Jonathan Goldstein, 51, describes himself as a congregant, daily minyan attendee and Shabbos regular at Adath Israel on the Main Line.
His children, ages 18, 15 and 13, have all gone through Hebrew school and the bar/bat mitzvah process at the Merion Station community on North Highland Avenue. Goldstein and his wife are part of a group of 12 families who eat together, travel and even play Dungeons & Dragons.
All of this started when they first walked into the Conservative synagogue and met each other many years ago. There was an energy in the air, Goldstein recalled.
“When you come and join our synagogue, one of the things that’s self-evident is that the gravity is around new families,” he said. “When you come to our shul, on Shabbos, there are 100 children running around.”
Goldstein spoke in the present tense because this energy continues today. Adath Israel did not lose members before, during or after COVID, according to synagogue leaders. It has remained stable at about 750-800 families. Plenty of older families have left, but they have been replaced by younger households.
Rabbi Andrew Markowitz, who works full-time at the synagogue but is filling in during Rabbi Eric Yanoff’s sabbatical, said the Saturday morning Shabbat crowd has gotten younger since the pandemic started. And Adath Israel’s Early Childhood Learning Center has more than 120 students, with more waiting to get in.
“We’re stable and healthy,” the rabbi said. “We’re not declining in any way.”
Adath Israel attracts young parents with its preschool and religious school programs. According to Markowitz, the Conservative institution turns 50-60% of its preschool families into congregants. And then it offers programs “attached to that” that provide options for the whole family.
Recently, the shul introduced a class called “The Home We Build Together” consisting of 10 young families learning how to create a Jewish household with Jewish values. Most of those members were not Shabbat regulars before taking the course, but they became weekly attendees after they completed it.
More recently, Adath Israel leaders hired a social worker to organize a post-partum group and an aging group for people who wanted safe spaces to talk about both topics. Many Early Childhood Learning Center parents are active in the synagogue’s Parent-Teacher Organization. Many are also Mitzvah Players, meaning they perform plays for the community every 1-2 years.
But perhaps the most important program is Hebrew school classes on Saturdays. Rabbi Markowitz explained that, when students used to meet on Sundays, they were taking in lessons but not learning to live like Jews. Moving classes to Saturdays allowed them to take part in Sabbath activities as they happened. Plus, when parents started picking kids up after services, they began staying for Kiddush and mingling with the members who attended. This encouraged parents to just come to the service in the first place. Adath Israel’s Shabbat ritual now draws about 250 people to the sanctuary on a normal Saturday.
“The synagogue has really become a community center,” Markowitz said.
About 80% of members live in Bala Cynwyd or Lower Merion, meaning they can walk to the building. Fifth and sixth graders often walk over for Wednesday night sessions of religious school.
“We’re essentially a neighborhood shul,” the rabbi said.
But while Adath Israel may attract congregants with its schools and then cater to their needs as individuals, too, it really does try to offer something for everybody — even people who may not use the schools. A group of empty nesters meets for a Saturday morning Torah study session. Sometimes, congregants put yoga classes on the calendar. Whatever people want and need.
This helps it build cohorts among various groups of adults. There are many versions of the friend group that Goldstein described. Bob Salvin, a member in his eighth year and the synagogue president, joined after moving back to the area from Houston in 2015. And Salvin and his wife also have “a bunch of people we hang out with.”
Synagogue life, according to Markowitz, is not founded on the transaction of offering a school for people’s kids. A school may get them in the door, pay the bills and open another door to a deeper commitment. But once they are inside, parents must feel that their community is relational, not transactional.
“It doesn’t work if it’s transactional,” Rabbi Markowitz said. ■