How Do Synagogues Define Members in a Time of Changing Family Demographics?


Picture the typical synagogue family in the Philadelphia area. What do you see? Young parents and young kids? Maybe middle-aged parents and teenagers?

OK, maybe that’s an outdated picture in an era of declining synagogue attendance. Perhaps today, the more typical temple family is just an older couple. Or, if not quite old yet, they are an empty-nester couple with kids who just moved out.

But that’s not quite right, either. The reality, instead, is this: In 2022/5782 (and almost 5783), there is no typical synagogue family anymore.

Like people, synagogues today contain multitudes. There are young parents with young kids and middle-aged parents with teenagers. There are empty-nesters and old couples. There are singles and non-Jews.

Philadelphia-area shuls do not even use the word “family” to describe a congregant group. Two Orthodox rabbis said they define their members as “individuals.” A non-denominational rabbi said the same thing. Several Conservative and Reform leaders use the terms “households” and “membership units.” A Reconstructionist rabbi explained that he counts someone as a member when he gets their email address.

But all of those descriptions adhere to the same Jewish principle. In the Torah, God tells the Jews to care for orphans, widows and strangers. And in explaining their modern approach to defining members, rabbis expressed a desire to turn no Jewish person, aspiring convert or Jewish-adjacent person away.

“We fully understand and appreciate that a member could be a single person,” said Rabbi Geri Newburge of Main Line Reform Temple-Beth Elohim in Wynnewood. “Or it could be a household of six or seven.”

Rabbi Isaac Leizerowski of the Orthodox Congregation Beth Midrash HaRav B’Nai Jacob in Philadelphia does not feel a need to define his members; he said all individuals are welcome to pray in his synagogue. (Photo by Duskis Photo)

According to Rabbi Isaac Leizerowski, the leader of the Orthodox Congregation Beth Midrash HaRav B’Nai Jacob in Philadelphia, there’s a Jewish adage from the Talmud that says “each person is a world unto themselves.”

So, Leizerowski tries not to count his congregants by the amount who pay dues. His shul does have a membership structure, and there are about 80 people who pay. The regular attendees understand that the lights need to stay on, the rabbi explains.

But the Philadelphia congregation also lets in anyone who wants to pray. As Leizerowski put it, that individual could be a 15-year-old boy or an 85-year-old man.

“You never know who’s going to be a positive contributor,” he said. “You never know from whence the salvation will sprout.”

Another Orthodox rabbi, Binyomin Davis of Aish Chaim in Bala Cynwyd, also has official members, about 100. A majority of them are families, but there are plenty of singles, too.

And for events, Aish Chaim is not a “ticket-only place.” The synagogue offers a “non-member option,” Davis said.

“If people want to attend services, they just sign up,” he added. “We don’t want money to be an issue.”

Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and non-denominational communities agree with this Orthodox inclusivity toward all individuals. But their branches of Judaism are more tied to prevailing conditions in secular society, and so their congregational definitions are, too.

As Rabbi Jeff Sultar of the Conservative Congregation B’nai Jacob in Phoenixville explained, “people’s perceptions of families have changed.” Today, “the sense of a household is broader than the sense of a family.”

Sultar’s community includes nuclear families, empty-nesters and singles. Since B’nai Jacob is in a suburb, most of its members are not singles. But the rabbi nonetheless defines them all as households.

“Calling it family is exclusionary if you have a single member,” he said.

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park defines her congregants as households because she says it’s a more inclusive term. (Courtesy of Rabbi Leah Berkowitz)

Rabbi Leah Berkowitz of the Reform Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park also prefers the term households. Her community includes people who are co-parenting, people who are divorced and people who are widowed. The rabbi’s family is “spread out over several households,” she said.

None of those categories necessarily exist outside of the family definition. But they might, depending on how people classify their arrangements. And temple leaders should work to make those members feel equal to households with two married parents and two children.

“The mindset is changing,” Berkowitz said. “The world is becoming more cognizant that not everybody is living in that ideal of a nuclear family.”

A synagogue, according to Rabbi Aaron Gaber of the Conservative Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, is a house of prayer, a house of learning and a house of gathering. And as Rabbi Nathan Weiner of the Conservative Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, New Jersey, adds, it should serve those purposes for anyone whose “spiritual journey includes Judaism.” In turn, members should pray, learn and gather in their households as well, regardless of who they live with.

“The other thing about household is it puts the emphasis on a house,” Sultar said. “It’s not just a synagogue-based community. Judaism is very much in the home.” JE

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