Jewish Federation of Rockland to measure “pulse” of county’s Jewish community

BY CHERYL SLAVIN

In an effort to assess the current needs and predict the future mindset of Rockland County’s Jewish population, Jewish Federation of Rockland has launched its first ever survey to get a better understanding of synagogue membership trends and Jewish communal engagement within the county. The survey is part of a larger endeavor by the Federation’s “Rockland Jewish Initiative” to “better understand the past, present and future of synagogue life in Rockland County, and consider ways to engage or re-engage congregants.”

The mission of the Rockland Jewish Initiative, originally conceived by in 2012 by Federation Board Vice President Lisa Green, is to “energize synagogue life in Rockland through partnerships in synagogue transformation.” According to RJI Director Cantor Barry Kanarek, the need for such an initiative arose out of the general perception of non-orthodox Jewish leadership over the past few years that an increasing number of Rockland’s non-orthodox Jewish population were choosing not to affiliate with a synagogue or otherwise outwardly participate in Jewish communal life through organizations or activities.

“We saw the need for synagogue transformation,” he explains, “a need to keep up with the times and reflect the changing relationships our community has had with synagogues and other institutions.

Kanarek explains that there have been national or general studies done on changing trends and attitudes within the Jewish population, most notably one recently conducted by the Pew Research Center, but that county Jewish leadership felt the need to specifically focus on the needs within Rockland. He also noted that the Rockland situation was a little different than that nationally; there is an unusually large ultra-orthodox population juxtaposed with the presence of a more modern, secular community.

The RJI developed the idea for the survey along with the Rockland County Board of Rabbis, a coalition comprised of 11 non-orthodox Rockland congregations: six identify as conservative or egalitarian conservative, four as reform, and one as “traditional.”

“There are a significant number of unaffiliated families within Rockland and the surrounding areas such as North Bergen,” notes Rabbi Craig Scheff, President of the Board of Rabbis, and one of the clergy at Orangetown Jewish Center. In his view, the main objective of the survey is to find ways to “reach out, connect and embrace” those families and individuals so as to make Jewish affiliation a more appealing choice for them.

Federation Board member Rabbi Paula Drill, also of the Orangetown Jewish Center, concurs. “We need to know what’s here within our community that will attract newcomers to affiliate with synagogue life,” she says. One of the biggest challenges to greater involvement, she adds, is affordability, the price of dues to “belong” to a congregation. She perceives that younger individuals might question what value they are getting for their investment, and notes that synagogues are being challenged to rethink programming and services in order to remain compelling and relevant. She looks forward to learning if the results of the survey will bear her out, or if they reveal some other needs or trends.

The current survey is actually the second one issued by the RJI. The first polled only synagogue leadership, to ascertain their thoughts and perceptions on membership and other trends. Based on those findings and other input, the RJI commissioned Dr. David Elcott and Stuart Himmelfarb of B3/The Jewish Boomer Platform and the NYU Wagner School of Public Service to design the current questionaire.