Synagogues strive to keep doors open to young members

January 27, 1991|By Diane Winston

Young, married and faced with mounting expenses, Lisa Kaufman has many choices to make. Housing, children, vacations, country clubs -- the siren song of spending opportunities is fast transforming this 26-year-old advertising account executive into a tough customer whose "B" list will probably include synagogue membership.

"We just got married eight months ago, and my husband just opened up a veterinary practice, so the timing isn't good for us," said Ms. Kaufman, a Baltimore native whose family belongs to Har Sinai, a Reform Jewish congregation.

"There are too many things which are taking priority in our lives, even though we feel strongly about our religious affiliation."

Ms. Kaufman isn't alone. Young people are not only the largest and fastest growing segment of unaffiliated Jews, but they also make up the biggest group that has opted out of church participation.

For Jews, one oft-cited reason not to affiliate is financial -- annual membership in many Reform congregations nationwide can cost $500 to $3,000.

Now, more than 200 of the denomination's 840 congregations in the United States and Canada are offering fee waivers: "Privilege Cards" to men and women ages 22 to 30 and "Access Cards" for college students.

"It's one way of saying that Mammon should not be seen as blocking the door to the churches and synagogues," Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, told the Associated Press. "We're removing an imagined unwelcome sign from that door."

Local rabbis say that that sign never hung from their doors. While most support the new program, they say they have always welcomed young people -- even when they could not pay.

"There is no financial obstacle to joining," said Rabbi Murray Saltzman of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, where yearly dues can range from zero to $3,000. "No one is ever turned away."

But the perception remains that people are turned away. That's because most Reform congregations require tickets -- available only to members or for hefty sums to non-members -- to High Holy Day services.

The Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, are the most important days in the Jewish year. Most congregations say they give free High Holy Day tickets to college students.

Under the new program, Jewish college students away from home would receive an "Access Card," entitling them to privileges at participating synagogues. Young adults graduating from college or entering the work force would automatically receive a similar "Privilege Card."

But some college students say their peers aren't clamoring for access -- free or otherwise.

"People who aren't Orthodox have a lot more interesting things to do on Friday night than to go to a religious service," said Steven Gerber, head of the Jewish Students Association at the Johns Hopkins University. "I don't think it's worthwhile to do this kind of thing, because the interest isn't there."

Mr. Gerber, who has organized Reform services on the Hopkins campus, said it would be more beneficial to bolster Jewish life on campus than to try to attract Jewish students to area congregations.

College-age students aren't the only ones sitting out services. Ms. Kaufman said she and her husband rarely go to synagogue.

"It's something we don't do often," she said. "But it becomes important when you have children. That's when you make a choice if you want them to have a religious education."

Both Ms. Kaufman and her husband, Jonathan, received their religious education at Har Sinai, which is participating in the new program. When Floyd Herman, the congregation's rabbi, married them, the couple received a free year's membership. That bonus ends in four months.

Regular membership dues at Har Sinai range from $905 to $1,200, but a single person under 25 might pay as little as $85 annually. A married couple under 30 without children would be asked to give $225.

Most rabbis say that if young people aren't willing to pay a minimal amount, they probably don't really want to join a temple.

"If someone really can't afford it, I tell them there is still a place for you," said Rabbi Donald Berlin of Congregation Oheb Shalom. "But if someone says it costs a lot, and I don't know whether I can afford it, then I tell them, 'It's where you place your value.' "

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