman said, “We’re learning as we’re going.”
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