Congregations face varied problems from declining membership to building and staffing issues, while several alternative models are succeeding
With numbers continuing to dwindle at many major Ottawa synagogues, congregations are being challenged like never before to find new models to sustain themselves.
The issue is so pressing, said Ian Sherman, president of the Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom, that if the current rate of attrition continues, then the days of the traditional synagogue — with a rabbi, cantor and administrative staff — may soon be over.
Sherman was responding to the Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews released last month that found far fewer American Jews identify as “religious” than in the past. The ranks of American Jews identifying with the Conservative movement in particular have declined to 18 per cent from 41 per cent in 1971.
Sherman said his own congregation has shrunk and now attracts about 500 people on the High Holy Days, down from 1,800 in the 1970s.
“We have been losing a lot of money. All of the hard work the shul volunteers put in … the fruits of our efforts just don’t seem to be there. It’s very sad.”
Congregation Beth Shalom has sold its Chapel Street building and must move out by the end of March.
Talks to merge with Agudath Israel, Ottawa’s other major Conservative congregation, “have been challenging,” he said.
But ignoring fiscal realities would mean deferring the problem for a future board to face.
“At a certain point you really, really need to take tough decisions,” Sherman said. “If that is the reality of Jewish life … then your infrastructures need to be modified to deal with that reality. The traditional infrastructures are no longer feasible.”
With the move from the building it has occupied almost since the congregation was created in 1956 by the merger of two downtown congregations – Adath Jeshurun and Agudath Achim – imminent, and a merger with Agudath Israel far from certain, the Beth Shalom board advised congregants last month that temporary relocation sites “in the East End, in the West End and downtown” are being looked at and that Centrepointe Theatre has been reserved for the 2014 High Holy Days.
Membership is also a concern at Agudath Israel. Howard Levine, the congregation’s president, said the shul attracted only 20 new families in the past year. “It was disappointing,” Levine said adding that membership has been dropping by two to five per cent per year.
As well as a possible merger with Beth Shalom, permanent clergy is an issue of concern at Agudath Israel where Rabbi Barry Schlesinger was brought in from Israel on an interim basis, originally for one year, in 2011. A year-long extension will expire later this year.
A third Conservative congregation, the smaller Adath Shalom, is not encumbered by the infrastructure problems Sherman referred to as it has no office staff and meets on the Jewish Community Campus, usually in the chapel of the Ottawa Jewish Community School, but moving next door to the Soloway Jewish Community Centre when bar and bat mitzvahs and High Holy Day services attract larger crowds.
Meanwhile, several other Ottawa congregations are facing similar infrastructure and membership problems.
Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Alta Vista has declined by about one-third over the past 15 years, said Jonah Rabinovitch, president of Ottawa’s oldest Orthodox congregation. Now it has about 300 families.
One of its attractions has been its charismatic and indefatigable spiritual leader, Rabbi Reuven Bulka. But he is 69, and has been there since 1967.
While Machzikei Hadas is broadening its programing for young families in an attempt to boost membership, Young Israel of Ottawa, a traditional Orthodox synagogue in Westboro, is looking to strengthen attendance by bringing back congregants who have dispersed to smaller minyans in the area in recent years.
As Rabbi Ari Galandauer explained, there are four Orthodox services in the area on Shabbat morning, “so each is a little bit small.”
He said there have been group dynamics and issues that have arisen over the years which led to the emergence of the other Orthodox services in the area.
“My greatest goal is trying to bring [everyone] back together,” said Rabbi Galandauer.
Appealing to the unaffiliated is a goal of many congregations, including Temple Israel.
Mark Bowman, treasurer of Ottawa’s only Reform congregation, said that while the number of member families is stable at about 350, the shul is striving to refine communications and outreach to the unaffiliated.
The Temple Israel board must also start looking for a rabbi to replace its long-serving spiritual leader, Rabbi Steven Garten, who will retire soon.
Finding sufficient money to support initiatives, from communications and outreach to meaningful programming, is difficult for most congregations. Fees play a critical role in supporting congregations, but many young families now balk at the rates. Most charge annual membership fees ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand per family. But all adjust their fees for people who just can’t afford the full amount.
Some congregations have looked at lowering or dropping fees, but it’s a vicious circle. Without the money, they are unable to cover upkeep on the buildings, and continue to pay clergy and support staff.
Ellis Solomon, president of Congregation Beit Tikvah, an Orthodox synagogue in Craig Henry, said fundraising is difficult with many congregations and other Jewish organizations competing for money from the same pool of about 14,000 Jews in the city.
But not only are congregations competing for funds, they are also competing for time.
Working families often find it difficult to get to synagogue for Shabbat services that are several hours long. But what options are there? Should congregations change religious practice to accommodate kids’ hockey practice?
The answers aren’t clear, but some rabbis insist Ottawa’s Jews are still religious; they just want to find new ways to express it.
Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton became the first-ever permanent spiritual leader of Or Haneshamah, Ottawa’s Reconstructionist congregation earlier this year. The congregation began as a chavurah meeting in living rooms in 1987. Now, its 70 families meet at a Unitarian congregation in the west end.
Rabbi Bolton said Reconstructionism is “a new vision of Judaism that steps out of the Orthodox-to-Reform continuum. We’re a very limber movement. What that means is meeting in Quaker spaces, and we also meet in other synagogues.”
Rabbi Bolton said she wants to facilitate all the portals through which Jews of any age can connect with their culture and faith.
Chabad, with several locations in the city, including the Ottawa Torah Centre Chabad (OTC) in Barrhaven, is another growing movement in Ottawa. After years in a temporary structure, OTC is currently constructing a permanent building which is due to open in time for the High Holy Days next September.
While Chabad Lubavitch is a Chasidic movement, it serves as a religious outreach movement aimed at Jews of all denominational backgrounds and levels of observance.
According to the OTC’s Rabbi Menachem Blum, young families don’t accept synagogue membership as a given.
“It doesn’t cut it,” he said. “We need to be where they are, and speak their language and be with them,” noting upcoming Chanukah programs like the menorah lighting at Canadian Tire Centre during the Senators-Canucks game on November 28.
Orthodox Rabbi Michael Goldstein and his wife Stacy are also trying something different. Working with the religious outreach organization JET (Jewish Education through Torah); they established the Glebe Shul in 2011 as “a shul without walls” aimed at “students, young professionals and new families.” Glebe Shul activities mostly centre on social events, classes and Shabbat dinners in the Goldsteins’ Fifth Avenue home.
“For dinner, we can squish in 48 and we always have a waiting list,” said Rabbi Goldstein.
Do other synagogues and congregations feel like the Glebe Shul is skimming the young people?
“At first there was a feeling that we were getting into the shul business in a place that’s already overpopulated with shuls,” but Rabbi Goldstein said the Glebe Shul doesn’t want to position itself as competition.
“People confuse marketing and sales. They are very different things,” he explained.
He said most of the mainstream congregations do a lot of marketing, with great programs, lovely facilities, and lot of good flyers and posters. But then nobody comes and they are disappointed. The Glebe Shul, he said, uses the opposite approach – sales – making one-to-one pitches to individuals, saying, ‘Attend this event. You’ll like it.’
“We’re heavy into sales and that’s coming through.”
Meanwhile, after Beth Shalom leaves its building in about four months, the only remaining downtown synagogue will be Ohev Yisroel, a tiny, Orthodox congregation of 25 families on Rideau Street.
President Heshel Teitelbaum said the small synagogue keeps its doors open by being receptive to all, attracting travellers and students in the downtown area.
So, while many traditional congregations continue to deal with the challenges illustrated in the Pew report, some of Ottawa’s alternative synagogue options appear to be finding ways to redefine what it means to serve the Jewish community’s desire for organized religion.
As they look for their own new way forward, leaders of many Ottawa synagogues will likely be taking note of what has happened at Or Haneshamah since the arrival of Rabbi Bolton, the city’s first female rabbi. The Reconstructionist congregation has seen an increase in memberships of nearly 10 per cent in the last few months alone, and many more people are asking questions about joining.