Across the Philadelphia area, Reform synagogues are losing members, considering moves and mergers and wondering how to attract younger members.
But in Cherry Hill, this process is already playing out. Two Reform synagogues, M’kor Shalom and Temple Emanuel, saw their memberships decline from more than 1,000 people to less than 350. Then they considered a unification and went through with it last June.
Today, almost a year since they moved in together to Emanuel’s home on Springdale Road, they are not wondering how to attract younger members. They are doing it.
Congregation Kol Ami, the unified synagogue’s new name, which means “voice of my people,” has welcomed 100 new families since the move. Those new households were not a part of “either legacy congregation,” said an email from Kol Ami’s public relations team.
They are not all young either, according to Kol Ami Rabbi Jennifer Frenkel. Some are seniors. Others are in their 50s. But for the most part, they are adults moving to South Jersey for jobs, families who want to start their children in Kol Ami’s Early Childhood Center and families who want to give their kids a proper Jewish education in the temple’s religious school. They are households from Cherry Hill, Voorhees, Marlton, Medford, Moorestown and Cinnaminson. Some come from as far as the shore.
But regardless of who they are or where they come from, what they are looking for is the same: a Reform Jewish community. And Kol Ami is now the only one in a township with thousands of Jewish residents. It is also one of the only local Reform options, alongside Congregation Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, according to the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey.
“There’s definitely those practical elements of, ‘My child is reaching religious school age, and we need to educate him or her.’ There are transactional, specific needs, and then there’s the more general needs,” Kol Ami Co-President Drew Molotsky said. “People are looking for community, other people who share interests and clergy guidance and partnership at different stages of their lives.”
Cecilia Connor, 38, lives in Haddonfield, about 10 minutes from Kol Ami, with her husband Nick and their three children. The Connor parents grew up in interfaith families and were not synagogue members. But they were “brought up in the Jewish culture” by their Jewish mothers, according to Cecilia Connor. So, as they got older, the parents decided that they wanted Judaism to be a part of their kids’ lives. They also wanted a Jewish community outside of their secular neighborhood and school system in Haddonfield.
“We value the Jewish tradition and having Jewish heritage be a part of our kids’ lives. It’s about knowing where they came from and who their ancestors are,” she said.
Cecilia Connor had already heard about Temple Emanuel from a neighbor. The newly-formed Kol Ami was the closest option. The Connors enrolled their daughter in the synagogue’s summer camp last year and then joined as a family. By the fall, their daughter and son were students in the ECC. Today, the family attends preschool activities, tot Shabbats, candy bingo nights and the Purim carnival.
“Most of the friends we’ve made have been through our kids, but it’s been nice to make those friendships as well,” Cecilia said.
Adam and Ahlise Greenbaum, both 47, live in Cherry Hill with their 8-year-old son. Adam Greenbaum grew up in a Conservative synagogue in upstate New York. His father had grown up Orthodox, but he decided on a different path for his family.
“Secular but with Jewish beliefs,” the son said. “It was more about understanding Judaism and the values it instills than simply following traditions we don’t fully understand.”
Now the Greenbaums want to raise their son with the same values. They heard about Temple Emanuel from Ahlise Greenbaum’s OB-GYN before their son was even born. Then Ahlise Greenbaum, who is not Jewish, took an introduction to Judaism class with Emanuel’s rabbi, Jerome P. David, now retired, before the unification last year. By August, the parents had enrolled their boy in religious school at Kol Ami.
“Our son attends religious school. We do the events that come with that, and we attend the occasional service,” Adam Greenbaum said.
Late in February, about 100 congregants attended Kol Ami’s weekly Shabbat service. A few years ago, that would have been a great crowd, according to Molotsky. But in 2023, it’s a little light. The Friday night crowd “skews older for sure,” he said. But if there’s a bar or bat mitzvah weekend starting up, which there is most Fridays, young families come.
“Unification has really turned out to be everything we hoped it would be,” Molotsky said. ■