Reversing the Slow Death of the Aging Shul

Getting Older Means Getting Smaller
Good shuls last for a long time, and as the Shul ages so does its membership. Unfortunately older members pass away or move as their needs change as their children leave the house. The older membership shrinks as time goes on.

The Empty Seat Syndrome
As a result of the shrinking older membership, Shuls that previously had hundreds of participants on a Shabbos can find their sanctuaries half empty. This creates some disillusionment among the members as they look around and long for their Shul’s former glory. It also creates financial strain since costs invariably rise as membership-based revenue increases, but it’s a lot harder to downsize the budget as membership-based revenue declines.

Just Add Younger Members
The obvious solution is to fill the empty seats with younger members. However, the young members have different plans. They’ve gone on to start their own shuls. They do this because they want to be with people their own age and they want some control of how things are run. Even if the older membership would cede control to the younger members, which is easier said than done, the younger members are usually not so excited about steering an older battleship.

Multi-Shul Solution
Another solution, which is sometimes more successful, is breaking the Shul up into smaller minyanim. Different minyanim at different times in different parts of the Shul. The first problem with this solution is that the shul transforms from a community to a place to daven. The second problem is that few Shuls are willing to subdivide their glorious main sanctuary to accommodate downsizing, so the excess capacity and it’s accompanying costs remain.

Dare to Be Great
The ultimate solution is for the Rabbi and/or lay leadership to transform the Shul into a place for serious davening, inspiration, spiritual growth, intellectual challenge and strong communal support for all members. A place that attracts all ages with the amazing breadth and depth it has to offer.

Are We All Settling for Less?
The potential of Shuls is tremendous and perhaps we’re all just settling for a place to daven, a Daf Yomi shiur and a Shabbos drasha. A Shul can be so much more. In the future we hope to examine the characteristics of an incredible Shul and what are the practical small steps to move towards that goal.

9 thoughts on “Reversing the Slow Death of the Aging Shul”

  1. About this:
    “Just Add Younger Members—
    The obvious solution is to fill the empty seats with younger members. However, the young members have different plans. They’ve gone on to start their own shuls.”

    The above seems to be oriented to larger communities.

    In addition, there are many smaller communities whose younger members have been migrating to larger, more dynamic Jewish centers in the US and Israel over time. They are typically first exposed to the new places while in Yeshiva/Bais Yaakov/college… As a result, the base community continues to decline unless other factors (such as an increasing availability of jobs) bring in enough younger outsiders.

    1. The slowly dying Shul and community is an aspect of Jewish life in America. Neighborhoods and their Jewish populations constantly change.

      Perhaps Shuls which find themselves in this in-enviable position should investigate whether a change in their orientation, e.g. to a more outreach type of structure would help. They also need to examine whether they are comfortable with and can execute such a major change.

      1. For a time, I was working in a state that had few Jews and very few Orthodox Jews. Now and then the outreach-oriented Chabad rabbi there would have a real success story. But then the success story would typically move to a more established community.

        What distinguishes such situations from a baseball minor league farm team is that the farm team both:

        1. Sends the better players up to the majors, and

        2. Has its roster replenished by the parent team’s organization.

        However, a decaying community often lack the means of replenishment (Item 2.) because few real prospects are left there to reach out to, and there is no clear incentive to move there.

        1. If you see outreach more as

          1) Teaching Torah and performing Mitzvos
          2) as opposed to “making people frum” success stories

          then the minor league to major league analogy is less appropriate.

  2. Once again, this website assumes that every shul worth caring about must be Orthodox and only want Orthodox members.

    One fascinating example of a shul changing to meet its changing community is the Tremont St. shul in Cambridge, MA.

    As the Orthodox community shrank, this shul welcomed non-Orthodox Jews who had moved to the neighborhood in holding egalitarian Shabbat services in the basement social hall. The traditional minyan shrank and the egalitarian minyan grew until the traditional minyan was davvening in the basement–but the whole community still joins together for kiddush and supports the shul. There have even been some marriages between the two minyans.

    1. Sorry Anon, no offense intended. My experience comes from my participation in the Torah Observant community and that is the perspective from which I write. I’m sure we share some of the same problems, but our principles are different and different solutions will often result.

  3. To “just add younger members” isn’t always so easy, as stated.

    Just like in a vibrant shul, you really need a core group of members who share a vision of what a community/shul should be.

  4. The younger members seem to want a slower, quieter davening more geared to yeshiva alumni and the older members prefer the big shul/day school format so naturally there is a degree of separation.

  5. I think that Neil Harris’s point is well taken. A vibrant shul needs a “core group of members who share a vision of what a community/shul should be” that transcends individual hashkafic diffferences.

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