Synagogues to the north, in Wisconsin’s mid-sized cities, are working to provide their congregants with a vibrant Jewish life.
There’s no uniform playbook. They’re considering their circumstances, making choices and deciding on solutions.
For one synagogue, this can mean selling the synagogue building and renting space from a church. For another, it’s reconsidering affiliation. Yet another was Zoom–ing before the pandemic, to serve far-flung congregants who may not want to drive during a snowstorm.
The shuls adapt to changing circumstances. It’s how they stay focused on the mission – serving as a spiritual home for the local Jewish people. Here’s an admittedly incomplete round-up:
“Our congregation size is more or less stable over the last five to 10 years, about 50 family unit members,” Jerry Zabronsky, president of Moses Montefiore Congregation in Appleton.
To some observers, that might seem like a slow but significant drop, compared to 92 member units in 1993. But it’s not that simple, Zabronsky said. If you look at the synagogue as a home for Jews who are transient, it’s maintaining itself reasonably well.
There’s not much of a presence anymore from Jews who grew up in the Appleton area, Zabronsky said. He moved to town from New Jersey in 1993. At that time, the congregation was dominated by his parents’ generation. “My generation, very few of them have grown up here,” said Zabronsky, 62. “The transient community has been more or less stable over five to 10 years.”
People keep relocating to the greater Appleton area for jobs at Kimberly Clark, to work as doctors, and for other opportunities, he said. Meanwhile, the Jews who grew up in the area have largely passed on or moved away.
But Appleton is not immune to the national trend away from organized religion.
“People do still relocate to this area for jobs; they’re just generally less knowledgeable about Jewish ritual, more likely to have grown up in a less religious environment,” he said “One of our big projects over the next couple of years is: How do we engage the next generation?”
They’re hopping Rabbi Hannah Wallick can help. Wallick, who is vice president of outreach, Israel and overseas for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, started serving as the shul’s part-time rabbi earlier this year.
The Conservative synagogue has been experimenting with some outdoor events. It is holding virtual services in recognition of remote minyans, in keeping with a pandemic-era ruling by the Conservative movement.
The shul brought a Torah scroll to a home for a bar mitzvah, transmitted via Zoom. It was supposed to be on May 16 but was delayed until July 11. The student was not asked to learn a new Torah portion.
The congregation has no cantor, though it could afford to bring in a High Holy Days cantor, a common practice among some smaller synagogues. It doesn’t.
Member David Haas is very talented, Zabronsky said. As a retirement project, he wanted to learn to fill in as a High Holy Day cantor.
“He does a lovely job,” Zabronsky said. “It’s a good example of something that’s really nice in a small community.”
The congregants annually hold tashlikh at Peabody Park, where they throw bread into the Fox River. It’s a short walk from the shul.
This year, the shul will be closed for the High Holy Days and congregants who would like to attend tashlikh with social distancing will drive to the park.
The pandemic is horrible and lonely for people, but there have been silver linings, said Rabbi Brian Serle, spiritual leader at Congregation Sons of Abraham in La Crosse.
“People miss seeing each other every week. Our members miss hugging each other, sharing news and gossip and sharing recipes,” he said.
But he exudes confidence in his shul and he noted the Jewish people have been around for thousands of years.
The congregation has been Zoom–ing. In July, a funeral attracted 160 Zoom attendees from around the nation. After it was over, people stayed on and told stories for hours, Serle said. You never would have had all that attendance in La Crosse, with that kind of experience before the pandemic, he said.
The congregation is doing everything virtual, with up to around 25 people at virtual services weekly. “I have people showing up for services who never came to services before,” he said.
“Jews are far flung. When I grew up in New York and New Jersey, all my relatives lived within 10 or 15 miles. Now they’re living all over the world,” he said. “This is a way to bring people together.”
Serle was ordained in June and is leading the La Crosse congregation after retiring from a career in financial services. He’s been serving in La Crosse for a year, having previously lived in the Twin Cities, Milwaukee before that, and on the east coast before that.
The synagogue serves about 50 families. Children do move away for work, but Jewish families also move into town. Families come in for work at universities, medical clinics and other opportunities.
“This is a thriving community. I just had a couple move here with two kids,” Serle said. “It’s really great to have that replacement rate.”
The congregation has previously been affiliated with the Conservative movement and is now studying what to do with affiliation. There are advantages to affiliation, like strength in numbers for purchasing power, but when you’re “the only game in town,” you want to serve people from different streams of Judaism, Serle said.
Serle said he participates in La Crosse-area interfaith coalition meetings, which are now monthly on Zoom, with about 40 churches and his one synagogue.
“Some of these churches have lost a lot of money. Don’t forget, how do churches get money? They pass a collection plate or box every day, every week.”
His advice to them has been to take a page from Judaism and consider dues.
Anshe Poale Zedek congregation in Manitowoc sold its synagogue building in 2016 and moved to a chapel that’s part of a First Presbyterian Church complex.
“We didn’t sell the synagogue because of money,” said Board President Bill Schwartz. “You have this huge building and there were only a handful of people using it.”
Also, the congregation is an older group. At 56, Schwartz is a young member, he said.
The (affordably) rented chapel space is air conditioned, with ramp and elevator access. The old building was a nemesis for older congregants. “It was just stairs everywhere,” Schwartz said. “You’re coming – going up the stairs, and you’re leaving – going up the stairs.”
The new synagogue-in-a-chapel location is used only by the congregation. The space can hold about 40 people. When there’s no pandemic, Schwartz said they have no problem making a minyan in the summertime.
“We’re working on getting online,” Schwartz said. “It’s not that easy. Some people don’t like internet.”
During the pandemic, congregants have visited the space just to check on the Torah scrolls, holding no services there, until their first in-person service since March on Aug. 22.
Cantor Jerry Berkowitz, formerly of Congregation Beth-El Ner Tamid, is a part-time spiritual leader for Anshe Poale Zedek. He led the service for six attendees.
“It was nice to have a service after all these months,” Schwartz said. “I don’t blame anybody for not showing up. I understand.”
Schwartz said he’s not sure yet what the congregation will do for the High Holy Days.
Mt Sinai Congregation in Wausau is a Reform shul with 21 children in its religious school. You might expect the pandemic to crush a small religious community, but the shul’s rabbi, the newly ordained Rabbi Benjamin Altshuler (see “Love and rabbinical ordination in 2020,” page 7), says the community is well positioned for the challenge.
Members are in Minocqua, Rhinelander, Wisconsin Rapids and elsewhere, he said. Each of those are about an hour away. You can imagine what that means in a snowstorm.
“This is a congregation that is well versed in connecting over the internet,” Altshuler said. The group has been Zoom–ing board meetings since before the pandemic. Religious classes by Zoom for children will be something new, though.
But Altshuler just spent two years, while a rabbinical student, teaching Hebrew over an online learning platform. It was for a Cincinatti congregation that sought to innovate. He learned a lot from doing it. “Little did I know how useful these skills would be,” he said.
He said he feels that he and his congregation can adapt.
“The adaptations are not necessarily coming from nothing. There are already tech advances in the works in the Jewish world in use widely and here at our congregation on which we were able to build.”