Shir Ami in Newtown is ‘Stable, Which is Nice’

Shir Ami congregants sort food at an event. (Courtesy of Shir Ami)

In a May 2022 Synagogue Spotlight article, Shir Ami leaders said their congregation included about 525 families. Almost two years later, the number is roughly similar, according to Rabbi Charles Briskin.

And it has remained in that range since Briskin arrived in Newtown, home of the Reform synagogue, from California in 2018.

Shir Ami had about 1,000 households in the early 2000s. But around 500 or a little more is still a high number that keeps the synagogue operating smoothly.

“We’re stable, which is nice,” the rabbi said.

Stephanie Kravatz, Shir Ami’s president, has children who are 27, 24 and 20. She joined the temple before they were born.

“I knew Shir Ami when it had 1,000 people,” she said. “I think I like it more with 500 people.”

The president explained that she’d “much rather have a 500-family synagogue with 350 engaged families over a 1,000-family congregation with 350 engaged families.”

The Bucks County synagogue’s religious school has 240 students across grades K-10. Its preschool has between 150 and 160 kids. The preschool is also “full, with a waiting list for next year,” Kravatz said. In 2024-’25, it will expand into more rooms within the synagogue.

Engagement also extends above the youngest generation, according to Kravatz. Volunteer lists for big events range from 150 to 175 people. The president recently put out a recruiting call for prospective board members. Usually, temple leaders beg people to join the board, Kravatz said. This year, there’s a “huge list of people who responded.”

“We want to create the environment where more and more people want to join,” Briskin said. “But more importantly, more and more people who have been here a while want to stay.”

Kravatz said she’s made her “good friends” at Shir Ami. Brett Cohen, a board member, said something similar. Cohen joined in 2010 with his young children, now 17 and 15.

“All of my friends I’ve made either at Shir Ami or through Shir Ami. My closest friends,” he said.

The synagogue continues to work on creating that environment for more families who are already members. In May 2022, leaders talked about forming smaller groups, of roughly 10-15 people, that would complement larger synagogue events.

Almost two years later, they haven’t formed as many as they expected, according to Briskin. Some staff turnover contributed to that, he said. But some groups did form, and more remain in the planning stages.

There are groups for empty nesters, interfaith families and people who enjoy museum and cultural outings. Even before 2022, there was a baking group and a Saturday morning minyan.

“The idea is these 10 or 12 folks would come to an event,” Briskin said. “If you come on your own to an event with 200 people, it can be lonely.”

Shir Ami congregants serve food to the homeless during a Code Blue evening (26 degrees or less outside) in December. (Courtesy of Shir Ami)

To complement the smaller groups, Shir Ami is also working on scheduling more big events, according to Kravatz.

“It’s a two-pronged strategy of trying to engage people within the synagogue and trying to bring people in for signature or tentpole events,” Cohen said.

For Purim in March, synagogue leaders are planning a shpiel with a “Saturday Night Live” theme, according to Cohen. They are trying to get congregants to act in it. About 30 are already planning on doing so. Another group is organizing a party around the shpiel.

Last spring, Shir Ami held a golf outing that raised more than $36,000 for “money in and outside the temple,” Cohen said. In December, the synagogue hosted a rock Shabbat for Chanukah. Participants rewrote popular music to prayers.

“It would be nice if we had a congregation where hundreds of people came every week for services and activities,” Briskin said. “The reality is we have a small group of people who come for services and preschool and religious school kids who come every week.”

That’s why the goal is to create “touchpoints” between September and June, according to the rabbi. Shir Ami leaders want to get members in at least once a month.

“We want to make Shir Ami a priority for people at this time of year,” Briskin said.

Newtown and its surrounding area in Bucks County are “getting a little bit older,” Kravatz said.

“We have a lot of young families coming in, but there’s not as many as there were 50 years ago,” she added.

“If you have these events you go to every year that are just on your calendar and you have these friendships that are borne out, it’s much harder to remove yourself from that community,” Cohen said. “It’s something you want to belong to.”

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