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Jewish groups work to unite, fight membership decline

Rabbi Steven Moss, center, talks to Rabbi Susie

Rabbi Steven Moss, center, talks to Rabbi Susie Heneson Moskowitz, right, of Temple Beth Torah in Melville, as Craig Padover, board member of the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center, looks on in front of the center on May 1, 2014 in Commack. Photo Credit: James Carbone

Synagogues, community centers and organizations in Suffolk County are forming an unusually diverse coalition to try to reverse a decline in membership and participation that has weakened Jewish groups nationwide.

The new umbrella organization, the Eastern Long Island Jewish Alliance, includes at least three dozen organizations that range from liberal Reform synagogues to conservative Orthodox ones. It also includes groups focused more on Jewish culture than religion, and even a Jewish campground.

"The Jewish community has been going through a very difficult time with a decrease in our population," said Rabbi Steven Moss, co-chairman of the new organization and president of the Suffolk County Board of Rabbis. While some groups and synagogues remain strong, "there are obviously various organizations which are floundering."

"The question is do we do something about this and try to save the Jewish community and assure our future, or do we simply let it take its course," said Moss, who is also the rabbi of B'nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale and chairman of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission.

The group, which held its first meetings earlier this year, will hold its first public event on May 18 when it hosts a "Jewish Springfest." The free event at the Suffolk Y JCC in Commack will feature music, games, food and a bonfire marking Lag b'Omer, a festival that ends a period of "mourning" and celebrates Jewish life.

Suffolk's Jewish population dropped from about 98,000 to 86,000 between 1991 and 2011, according to the UJA-Federation in Syosset. That, along with a general decline in Jewish affiliation with synagogues and participation in Jewish organizations, has led to the closing or merger of several synagogues in the county in the past few years, Moss said. Synogues in Nassau County also have closed or merged.

The formation of the new organization is an unusual effort, in part because it is bringing together such a range of Jewish groups and synagogues including Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, said Rabbi Charles Klein, a past president of the New York Board of Rabbis.

"It's a great idea. It's a wonderful model," said Klein, rabbi of the Merrick Jewish Center. "It is unfortunately too unusual. I really applaud them for being able to accomplish it."

Moss noted that Suffolk has had similar diverse efforts in the past and is building on that. He also said declining membership is a problem all religions face.

But by banding together, instead of competing with one another, leaders hope to make all of the Jewish groups stronger, Moss said. "We really need to combine forces. It is in unity that we find strength."

While Moss' synagogue is of the more liberal Reform sect, some are more orthodox, such as the Chabad of Mid-Suffolk and Chabad of Stony Brook. Another group, Jewish Without Walls, focuses on preserving Jewish heritage, including culture, food and holidays.

That group's leader, Beth Finger, said bringing diverse Jewish organizations together into the alliance, also called ELIJA, has been successful though challenging. Some Orthodox leaders, for instance, said their faith prohibits them from listening to female singers performing live. So the event May 18 will have only male singers.

All the food will be kosher, she added, even though many Jewish people who will attend would not insist on that.

"This is a groundbreaking endeavor" that is "breaking down the walls among the Jewish organizations and groups in Suffolk County," Finger said. "We really, really need to be working together."

Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, a longtime Chabad leader in Suffolk, said Chabad groups and synagogues are happily joining the effort, though they will still have to abide by their more strict interpretation of Jewish laws during events.

"We're not pushing ourselves to dominate or to be calling the shots," Teldon said. "Everybody is on the same page. If we want to make the tent as wide as possible, this is a small step to take to be more inclusive."

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