At one point in its history, the century-old United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was perhaps the largest and most prominent Jewish organization in the United States, claiming as many as 1.5 million members. Today, its approximately 850 congregations have dwindled to 630 in all of North America, and a recent spate of articles in Jewish-oriented media noted the United Synagogue dipped into $5.7 million of reserve funds to finance expansion projects, a move some deemed unwise.
In Howard County, Maryland, according to an online study published at jewishdatabank.org, only about 30 percent of Jews identify themselves as “Conservative.” There are just two Conservative congregations in the District of Columbia, according to the United Synagogue’s online directory. In short: Like many “mainstream” or “old-line” Protestant denominations, the United Synagogue is facing serious marketing challenges. Branded as “not too frum,” the Yiddish word for pious, and “not too free,” referring to the rival Reform and Reconstructionist wings of Judaism, there is a struggle to capture people who no longer live in concentrated urban neighborhoods, for whom a long weekly trek across a county to find a synagogue would be a hassle.
“What used to be assumptions can’t be assumptions anymore,” Barry Mael, the United Synagogue’s director of kehila (congregational) operations and finance, told me in a recent telephone interview. “Synagogues now are dealing with a lot of people in the Jewish community who are more consumer-oriented. [They are looking to see] if the community has something to offer them.”
Asked what is going into that decision-making process, Mr. Mael said there were “lot of factors that people might look at. What you’re comfortable with, from when you grew up. There is not as much an allegiance among denominational lines” anymore, he said.
In short, if it’s a choice between a Conservative congregation without a good preschool and a Reformed synagogue with one that is closer to a person’s home, the Reformed temple might win out.
“Also, people tend to move in and out of congregational life more than they did in past generations,” Mr. Mael said. “Someone might join for a period of time, whether it’s to have their child educated, preschool, [or] they might be saying kaddish” — the Jewish prayer for the dead.
If a congregation “met my need for right now, they might come back again,” Mr. Mael said.
Meanwhile, the United Synagogue is reaching out to bring younger Jews into the fold — and give them a reason to stay. Mr. Mael said the group is attempting to “build connection to our [members in their] 20s and 30s. There are a number of micro-grants to communities working with younger populations, to keep them connected to the movement. [We’re] trying to see where those future members are coming from, and also trying to see where we can create new communities in parts of the country where Jews are moving.”
Rabbi Steven C. Wernick, United Synagogue’s CEO, said the organization is making progress, albeit slowly.
“We [are] by no means, and I’m the first to own the challenges and the issues the organization has, out of the woods. We have significant challenges, but we are addressing them,” Mr. Wernick said from his New York City office.
The group is “in the second year of a three-year strategic plan implementation,” he said. The United Synagogue “retooled ourselves and refocused and aligned ourselves around the value proposition of working with sacred communities, traditional and nontraditional, in terms of growth,” he added.
United Synagogue officials say they serve 200,000 households and more than 1 million people.
There is, Mr. Wernick said, some irony to the position of a synagogue in Jewish community life: “The vast majority of Jews today gain their Jewish learning through their synagogues. Eighty percent of Jewish families at some point in their lives belong to a synagogue.”
However, the synagogue connection “also happens to be the weakest” link in the Jewish network. Many, if not most, children in Conservative congregations attend “supplemental” Hebrew education, as I did decades ago at the then-United Synagogue-affiliated Rego Park Jewish Center in Queens, New York.