Making The Sparks Fly
arah Cohen is a 26-year-old temple staff member
who makes Judaism speak to 20- and 30-some-
things. She loves engaging them in congregational
When she arrived at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los
Angeles 16 months ago, she found 500 largely uninspired
young congregants. "There was very little programming and
most came just for the High Holy Days," said Cohen, the
The challenge invigorated her.
"I wanted to build a large family where
people can share, celebrate or cry without
pressures of trying to impress," she said.
She knew instilling a sense of community
among the group members was key to mov-
And that wouldn't be easy, given
their disparate backgrounds. Some
had come from abroad. Many were
ROBERT A. new to L.A. Others had parents
who were members.
"We become an extended family,
but without the guilt," Cohen said.
- No doubt it takes a person with the energy and
drive to stay the course in seeking to embrace this
next generation of Jewish leaders — many spiritually Crane
Cohen is such a person.
She was a workshop panelist on Nov. 7 at the
Reform movement's biennial at the Minneapolis
Convention Center. The panel described ways to
make synagogue pulsate for this too-often-forgotten
The give-and-take was born from the "Striking
Sparks, Sharing Ruach!" young adult track at the
2001 biennial in Boston. A quarter of all U.S. Jews
are between ages 20 and 40, the majority unaffiliat-
Cohen's message connected with the 175 work-
shop-goers, from college age up. She's membership
director of a temple with 3,200 families, but is corn-
mitted to advising any congregation desperate for a
grip on striking sparks on their turf.
Cohen said her young congregant leadership team
is empowered with the agenda of meeting their
interests and needs through programming and expe-
riences they can be proud of. Programming hits five areas:
social action, learning, Shabbat and holidays, sports leagues,
Cohen stressed the personal touch. Get to know group
members in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way that
says, "I care." She tells of how the group comforted one of
their own when his father died last year.
Catchy tides help, but programs that compete with other
Jewish or secular events that appeal to the same age group
won't succeed. Go to where young people are, instead of
waiting for them to walk in the door. Nurture their involve-
ment. Have peers make the connection. And don't hold
events the same day of the week.
"Everyone has busy schedules," Cohen said. "I want them
to know I am flexible and I care about their outside lives."
Stephen S. Wise Temple has 600 members from ages 23
to 32. Until age 33, they pay $160 dues. It helps that Cohen
has the full support of clergy and lay leaders.
A New Model
Three-thousand miles east of L.A., Temple Israel in Boston
is up 360 members between ages 21 and 35 over the past
three years. They paid $36 dues the first year. Half of them
renewed for a second year with dues of about $300.
The activity-based Riverway Project at the 1,600-family
temple draws young, unaffiliated Jews with a spiritual thirst.
"Sixty percent of our congregation is over 60," said Rabbi -
Jeremy Morrison, 32. "We knew we had to bring in
younger members to have a future."
Yes, young members don't require all the services of older
members and their programming is usually less costly, but
many have no positive synagogue memories, I thought to
Rabbi Morrison said he got an earful when he held small,
neighborhood house meetings. "Almost to a person, they
said, 'When I think of a synagogue, I think of a
country club. I think you are in it for the money.'
They hit me hard."
Charging $36 is the best tool, he said, to ease
their tension and open the door to showing them
what synagogue can do for them.
"At $36," he said, "there is no cost-benefit analy-
sis for them. Once they get to know a synagogue as
they connect with it, they're willing to say that this
has tremendous worth to them. They're then willing
to pay more to support it."
I don't know if the magic number is $160, $36
or quadruple chai. But a dues amount that debunks
the country club image seems a must.
The rabbi affirmed my belief that you need to
ask young people — whether single, married, new
parents, converts or gay — for program ideas and
about how to make their Judaism resonate.
Clearly, it's about uniting younger and older .gen-
erations as synagogue stakeholders through the art
of dialogue. "This is what is thrilling about 20- and
30-somethings," Rabbi Morrison said. "They force
us to change who we are."
Easing The Fear
Jeremy Crane, 26, who works in real estate invest-
ment and management, co-chaired the workshop
and is a board member of the Jewish Federation of
Metropolitan Detroit's Young Adult Division.
"What works in Detroit may not work in Los
Angeles or New York," he said. "Perform your market
research, even going as far as creating a mission statement
for your 20s-30s group."
Crane, active at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, said
something that should linger in every synagogue board-
room: "Affiliation and Jewish identification should be the
goal — not where or when the affiliation will happen."
He said peers want to wear Judaism on their sleeve
beyond the High Holidays. They would consider joining a
synagogue, but fear being out of place, especially if they
don't have children. They don't feel they belong.
"The fear of being the only 20s-30s in a synagogue pro-
gram is frightening to almost everyone," Crane said.
"Getting the idea out to 20s-30s that 'you are not alone in
your desire to find a Jewish spiritual identity' is crucial."
Sarah Cohen summed it up well: "This age group will try
anything once if they trust the leaders and see them as
someone they can relate to."
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