An Invitation To The Next Synagogue Frontier


Synagogues at the forefront of Jewish life have rightly become concerned about the changeover from the baby-boomers to their children, the twenty- and thirty-year olds whom sociologists call Gen X and Gen Y. At stake is Jewish continuity, particularly in the liberal sector, that 90% or so of Jews are not necessarily committed to significant Jewish identity. Coordinating a sustained and successful engagement strategy to the next generation is the next frontier in synagogue life. 

S3K’s overall plan is to begin establishing a synagogue-based network to engage the Next Dor (generation) in every major city of the United States and Canada. What distinguishes Next Dor from other similar efforts is that it recognizes the centrality of synagogues in North American Jewish life. It therefore connects young people not just to stand-alone social or cultural events (as important as they are), but to the institution of the synagogue; and it does so in ways that research has shown to be effective.

How can we help synagogues accomplish this task?

In every city across North America, there are countless empty-nester members of congregations who worry about the Jewish identity of their adult children and (they hope, someday) their grandchildren as well. Rarely do these children live in the same city as their parents, but the parents know full well that regardless of how Jewishly the children were raised, they are unlikely to be adequately served by synagogues wherever it is that they make their home. The parents know this because their own synagogue does not automatically attract other people’s children who are resident nearby. They cannot help their own children who live in cities far away, but they can help someone else’s children who live near them.      

Think big. What if we could establish a network of synagogue engagement, whereby every city’s parents help other people’s adult children who are nearby, knowing that their own children are being similarly helped in whatever city they find themselves?

Where does Synagogue 3000 (S3K) come in?        

Synagogue 3000 (originally Synagogue 2000) is a transdenominational organization committed to success across the Jewish denominational spectrum. In 1994, it launched the field of synagogue transformation, and in 2004, it pioneered a new field of inquiry called “Synagogue Studies,” making timely information available to synagogues who seek to remain at the cutting edge of Jewish life in North America. Among other things, it monitors relevant findings in the sociology of North American religion, particularly as they impact our understanding of the changeover from the baby-boomers to Generations X and Y.

Recognizing now that the next frontier is this generational changeover, we have conceptualized a bold program of synagogue engagement in which we are inviting a select number of synagogues to participate. For discussion purposes, let us call these engagement efforts “synagogue satellites.”

What are synagogue satellites? 

Our investigations have turned up a variety of attempts to reach out to young people. They differ widely, but the most successful share certain characteristics. Most important is their realization that Generations X and Y are unlike the baby-boomers who now direct synagogue life: among other things, they do not marry as young, have children as early, and automatically join synagogues for their children. They are generally averse to “joining” anything, and in addition, are suspicious of denominational labels. The pre-computer generation was drawn to central addresses of information; computer generations expect central addresses of information to come to them. Until such time as the new generation has its own children (and perhaps not even then) the usual methods of attracting new members – demonstrating the benefits of membership – are unlikely to work.

Instead of importing new members to the synagogue, therefore, successful engagement efforts export the synagogue to new members. Moreover, these efforts are not predicated on producing any immediate rise in members altogether. They seek only to make an exciting form of Judaism available to young people wherever they are. Hence the term “synagogue satellite,” a way of describing the successful engagement of young Jews not necessarily as dues-paying synagogue members, but as Jews committed to the causes that synagogues hold dear. Such Jews are likely some day to join a synagogue wherever they choose to settle down. In the meantime, they come together as synagogue satellites, attracted to a Jewish future because synagogues make it available to them.

Synagogues are undertaking such efforts because it is the best, and perhaps the only, guarantee of meaningful Jewish survival. It is, in short, the right thing to do.

How does the satellite network work?

The experience of synagogues successfully engaging in this work suggests that the annual cost is substantial, requiring the hiring of a new rabbi (hired specifically for the effort), support staff, and programming costs. We have located national funding partners who are interested in paying part of the costs for each such local effort and, in addition, supporting whatever it takes to establish and nurture a national network of them all.

Thinking big!

Our goal is nothing short of a national network of such satellites, so that in every city where young people gather, at least one satellite will be available. Young people, their rabbis, and their parents, need only consult our web site to find a registry of such places, along with multiple contacts and points of entry. The site will also support the network in numerous other ways, typical of the electronic era in which information is made available.

Stay tuned for more!

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