2016-01-20 / Home

Dozens of millennials take up M’kor Shalom on gift membership


Cong. M’kor Shalom class of 2013 post-confirmands (from left), Alexa Vecchio, Julia Honovich and Emily Kahn have taken up the synagogue’s gift membership offer. Cong. M’kor Shalom class of 2013 post-confirmands (from left), Alexa Vecchio, Julia Honovich and Emily Kahn have taken up the synagogue’s gift membership offer. Cong. M’kor Shalom has been Rachel Rood-Ojalvo’s spiritual home since she started religious school in the third grade. But by senior year, the most compelling discussions in the post-confirmation class revolved around transitioning away from the congregation—and how to stay true to Jewish values in college and beyond.

“I never really felt like I left M’kor Shalom,” said the first-year student at Brown University in Providence, RI. “Obviously, a person is living in their religion all the time, and I do feel like the values are something I take with me.”

And now, thanks to the Reform synagogue’s innovative new membership program, Rood-Ojalvo feels even more connected to her communal home. She is one of 45 young adults so far who have taken M’kor up on an offer of free multi-year membership.

HON. STEVEN P. BURKETT… M’kor Shalom has named its Gift Membership program in memory of the late judge and beloved leader and teacher. HON. STEVEN P. BURKETT… M’kor Shalom has named its Gift Membership program in memory of the late judge and beloved leader and teacher. The Hon. Steven P. Burkett Gift Membership provides recent graduates of the 12th grade post-confirmation program with full privileges, including High Holy Day tickets as well as clergy services until they age out at age 28. Just as importantly, these young adults—many of whom are dispersed across the country in college, grad school or first jobs— have the opportunity to become affiliated members of a Reform synagogue in another part of the world while retaining home status. Fittingly, the program is named to honor the memory of Burkett, Camden’s chief municipal judge and a beloved M’kor teacher who died last year.

As synagogues nationwide grapple with dwindling numbers and engagement, particularly among younger generations, the initiative was conceived in part to provide M’kor’s dedicated young adults a no-strings-attached opportunity to remain involved, said President Jodi Levine.

“These are kids who have shown their commitment to M’kor Shalom and to the Reform movement,” said Levine. “This is our way of saying ‘thank-you’ and recognizing them. And while we’d love them to stay affiliated with M’kor— and they will be for the next 10 years—this gives them a chance to have a spiritual home that they can afford wherever life takes them.”

The cost of synagogue membership is often financially out of reach for young adults. While some synagogues around the country are offering free or reduced rates for millennials or young families, and most will subsidize membership for those who cannot afford to pay full price, M’kor is believed to be the first in the region to provide its graduates free multi-year membership through their late 20s. Moreover, for those who do not live close-by, the gift enables them to affiliate with most Reform synagogues.

Finding ways to keep young adults engaged in Jewish life is a national discussion as synagogue leaders are well aware that congregants have lots of choices of where and how to be Jewish today. According to the Pew Research Center Survey of American Jews, some 22 percent of U.S. Jews describe themselves as having no religion or consider themselves cultural Jews. They are much less connected to Jewish organizations and less likely to be raising their children Jewish than past generations. Broken down by age, 32 percent of Jews born after 1980—the so-called millennial generation—identify as Jews of no religion, compared to 19 percent of baby boomers and just 7 percent of Jews born before 1927.

“We have all seen that report,” said M’kor Shalom Senior Rabbi Jennifer Frenkel. “We know in congregational life, the generation in their late 20s and early 30s is largely a missing population. People tend not to affiliate until they have children that they want to enroll in a synagogue preschool or religious school, or when their circle of family friends starts joining. We don’t want to see that gap and it’s really unnecessary. We fully believe a synagogue should meet the needs of its people at every age.”

The idea of the gift membership, suggested to M’kor’s board of trustees by Frenkel, was to start stemming the tide with young adults who have been connected throughout most of their lives.

“This is all about l’dor v’dor,” she said. “We’ve come to know these kids. They’ve come through our preschool, religious school, the b’nai mitzvah process, our Israel trip, and through our post-confirmation classes. They have never really left the congregation.”

Frenkel said she is gratified both that the congregation supports the initiative, and that so many young adults have responded so enthusiastically. But with the huge response naturally comes challenge.

“It’s not just a gift of membership,” she said. “The onus is now on us to work with them and find out what they need, what they want, and to make it a reality. We will need to meet them where they are.”

Levine said M’kor has taken a first step with a new social club called GenNext. Run by two millennials who met in M’kor religious school as children, GenNext’s inaugural event was a well-attended Chanukah party in the home of one of the co-chairs.

For Jill Kimelman, the gift membership was a welcoming surprise. With her M’kor friends dispersed across the country, the synagogue has been a natural meeting up point for Shabbat services or programs when they’ve all been home during breaks at the same time.

“Our class has been together for so many years; we didn’t want to see it end after graduation,” Kimelman said. “Having us all come back through membership is such a great opportunity for us, and it’s a great honor to have it named for Judge Burkett, who had such an impact on us all.”

Rachel Rood-Ojalvo agreed. “Even though I can’t physically be there most of the year, it means a lot to me,” she said. “It’s saying to me that my synagogue is not letting distance or money get in the way. For now, I am symbolically part of the community.” .

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