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Some LI synagogues buck trend of shrinking membership

Ravid Tilles and Charles Klein, right, are rabbis

Ravid Tilles and Charles Klein, right, are rabbis at Merrick Jewish Center. Klein said Tilles, 28, gives “the young in this congregation a chance to connect with a young rabbi.” (Aug. 16, 2013)?? Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

At a time when many synagogues on Long Island are losing members, merging with other synagogues or shutting down outright, the Merrick Jewish Center has bucked the trend.

Its numbers are holding steady and it has even hired a new assistant rabbi in part to reach out to young Jews. Rabbi Ravid Tilles, a Silver Spring, Md., native, joined the conservative synagogue Aug. 1 and is already canvassing neighborhoods as he conducts a "listening tour" to hear what congregants and potential congregants have on their minds.

"This generation is less interested in joining anything" than previous generations, said Tilles, 28. But "the stronger we get [as a synagogue], the more appealing we are to the masses."


Community outreach

Like other religious institutions, many synagogues on Long Island and throughout the country have struggled to maintain their membership numbers, said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis.

"It's a real challenge," he said. "The old style of waiting for people to walk through the door is inoperative."

But some have succeeded in maintaining or even increasing their numbers, he said.

The Merrick Jewish Center is one of the few on Long Island that has been able to do so over the last decade and especially over the last five years after the 2007-08 economic crisis, said Rabbi Charles Klein, the longtime head of the synagogue.

The center's membership has held steady at about 650 "units" or households, totaling close to 2,500 people, he said. He added that his goal is to increase that number to about 700 households in the next few years.

Klein is a former president of the New York Board of Rabbis who once appeared on "Oprah" to discuss his book "How to Forgive When You Can't Forget: Healing Our Personal Relationships." He said the synagogue has remained strong in part because it has aggressively reached out to the community.

He said it runs a Jewish book program for children, a "parents university" of one-day workshops on parenting, and programs tailored to retirees.

"We are prepared to do anything that we can to make the case compelling for people of all ages to find a home" at the synagogue, he said.


The younger rabbi

Howard Tiegel, president of the synagogue, said Klein's dynamic leadership has also helped keep membership steady.

"He is the person at the core of our synagogue. Over the years he has inspired every single member of the congregation," Tiegel said.

Klein, 62, who has headed the synagogue for 36 years, said the hiring of Tilles in no way indicates he is retiring soon.

"There was no question we needed another rabbi," Klein said. "We wanted to give the young in this congregation a chance to connect with a young rabbi who hopefully will be their rabbi for many years to come."

He said just a few synagogues on Long Island are large enough and strong enough financially to have two rabbis.

One is the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset. That synagogue's new associate rabbi, Joel Levenson, said its membership has actually increased from 500 households to about 750 in the last decade, though mainly due to a merger with a defunct synagogue in Bethpage several years ago.

Still, he said the egalitarian conservative synagogue's preschool "is bursting" and now has a waiting list for the first time.


Optimistic about the future

Mason Salit, president of the synagogue, said Midway has remained strong partly because it is "welcoming and inviting" and has conducted extensive outreach into the community.

In Suffolk, the B'nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale has not only maintained its membership numbers but increased last year to its highest ever -- about 455 families, said the synagogue's longtime rabbi, Steven Moss.

Moss, who is also chairman of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission and has headed the synagogue for 40 years, said the stability of its clergy is one reason B'nai Israel has stayed strong.

He also said the synagogue is very open to interfaith families and will not reject a family because it cannot fully pay membership fees. Most synagogues on Long Island charge between $1,000 and $2,000 a year.

Klein said he is also optimistic about the Merrick center's future. "In a time of unprecedented disaffiliation, this synagogue has really positioned itself for growth in the future," he said.

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