A major barrier for most young Jews is a synagogue’s membership fee. Many understand the fee helps keep the religious centre alive by nourishing the building’s infrastructure, programming, and paying staff. But still, when prices can be in the hundreds—as the cost of living mounts— buying that synagogue membership isn’t top of mind. That’s why Beth Tzedec Congregation, a Conservative synagogue located on Bathurst Street in Toronto, is changing the game.
Generations Membership, a new initiative launched in July 2022, is offering individuals and households under 40 years old to not pay a dime to be part of the congregation. The goal is to get people on board through relationship building, not financial contributions.
To support the initiative, the synagogue will embrace a new culture of philanthropy, leveraging endowments, investments, and significant donations from members. The long-term goal of the project is to increase the number of families engaging regularly with programming by 50 per cent over a three-year period.
I spoke with Rabbi Steven Wernick to discuss Beth Tzedec’s new membership initiative, why it was created, and how they hope to change younger generations’ relationship with synagogue.
Why create this program?
Creating this membership initiative is part of a larger strategy of engagement. Recently we put out job postings for an engagement rabbi and engagement coordinator to help with this effort. And we did this because we needed more people on the ground to meet people in the community, to get to know them, their goals, and aspirations on their Jewish journey. We also want to remove the barrier to congregational engagement which is a sense of a transactional nature of synagogue. If I only come three times a year, why do I pay so much? That shouldn’t be the question people have when wanting to be part of a synagogue.
Can you take me behind the scenes of how this decision came to be?
For the last 15 to 20 years we’ve seen a decline of young families and young adults attending synagogue. There’s a variety of reasons for that, that are specific sometimes to the shul. When I joined the synagogue three and a half years ago, two primary issues came up: how do you make a large synagogue smaller (we have 4,000 members) and how will you help us get younger families and adults in the shul? Around 50 per cent of our congregants are over 55 years old. So we’ve been having these conversations for a long time.
We seriously began planning a year and half ago, after seeing the impact of COVID-19, which was difficult for young families and single people because of the lockdowns and isolation. Young families worked at home taking care of their kids learning on Zoom, young people felt so alone, everyone was just really struggling. It became very hard to engage with people religiously and culturally because by the time they were able to pay attention to their community again, they were so burnt out. We decided to re-evaluate our goals and how we wanted to expand. We felt there was great need to help people engage with their Jewish community again, which is why we want to hire another rabbi and coordinator. The need is so great.
Beth Tzedec also has a lofty goal to have 50 per cent more young families join the synagogue in three years—how did you arrive at this goal?
We looked at the number of households that the synagogue was not able to maintain over the last five years and used public data from the Environics Institute on a study they did in 2018 on Jews in Canada. The study looked at how many identify as Conservative and what their geographical locations are. Based on this we tried to estimate how many live in the shul’s postal code area and we arrived at 500 households. This became the target demographic and we think 50 per cent growth is quite manageable in a three-year time span. We set the number based on the data we have and what we could actively engage with.
What has the response been so far?
Over 60 new units, or households, have joined the synagogue since we started our engagement a week ago [in early August]. Of that, 12 households have not been affiliated [with a synagogue] for a three-year period or longer. September is a heavy month with the High Holidays and already around 200 new people have come in the door—the average age being 33 to 34 years old. We’re thrilled with that out of the gate. Already new families are setting up coffee dates and our spiritual team is actively engaged in relationship building, which is what it’s all about.
I know this might seem like a very basic question, but it is fundamental to ask. Why is it important to make younger people feel connected to a synagogue?
It’s not about being connected to a synagogue. It’s about being connected to a meaningful Jewish life—spiritually, culturally, and religiously. It’s important to be part of a community that cares about each other, to learn from Jewish wisdom as a response to the challenges and opportunities to living a meaningful life, to speak to the needs of the soul—synagogue builds on connecting people to each other.
The older generation makes a different set of assumptions [accepting the transactional nature] on why they belong and engage with synagogue, but the younger generation doesn’t make the same set of assumptions. They have a “show me that this matters then I’ll come into the space” attitude. The Generations Membership takes away conversation about money and transaction and it turns on the “let’s get to know each other and let’s figure out what you’re interested in” type of conversation. The job of a rabbi is to be an educator and guide. This is our congregation saying what’s important to us and what’s important to us is you.
*Since the interview was conducted, there are now 225 new and re-captured Generations Memership holders.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.