Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 06 August 2010 00:00
While interest in religious education has always been to some extent cyclical, in recent years religious institutions have had to compete for members like never before. That is why Plainview Jewish Center created the FOCUS committee to restructure the synagogue’s religious school curriculum, and has recruited Plainview-Old Bethpage School Board Trustee Evy Rothman for the position of committee chair. Rothman is to bring her experience from the school board to the Hebrew school, with the aim of not only modernizing the experience, but perhaps re-imagining it as well.
Shea Lerner, president of Plainview Jewish Center, believes that while the economy plays a role in decreased participation in his and other synagogues, there is something more important to consider; a paradigm shift in the way people view religious institutions, and the new way that congregations must market themselves to congregants.
“We have to be willing to think out of the box, and offer services, programs and opportunities that have never been offered before. Instead of having the congregants mold themselves to our model, I think we as an institution have to work and be willing to mold ourselves towards our congregants and potential congregants,” said Lerner.
He commented that while “the writing was on the wall” as early as 10 years ago in regard to people feeling less inclined to seek out religious affiliations as a matter of course, it’s been within the last few years that it’s become obvious that synagogues must acknowledge their position as only one choice in a competitive social marketplace. And it’s hardly just synagogues: “The Catholics are struggling with this right now,” said Lerner, going on to say that the need to think outside the box to attract congregants has become true across the religious spectrum.
While Lerner is concerned with making Plainview Jewish Center appealing to congregants at all levels, the comprehensive restructuring of the Hebrew school program- the main aim of FOCUS- is Rothman’s domain. “We need to take a good, hard look at the curriculum,” she said, stressing the importance of bringing the technological side of the program up to date. “We’ve been very, very aggressive in getting interactive whiteboards into schools,” she said of the Plainview-Old Bethpage school board, going on to say that it was time to do the same thing in the Hebrew school. Rothman and Lerner both spoke enthusiastically about the prospect of using the SMARTBoard technology in conjunction with new Hebrew-learning software for students, however the software is still being researched and it’s not known what kind of software the synagogue will purchase, if any, at this time.
Funds for the new technology will come from private contributions, the synagogue’s reserve funds, and grants that the synagogue plans to apply for. The synagogue is also currently in the process of receiving grants from the UJA Federation of New York for other programs, including one aimed at helping families in need due to the state of the economy.
While the synagogue’s current efforts are mostly targeted at the younger members of the congregation, both Lerner and Rothman said that the changes brought about as a result of FOCUS could be utilized for adult-education programs as well. The temple also plans to offer several different book groups, something that will appeal to congregants of all ages.
As far as synagogue participation in general is concerned, Lerner said that he did not feel it was his place to tell people what to do or what they should prioritize, he did stress that the value of synagogues was by no means limited to the religious aspects: “There are social, cultural and education programs, all aside from the religious, that you can involve yourself in- and that really is the bulk of what we do,” he said, going on to say that congregants did not have to be particularly religious to derive value from affiliation with the Jewish community, and Plainview Jewish Center in particular.
“Though it may not be a priority now, once you have children there’s a priority obviously for a bar or bat mitzvah, for religious education. If God forbid, somebody is ill, or even in times of birth and joy, the first place you traditionally turn to has been a synagogue. Whether you realize it or not, whether you need it today, you may need it tomorrow, and why not become affiliated and become a part of an organization that is good for you in good and bad- in times of joy and in times of sorrow-and, to give back from what you yourself have received over the years from that organized community,” said the president.
Currently, members of the FOCUS committee are researching their target areas (such as Hebrew learning software and other technologies), and will begin meeting in the fall, with the hopes of instituting changes for the 2010-2011 school year. Book groups are slated to start in mid-to-late September, after the High Holy Days; there is a possibility that other programs, currently being discussed, will also start sometime in the fall.